Monday, December 31, 2007

New Year's Eve

It’s 9 a.m. here in Sycamore Canyon. The sun is shining brightly and a thrasher just ran by. The goldfinches are feeding, the hummingbirds are fighting, and the rock wrens are bobbing along the block wall. It’s 60 degrees outside with a cloudless sky. So far I haven’t seen those dreaded street pigeons again.

We’ve lived here for 8 month now. We’re still trying to decide if this is home. We both love the weather here, especially now that we are watching the rest of the country get dumped on with snow. It’s a hard mentality to get out of, this hunkering down for winter thing. I think we will have to learn to hunker down for Monsoon instead.

Though these winter days are shorter in terms of daylight, it is still the best time of year to be outside. We took a drive yesterday to Buenos Aries National Wildlife Refuge (posting soon to follow) and spent the whole day removed from civilization in fresh air and sunshine. There are so many natural areas so close to Tucson, all within driving distance. It is one of my favorite things about living here. We have been to many places so far but still have more to get to.

Here in the canyon construction has slowed along with home sales. It is the condition of the whole country right now. Tucson was caught up in a huge housing boom. We moved here after the beginning of the slow down but not before it hit rock bottom. I’m still not sure it has hit rock bottom. I just know I’m not losing pieces of sky to rooftops as quickly as I was before.

So, what do I like about Tucson?

The weather, sunsets, the mountains, the wildlife, the birds, the biodiveristy, the proximity to natural areas yet still easy access to all things urban. I can go to a play, an art gallery, a movie, and just about any type of restaurant I want to. I can shop at 3 or 4 malls (I think, I’m not a big shopper). And if I want to go back to college we have the University of Arizona along with others right here in town. I love the light restrictions so that we have beautifully dark night skies. I love seeing all the stars again, and we have yet to take advantage of all the Observatories in the area. There are quite a few from what I understand. I like it that I can go from desert floor to mountain peak all within an hour’s drive. I can be in the Sonoran desert surrounded by saguaros yet drive up the Catalina Highway to Mt. Lemmon in December if I want to see snow.


What do I dislike about Tucson?

Summer humidity, scorpions, brown crickets, high crime rate, illegal aliens, and drug runners.


And what do I miss?

Walking barefoot in the grass, maple trees in autumn, a pine forest in summer; swimming in a river, pond, lake or the ocean. Basically, I miss water and the sound of it, whether it is the trickle of a brook, the bubbling of a stream, the gentle lap of water against the edge of a lake or the pounding of waves at the ocean. I think that is why so many people in the area put in swimming pools or fountains. As for rain, we get our share of it here, enough to enjoy a rainy day without having to endure endless days of gray and steady downpours like New England. I don’t miss those month long rainstorms at all.

Well, whoever you are and wherever you are, I wish you a peaceful and blessed New Year filled with joy, the beauty of nature and the wonder of life.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Winter Visitors and the Dreaded Bird


With cold days and even colder nights the birds are flocking to the feeders. Suet, seed and nectar are constantly replenished. Costa’s hummingbirds are the most frequent nectar feeders, though sometimes I see an Anna’s and I wonder if I am seeing a female of a different species. Since most of the females look the same it can be hard to tell, but I notice the difference in size and the length and curvature of the beaks. One species has a short and straight bill, the other a longer and more curved bill.

This morning the yard was full of the usual suspects, but then a new bird landed in the back yard and my heart filled with dread. I thought I had seen one of these fly overhead a couple of nights ago, but hoped I was wrong, but I wasn’t. There standing in my back yard was a street pigeon! A big black thing, it flew up to the roof of the house, then I spotted it at the feeder on the north side of the house and another pigeon was with it! If these birds decide to hang around my house, I will have to take my feeders down, for they will make a huge mess of everything with their droppings. They will take over the feeders and soon all their relatives will join them. However, they didn’t hang around for long and I am hoping the reason was they didn’t find any food that appealed to them. Since I feed mostly thistle seed, suet, and peanuts in feeders that are not accessible to them I hope they were disappointed and won’t come back. What I can’t understand is how they found my house out here in the desert so far from town. It doesn’t seem there is anything to attract them to this area. I couldn’t help thinking, where is that Cooper’s hawk when you need him!

Shortly after the pigeon left I spotted a lesser goldfinch sitting on the floor of my patio in a daze. I had not heard it strike the window and I didn’t see any marks on the glass, but it certainly behaved as if it had struck somewhere. Though it is warmer today than the past 4 days have been it is still cool in the shade and on the cement, so once again I went outside to rescue a bird.

Its feet were curled beneath it, and while its breathing was rapid, its eyes were closed.




I gently scooped the tiny bird up. This is the first time I have ever held a lesser goldfinch.





I brought the bird out to the sunshine and set it in a corner under the mesquite tree.




Then I stepped back to watch from a distance. While I was standing there some other goldfinches flew in and landed in the mesquite tree no more than 3 to 4 feet from me. Then a male Costa’s landed about 3 feet from my face! I only have a small digital camera but I was able to snap some remarkable pictures because I was so close to them.

