Tag Archives: Swifts

June 23, 2016

The pair of Great Blue Heron are at The Pond, as they have been occasionally over the past week.

A Blue Grosbeak appears to be fly-catching in a spectacular manner, rising and rising and rising, straight up, then long, even faster plummets to its perch. Or is that a territorial display, or courtship? The literature tells almost nothing is known about those kinds of actions of the bird.

As I wander along setting up the length of an electric line that will help get the Botteri’s Sparrow area ready by confining the cattle to get its weeds too tall for the sparrows’ liking knocked back before the birds’ hoped-for arrival (many of the herd love that weedy Kochia, and the young tumbleweed), comes from high overhead the wild twittering of a pair of White-throated Swifts. My Gawd, the male swoops screaming down out of the blue like a Messerschmitt, while she rises slightly and meets him in a crashing copulation of immeasurable brevity. Then they’re off for more very swift Tango de Swift until they’re too tiny to see with the naked eye. They take hardly any time to disappear for after all, they’re as fast as fireworks. And their own kind of fireworks they are certainly making, on the wing yet! That takes “dancing on the ceiling” to a new level.

The range herd has not forgotten my vaquero’s cattle call, which starts out with one long then six short loud whistles–as soon as I begin they moo and lift their back ends to start to wander down The Lane to head towards the Botteri’s area, I in the lead. The Mockingbird in its big mesquite instantly lets out a perfect imitation of the whistle call and then does it again, oh goody, just what I need as an aid in the cattle management!

May 2, 2016

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
Tristan, Isolde,
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
to Summer.

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 …

Vermillion Flycatcher,
bird aflame
never consumed,
from your ashes
no need to arise
for the one consumed
by your fire, is I.

October 10, 2013

I looked out on a downright wintry sunrise when the blinds were raised and the curtains drawn back for the first time since May: today I’ll want the house to collect as much warmth it can, and keep it.

The day is hard-put to get past 70 degrees, the Wilson’s Snipe staying with us will feel the more comfortably at home. The front brings another wave of birds south, the first Chipping Sparrows, and more Cassin’s Kingbirds from the Four Corners I guess, and the Mogollon. A day of wild skies and scudding but impotent, cold rain clouds, a flock of Violet-green Swallows and zipping in among them, a rare Vaux’s Swift to delight Bob E. and me. (I’d seen one other in my life, on a birding trip through the Pacific Northwest 40 years ago.) They are to be the last of that Swallow to snap up the bugs stirred by our Mason Pasture herd.

Lunch at The Stockpond, with a beautiful pair of Lazuli Buntings, an elegant Lord and Lady. A Flame Skimmer Dragonfly of the usual incredible, garish hue rests on a water plant in front of us the whole while we ate, but we don’t see any of the Blue Damselflies that were common only a couple of days ago.

July 1, 2013

A couple of hours before sunrise, the patio wet … a moonless, vast land can be heard gladly sipping down into itself what that first, early wild storm of a new Monsoon Summer brought it. My lips have no trouble finding the rim of the coffee cup in the utter darkness. The invisible Purple Martins swirl overhead, sing down through the balmy, soft night of a perfect 71 degrees. I wonder what I’ll find at the pastures. I wonder if there is a road left to get to them on. Now comes the season that folds a tropical saturated air into a stiff batter of monsoon heat, when one’s clothes will be drenched through, with patterns of white edges lined out on it where the salt from the body marks a high tide of sweat. Now come days when it will be 100 degrees and raining, likely to reach a peak a couple months from now when hurricanes can hurtle up from the Sea of Cortez, which after all is just beyond our horizon, and mix even more power into the usual storm cells that can materialize right overhead of us.

The washes and arroyos did run large in that single temporal, but I make it through down Cascabel Road as daylight comes on. Close to Mason’s the torrents had ripped across the gravel and dirt, then ripped back to the other side, then burst through a bank in a fulfillment of some endless memory of the land, and filled to the top with water the old earthwork stock pond that in other years had reached such a state only towards the end of a rainy season. I stop, stare in amazement at it for there was no pond there yesterday, take in the lushness, smell the fecundity and odor of the South Seas. At The Stock Pond I hold up the column of the rain gauge in a joyful disbelief: almost one inch of rain, the first rain enough to comment on since February. Imagine … rain. An inch means I can delay the resumption of the irrigation cycle on the bermuda grass, save money, work at something else, save water.

