The first returned Loggerhead Shrike fusses and chatters a sassy greeting down to me from a mesquite top at the edge of the Dirt Tank. “Wull what’s takin’ ya so long ta git that fence rebuilt? I need to hang some meat!”
I built me a homestead
way out on a desert
a great sandy desert
and I didn’t know why
and when it was finished
I sat on my doorstep
and stared at my desert
and stared at my sky …
–cowboy song collected by Tucson’s Katie Lee, in her “Ten Thousand Goddam Cattle”
In their timetable precision Yellow-billed Cuckoos–the “Rain Crow” of my father’s long ago Virginia country childhood–have arrived and call out around all the bosque of El Potrero. Rain would indeed be nice and if the birds will bring some well by Heaven, we’ll take it! In the whole of May all of 0.03″ fell on us. I heard my first cuckoo of the year at Mason Pastures yesterday, and Kathleen reports one from the day before that. One has to be careful in this because the Yellow-breasted Chats and even the Mockingbirds have worked the cuckoo chortles into their mimid repertoires. They are one of those birds that are either here or they aren’t, of a sudden on the first of this month that people brace themselves for, the cuckoos seem to drop out of the sky all at once and over the whole of the San Pedro. They complete the cycle of arrival of Summer residents and Spring migrants and tell that the fun and expectations of the avian parade is now brought to fullness for the year already and that yes, Foresummer and its splendid challenges is upon all us animals.
Gorgeous Western Tanagers all around The Pond, in the branches, on the water’s edge. A pair of Great Blue Heron fly off, perch each atop adjacent wheels of the side roll irrigator in the Native Grass Area beyond the barbed wire fence. Balancing on a cinder block jutting from the water, I go to open the fill-valve of the pond but a movement catches my eye, and through the now clear water (The Pond has for a year been mostly left unroiled by the cattle who now water at the refurbished metal tank some distance away) I see a large turtle, somewhat egg shaped in outline, lying flat and comfortable on the mud bottom grazing on a beautiful “new” aquatic weed that colonized The Pond after the herd stopped defecating into it. There are a dozen or more aquatic plants Arizona Game & Fish is on the watch for as invasive, is this yet another? Is the turtle? Taking its size into consideration I think the turtle most likely is. It’s gray with sediment built up on its shell and it would have to be caught and scrubbed if the marks diagnostic for the species were to be seen … I don’t think of trying, it’s hard to believe it’s let me get this close without zooming off out of sight into deeper water. It stays submerged as happily as any submarine, unbothered by my hovering over it.
Among chores and the cow-critters of Mason Pastures, there are lately passing through birds that even for here, are remarkable. Thought I’d share some “jottings” (more like scribbles) from the pocket notebook of the recent weeks …
Two Gray Hawks
in love song duet
out of the lush wood it drifts
through budge budge of swallows
and to my ears–
and grumble of thunder that thrills
and welcomes me home
A male Wood Duck on The Stockpond, for one day.
Kingfisher thought he might get hold of tender squablets of Vermillion Flycatchers in their nest out on the branch over the water of The Stockpond, and so spent some minutes giving the alarmed and harried parent birds their annual Spring heart attack …
A great swirl of Rough-winged Swallows curves and descends to the pond in midday heat, to opera playing on public radio while I eat lunch.
I don’t open the middle wheel line irrigator hydrant until I’m sure that the first line has come up to full pressure after its last flush valve closes and stops hemorrhaging water. I put the binoculars there, on its east end, but my sight instead landed right on a low-flying creature I thought by its flight was a bat still out and now caught by the first sun rays, but–it was a very leisurely and solitary Vaux’s Swift! I could have watched and watched, the way I could have that Wood Duck, so rare is such an opportunity of seeing that swift at all, much less in a situation with the light perfect, against good background (vegetation and not glaring sky behind it), its closeness, and how it hung around so temptingly, but, with that valve having closed, I had to tend to another riser and hydrant that must be opened.
A warbler morning at The Pond … Wilson’s, Yellow-rumped, Orange-crowned, more Wilson’s, a dapper-dan Black-throated Gray (good, understated taste in suits, that bird–I don’t think I’d recorded any before at the place …)
Another great swirl of birds who spend much of their lives on the air–a flock of White-throated Swifts. I’d never be able to count them, they screech and zoom right past my head and seemingly right through me, to drink for the smallest of moments from The Stockpond where I stood.
A splendidly flaming Bullock’s Oriole above a treetop, out on a long wand of a mesquite branch.
A Mockingbird is immitating a Yellow-billed Cuckoo.
and now a large flock of Violet-green Swallows; they spend the day over the pastures swinging low, swinging high, the next day are gone.
Kingbirds already in goodly numbers, and already on the fight.