There is not a bird at The Stockpond–not a bird–though there are call notes in the mesquital, and the down-slurred, slightly peevish whistles of a Tyrannulet; the rich songs of our summer residents are all stilled after the violence of the storm. Those friends are going to try to gather again this sunset time on the banks here to take in the evening bird show that’d got cancelled on us last night by the sideways-driven rains and the lightning bolts and the threat of flash floods coming down the arroyos, but there isn’t much promise of spectacle now that today water can be had everywhere and in abundance. Then a White-throated Swift rockets through over the water, water that is noticeably deeper than at this time yesterday. A single large winged termite drops from the air above onto my thumb–they’re emerging already after only one night of rain. Another White-throated Swift swoops through, with a screaming whoosh so fast as hardly to be made out on its approach, but when it is only a couple feet from my head I get a thrilling look at this incredibly beautiful and dapper bird. The swifts don’t much like the look of the water, which is this morning wholly changed from yesterday–mud where any water open at all can be seen–most of it is carpeted with red algae. There are bubbles rising from below that are then held unburst in the thick red covering that stretches from one shore of newly sprouting Barnyard Grass to the other. Suddenly the air is all Purple Martins, but only one or two are willing to poke their bills into so nasty-looking a pool for a drink. The cattle amble in, also wholly changed after the storm in their shimmering, dust-free coats. Surely the Creature from the Black Lagoon is about to jump up through the only open water edge and snag a calf. We’ll see later in the day if the nighthawks and bats will come as they have been in such increasing numbers over the weeks of a Foresummer that now of a sudden have ended. A fiery Summer Tanager comes to a mesquite tip, sings sweetly, slowly as if he’s afraid of shattering the wet enchantment, the notes seeming to come from a bird ventriloquist, his bill moves so imperceptibly.

Chores mostly done, when Saguaro Juniper folk were drifting into the Cafe du Stockponde, I myself drift on up to see if the herd had learned from the lightning strike that scared their little hooves into a high fandango last night, and were still honoring the electric fence in that #2 Pasture. They had learned, to my relief, for if once they get over to that just water-filled old pond there on the other side of the low and flimsy portable fence, it’d be almost impossible to get them out of there again, what with how they have everything a cow could want in there and with how she can hide from a drover and parry with him back and forth on either side of many a mesquite tree. A Killdeer has come to enjoy the pond’s muddy edge, I can hear. I walk back to the truck through the deep summer grass in late day sunglow and am swept over by a vast number of Lesser Nighthawks, high and low, very near and gliding past in their odd flying style, scattered from right where I stand on out to the horizons.

Evening thunderstorms look like they’ll stay on the mountains, and back at The Stockpond the tables are set, cheese sliced and arranged, wine poured from a bottle, olives readied to be plucked from a bowl. The water is open–not a trace of red algae!–though green algae floats instead in scattered swirls. It’s all Lesser Nighthawks tonight and rather than having decreased now there are so many other places for them to drink, they arrive from the lands roundabout, and arrive, and arrive, and the air pulses and whirs with them and then … shoots down from the sky a Cooper’s Hawk, who stretches out its taloned feet and sinks those claws into either side of a nighthawk ten feet in front of our faces, the nighthawk’s wings raise and are jammed up under the wingpits of the bird of prey and both sail as one off into the bosque where hungry baby hawks watch for their next goodies. We’re just stunned and let out gasps, all the nighthawks vanish, no sound, no movement. Sue breaks the spell that’s taken over the air now empty of birds:

God! Life’s a crap shoot!

June 15, 2013

The Yellow-billed Cuckoos are long overdue … was that the first I just heard, calling from the bosque? No, but it seems the Yellow-breasted Chats have learned to work cuckoo notes into their songbook. Where are the cuckoos?

This time many White-throated Swifts come to The Stockpond, descending with long approach to the water with bold chattering–how did they have it communicated to them that the water hole was open, besides the fact that the algae had parted enough to allow easy drinking? Obviously through “Twitter”.

It’s raining across the Rincon peaks, and the moistened branches and leaves of the Creasote Bush of their vast bajadas puts out on the wind that most wonderful of scents, the smell of The Desert in the rain. It does not rain at Mason’s, though.

June 13, 2013

It’s too hot to fight over space and water, so the hummers male and female only drink. The red algae has about taken over The Stockpond, and the hummingbirds have to force their bills down through the surface of thick scum. A couple of White-throated Swifts come in with a terrible whistle and whine, curve to the pond but scream off at the other without drinking, at least at first. Finally a few of them open a bill and plow through the thick covering, and get enough drops to keep them going. They are magnificently graceful, and so bullet-fast that there is no way to lay the binoculars on them in time before they’re gone and back to the slot canyons and cliffs rising on the other side of The River.

Though the Cascabel Weather Station registers something cooler, my thermometer says 110 degrees. It’s fortunate that Phat Phreddie has disappeared, for the work of clearing the last of the bolting, flowering Bull Thistle in that heat stuns me beyond caring whether the rattlesnake is there or not. Those goldfinches are all around me still working happily on the Malta star thistle seeds, oh bless them! The sky is not blue–it is incandescent. There are thunderheads in the East!