I’ve got to get that riser closed down, the pump has turned itself off, and as I buzz across the pasture with the chore blinders on, I glance up to see a finch of an obvious strangeness that demands a lifting of the binoculars and, oh my … what has Alex’s devotion to turning that sprouting mesquite bosque back to grassland rewarded us with? A beautiful, and oh-so-rare Dickcissel. It’s not far away, I can see every detail that confirms the bird that looks so like a Meadowlark in miniature. Even if Botteri’s Sparrows don’t come again this summer, the appearance of the Dickcissel (apparently none have ever been recorded in the month of April in southern Arizona!) confirms the rightness of having taken on so awful, painful, and tiring a chore of keeping our little world safe for those sparrows by removing those mesquites. It seems as comfortable there as it is on its native, vast, waving grass of The Plains.
Through all the glory and rarity of these birds of our April, the flycatcher still stands out, and it can take your breath …
from your ashes
no need to arise
for the one consumed
by your fire, is I.
The night was warm enough to have slept without a blanket. Ruby-crowned Kinglets are in the nearby giant of an Afghan Pine, giving out their oriole-like chatters and beautiful motets scaled down to miniature as befits the size of these friendly green sprites.
The oats and barley of Sam’s yet ungrazed winter pasture is already shooting out sprays of flowers, before February has ended. This day will come to feel roasting in the 80 degrees of heat, which must signal to the cool season, “small grain” grass crops that they must produce seed before Winter skips right into Summer. There’s been no rain, neither in this month nor last, none since Christmas, which demands of these grasses they bolt and drop seed before they’re turned into hay by drought and the bake of sun.
As I sit in the pickup and scan The Stockpond, the first fly of the year big enough to buzz annoyingly around my face and ears circles round and round inside the cab. Venus the heifer sticks her head through the window, drops out a tongue that would alarm the rock band KISS, she thinks I’m her adoring head banger and wants to lick me as much as I’ll allow. It’s hard to hold binoculars still enough to study a duck’s speculum while a cow’s tongue is wrapped around one’s wrist, and tugging. Neither Cinnamon Teal is present today, but the pair of Mexican Mallards are, and the female Vermillion Flycatcher who is not wanting much to be in the treetop with the male in what he thinks should be a fetching scarlet hussar’s tunic. “How can she resist me in this uniform??” She’ll have none of it. “I’m not that kind of a girl!” Or, is she the coquette? Black Swallowtail Butterflies and Sulphurs are underneath, dancing, having a mud party.
Storm clouds! … high, blue and cream-colored, with layer cake tops reflecting as a circle in the pond late in the day, the Mexican Mallards’ dabbling making ripples go out from this brightly lit center to the edges, the water pale blue though Sun is gone. Silver sky in the North, with throw-pillows of white clouds darkly, ominously edged on their sides, their bottoms thick, even blacker.
Anticipation and a joy that it is hoped is not misguided rises in Cascabel. Under the Mae West Peaks, it’s going to rain!
Crescent Moon looks like an illustration in a children’s book, distracts me from the dream I’ve just awakened from in which a Screech Owl was in her bare, spare tree-hollow, reaching up, being fed by her mate a Bewick’s Wren. One is a Rancher, one an Environmentalist. Will they be fertile? The offspring from this pairing coming to fledge is the only hope The West may have as a place to be authentically occupied.
Broad-billed Hummingbirds are sipping at the nectar feeders of El Potrero, Cottonwoods are now a glowing green that equals the glitter of the little birds.
A pair of what must be Mexican Mallards are there when I reach Mason Pastures, and around the edges of The Stockpond in the mesquite branches are Ruby-crowned Kinglets, now appearing in greater numbers with the movement of the birds north out of Mexico. The sprouts of Toloache are a few inches high, there near the bank, and out on the Cascabel Road.
At lunchtime–another pair of the Mallards joins the first, each set of birds perfectly matches the other: in both, one of the partners has a bill of lovely olive green with black nostrils and a black hook on the end, the other an orange bill saddled across in black. These look to be ducks very much devoted to their mates, as if they are true male/female sets but since none of them look at all like a male Northern Mallard should at this time of year, I wonder if these bill colors can’t be found along an intergrade between the two forms that formerly were considered separate species. I’ll let the canard illuminati continue their squabble over that, and their endless lumping and splitting of the two mallards, Mexican and Northern. The legs of all of these are bright coral-colored, drawing the eye sharply to them.
Five Green-winged Teal dabble in our shallow pond, while on the “dirt tank” of our fence neighbor ranch to the south, a Redhead makes a startling appearance but that pond is deep enough to attract such diving ducks.
A fearless Ruby-crowned Kinglet comes to work over the mesquite tips where I’m still rather frantically trying to reset T-posts and raise wire along Cascabel Road so our cows don’t go on a walkabout this summer to vacuum the sweet, tasty trillion of mesquite beans that will fall on the gravel roadway. For the first time I ever heard one here, a Cactus Wren’s raspy chortling comes from the dry slopes and Saguaros rising from the opposite side of the roadway. It makes me think the mystery bird in there is not some species of wren after all; I don’t know if I’ll ever hear it again to be able to seek it out at last and identify it.
The Cottonwoods oh the Cottonwoods on The River oh how can it be that no, I haven’t been imagining those tiniest of changes coming over them already before midwinter has come? Glances in passing for the past few days have left me wondering, “Are they still bare?” and neighbors are asking, “My gosh, can the Cottonwoods be leafing out??” I wanted to believe they were still bare and would stay that way a while, for one can hardly get enough of the sleeping beauty of the translucent, filigreed crowns and the galleries of white trunks and limbs. But now it’s undeniable: the trees are indeed pale green, the long forests of them are bands of the soft color, the land above them and the shrubby edges below them a gray even softer, with snow high over them white on wilderness slopes.
A Ruby-crowned Kinglet works all the fine mesquite tips along The Lane.
Great Blue Heron in #2 Pasture’s winter grass startles me, it’s unafraid, looks like an ornament on some other green lawn in the Gnome Belt. It moves leisurely to the other winter cow graze in #1 Pasture.
The Stockpond is completely frozen over in the morning, by noon completely thawed.
Northern Mockingbird …
Lesser Goldfinch …
I continue pursuing the Polka Dot Beetles, hoping someday to have one in hand for a real look, but they are so wary and their talent for escape nearly incredible.
A Peregrine comes from behind and, off to my right, rockets past in a horizontal only a few feet above the pasture I stand in, slices into the next through a narrow gap in mesquite, any Meadowlark in there won’t know what hit it. It then circles high, high, out of sight of my naked eye, steel gray, like a Phantom Jet with an “Off I go, into the wild blue yonder!”
Say’s Phoebes have paired up, joyously chase each other up and down the hall, er, from one post or sprinkler head to another, even their calls lascivious.
Waiting on one leg in #1 Pasture is the companionable Heron. It decides to follow me on my rounds into the bermuda grass of #2. Maybe my footfalls flush out mice towards it?
Six Mule Deer, against the sunlit arcs of irrigation in the waning afternoon …
Or–can Winter be denied? A Bronze Dragonfly zooms over the water, past a single Green-winged Teal stretching its wings and flashing the radiant-cut emerald of a wing speculum. The duck doesn’t fly off when I pull up to the bank, which isn’t like this species that is normally wilder than wild.
The irrigation hoses are peppered with grasshoppers that are not so minute as before–they’re growing. The still unidentified Polka Dot Beetles fly and drop and zoom past, and even the little black spiders of Summer are come back to their perch on those hoses, oh goody, I can be nipped by them in January as well as in June! It is 75 degrees …
Bewick’s Wren sings, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet pokes about the mesquite branch tips. As the Galiuro cliff face catches the last sunlight and the rest of the valley around me falls into deep shadow, a welcome coolness comes in waves. Black Phoebe sings out tsip … tsip … tseep, on wheel lines where I empty water for a freeze that likely won’t come this night.
The newly established native grass planting is being weaned into dormancy, getting watered only twice a month and in decreasing amounts–it is a showcase of wintering sparrows (Lincoln’s, White-crowned, Vesper, Savannah, and a female Lark Bunting.) Seeding amaranths in there are shoulder high and dropping spiny fruits into my boot tops, irritating my feet but quite the buffet spread for the birds. Native gramas long before established by themselves in there, plus naturalized Stinkgrass and Lovegrass, add to the seed bounty.
Opening one of the growing number of silky chambers appearing in the outside branches of the small mesquites overgrowing the pastures, I find a large-bodied, pearly-gray furry spider, fascinating and also unsettling, with an abdomen fat as if it were storing up supplies for the winter.
A drive to that north dirt tank reveals it still has water in it, going on three weeks after the last rain. It has always been “productive” of little birds, but today a Sharp-shinned Hawk is present and the only sound is crickets. The electric wires and utility poles, t-posts and barbed wire strands, and mesquite crowns are also empty of Cassin’s Kingbirds, and I think ours must have left.
Amigo Snipe is at The Stockpond, and Snout Butterflies, and a plain, nut-brown dragonfly with a blue, soap bubble sheen to the wings. Across the water itself gracefully swims a bright orange, large Water Scorpion–or should it be called better, Water Stick?
A Verdin peeps in the mesquites of The Lane; they are almost absent from these lands I work every day.