May 3, 2013

A pair of Mexican Mallard at The Stockpond, but the Solitary Sandpiper has indeed gone as has the Kingfisher. The Cooper’s Hawk gives those kookaburra calls from the bosque offstage to the south. It’s cold again, no hint of Foresummer … the temperature hovering at 40 degrees! Windy, oh so windy, and the single Green-tailed Towhee who’s now getting to be on the late side of hanging out here likely feels still quite in his element, so why would he leave for the North? The hummingbirds are hardly in a cold stupor, three or four male Black-chinned come to cavort in the little waterfalls sluicing from one green algae ring to another floating on the surface, as the riser tall above them splashes water down. We would love to do this if we were their size … hummers are so human sometimes, and we, so hummer. No females play in the algae this way, but one comes flying in and onto the side of that vertical riser and lands in the manner of a Swift, upright and flat on the pipe, her body pressed hard to its side below the opening and in that position she bathes in the dribbles running down from the hydrant joint. I have no idea how she holds on.

Meanwhile, the pickup I’d been sitting in had a rear tire losing air while I was watching the pond. So much for tending to the wheel lines getting them watering again: this was the third flat since yesterday and the usable spares had finally run out. Gggrrrrr, I grumbled and stomped up the lane through mesquites with canopies of leaves still wrecked by the deep freeze of two weeks ago. Eeehhhehhheh I didn’t want to be hitchhiking on this early cold morning on which not many folk would be stirring. Out on the wide open gravel road to Cascabel outside the green ranch gate it was windier still, and dust devils came along down the road edge one after another to take aim at me squarely, one or two forcing open my tightly closed eyelids …[…]

I take a childhood comfort in the sound of Redwing Blackbird calls, between gusts of wind the notes of the bird come to my ears from that sadly wilted canopy of mesquites now getting burned off even more by the wind. The dust is risen to a heaven that has become the mauve color of those grasshoppers’ wings of yesterday, and the details of the mountain ridges and canyons are blurred-out all around. At last a large yellow tool-van appears around the far south bend of the road, coming towards me but by this time I’m wind-blown and shaggy … he slows way down, not to avoid coating me in road dust (that’s already an accomplished fact) but to have a look, and in the end he must decide my shabby ranch clothes make me too iffy and scurvy character in an Old West comic book. He picks up speed and adds more dust to the mauve sky and to my shoulders then all goes quiet again but for the wind as he disappears. The cold does not let up. Strangely, in the moment that I grasp the perfection of this lesson in The Suchness of Things–cold, wind, flat tires, dust, uncompassionate and fearful motorist, lust for hot cowboy coffee, regret that I’d had no more to eat than that one banana–perfection drifts down to me from somewhere impossibly high in the dusty air overhead. “Curlee! Curleeeeee!! Curlleeeeeeeeeww!” … the cry of the ghost of a whole wild continent lost, and the hair on my neck rises. I know what it is, but it can’t be what it is, it just can’t, but then for a few moments the speck appears in a pocket of air somewhat clear of dust, the binoculars find it and I see the splendid long bill and cinnamon wings of a lone Long-billed Curlew, the bird nearly suspended in the headwind …[…]

My experience of The West is somewhat more sober than what was described in this pleasant boosterism that over decades to 1910 evolved into the anthem, “Home, Home on the Range”. The Suchness of Things: had the morning gone as planned and I not been visited by the usual troubles familiar to Dave Stamey if not to Dr. Higley, I’d’ve been long gone from these pastures and on to other chores … without that flat tire I’d have missed that curlew as it was trying to find The River or an irrigated field. It didn’t land in ours though it flew lower for a look. In New Mexico some years back, while I was working in the alfalfa fields of dear friends outside Roswell, I and an ol’ boy neighbor rancher were standing together when a spectacular large flock of Long-billed Curlew swept in and landed at the edge of the irrigation flood. As the birds set about snapping up insects the advancing water forced into the air ahead of it, I asked the man if the curlews had a local name. “We call ’em, ‘Mile-or-more-birds’.” “Mile-or-more-birds?”, I said. “Yessir.” “So why d’ya call ’em that?” “Wellsir, when one o’ those birds shoves that bill up the @## of the one standing next to it, ya can hear that scream a mile-or-more.”

The musing was barely out of my head when [Bob Rogers and a colleague from] The Nature Conservancy appeared around that same bend to the south that the yellow van had, oh was I thankful that another vehicle had come along at last and in it were friendly faces! […]

True to the spirit of Dave Stamey’s song, the temperature had risen by 45 degrees by afternoon when I went back to continue the day’s work in those pastures. The wind, though, was no longer wild enough to be blowing grit into my teeth, and the sky had turned back to Arizona blue over the first pretty flowers of the rather ugly-named but reputedly tasty Hog Potato. Swallows everywhere over Pasture #3: Violet-green Swallows, Barn Swallows, the season’s first Cliff Swallows, Tree Swallows, and of course many Rough-winged Swallows, all swirled together in a massive flock, gyrating and hunting the insects that have come back to life after the morning’s deep chill … […]