As for the little goldfinch? Gus and I went into town for errands. When we returned five hours later it was gone. I can only assume it eventually came to its senses and flew off with the rest of the flock.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Feeder Wars


With all the feeders around here there is naturally a certain amount of bickering among the birds over the best spots. Still, the woodpeckers mostly eat suet and peanuts, the finches eat thistle seed and sunflower seed and the hummingbirds sip nectar. Yesterday that all changed when I observed a Gila woodpecker dangling from the hummingbird feeder on the patio! Twice within the last 2 weeks I have had to pick the nectar feeder up from off the patio floor. I didn’t know how this had happened, but the sugary nectar created a sticky mess all over the cement. Now the mystery was solved. I watched as the Gila woodpecker grasped the thin perch that encircled the feeder from beneath. His posture reminded me of a bat clinging to a cave wall. Then, he curled his body up over the edge, cocked his head just so, extended his neck in an arc and with his bill barely reaching the plastic flower, he proceeded to sip nectar from one of the ports.

Quietly I called to Gus to come and see. He was able to watch from the picture window in the great room. We watched dumbfounded as the woodpecker stuck his tongue in and out of the tiny port drinking nectar. I could actually see the nectar level falling the longer he clung there and drank. A Costa’s hummingbird flew down and scolded him, but still he clung and drank. Then another Gila woodpecker flew over and chased the first one away and quickly took over the feeder for himself! I would have loved to get a picture, but I knew if I moved the birds would fly off and I wouldn’t be able to witness this moment.

This morning dawned cold and clear. The forecast was for a low of 29 degrees but at 8 a.m. the thermometer under the patio read 32 degrees. I replenished all my feeders yesterday but I noticed the birds flying in to the birdbath for a drink seemed unable to get one. I knew I had just filled the bird bath yesterday, so I wondered why there was no water. A look through my binoculars revealed why. The water was frozen! Poor birds! It was just after sunrise so I quickly dressed and went out to thaw the birdbath. It wasn’t easy. I set it on its end in the sunshine and poured two gallons of warm water over the ice before it melted. Then, I positioned it back on its pedestal and refilled it with warm water. I was barely back in the door before the birds were landing on the brim and drinking once again. Later this morning when Gus was out doing errands he called me from his cell phone to tell me he had just heard the following statement on a local radio station: You know your kids were born in Tucson when they get excited about seeing the birdbath frozen in the morning! Well, I’m not a kid and I wasn’t born in Tucson, but it did add a bit of drama to the day!

In the backyard the finches and house sparrows fight for position at the feeders. When the Gila woodpeckers fly in everyone gets out of their way. They swoop onto the suet, or land on the block wall and jerk their heads from side to side in an inverse arc as if daring anyone to mess with them. The only bird that seems to be able to muscle its way past Gila woodpeckers is the Gilded flicker. It’s larger than the Gila and seems to be able to take over whenever it appears, which isn’t very often.
The morning doves stay mostly on the ground searching for seeds that have fallen. But sometime hunger drives them to try the feeders. I mostly have feeders that prohibit their larger bodies from landing on them, but they are quite inventive and will also twist and torque their bodies to get at seed. This morning they shared the ground outside the den with a covey of Gambel's quail. The quail always make me smile as they scratch so busily in the dirt. They peck and shift positions, each bird believing the others have the better spot. It is a frantic feeding, unlike the more sedate mourning doves that peck a little here, and peck a little there, then take a nap.

The fiercest fighters are the hummingbirds. They guard the feeders diligently and buzz off any contenders. It matters not to them if I am outside or not. They swoop past my ears in a fury if another humming bird gets near. I’ve seen the hummingbirds position themselves as lookout on the mesquite tree or even on dry stems in my flower pots. On female Costa’s has staked out a post on the verbena near the kitchen window. She sits with her back to the glass and darts her head from side to side in a sweep of the surrounding territory. If another hummingbird appears, she flies into attack mode and they buzz off together into the wash.

There is never a dull moment here with all these birds, but it reaches high drama when the Cooper’s hawk swoops in. Then the birds scatter like in an explosion to various points in the sky. So far the Cooper’s has been unsuccessful, but odds are that one day it will catch a bird. If I am here to witness it I will certainly have something to write about that day! I did witness the event one day in Utah along the Wasatch Front.

We were living close to the Wasatch Mountains in an older neighborhood with many tall pines, large cottonwood trees, a few aspen and one towering poplar. The pines were planted in a row down the east side of the property that sloped off sharply in a long and narrow back yard. Off the dining area a slider led to a deck where I had a bird feeder positioned hanging from a hook. It was a snowy evening in early winter and the birds were in a feeding frenzy before they roosted for the night. Suddenly the hawk swooped in and struck a bird. The little finch never knew what hit it. The Sharpie carried the bird over to the nearest pine and positioned itself on a large bough, its back to the interior of the tree, its eyes facing outward. In the waning gray light I watched the hawk though my binoculars as it ripped the breast feathers out and tore open the bird’s flesh. All the while the snow fell softly forming a gauzy curtain between the hawk and I. Still, I was able to see the hawk’s head and breast slowly stain with blood. I must have watched for 15 to 20 minutes as the hawk devoured that bird. It put me in a moral dilemma of feeling sorry for the small bird but glad the Sharpie was able to eat that night. He, too, needed food for energy and warmth to get through the coming snowstorm.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Society of Birds

I thought with the cold weather the crickets would disappear, but they are still here, though smaller and more sluggish. Still, when night falls they come in towards the heat around the unsealed trim boards by the front door. We are planning on contacting our builder to come fix that defect, but for now we crunch crickets at night. Gus has wanted to spray, but I refuse to let him. All we need to do is seal up the house and they won’t gain entry, and I refuse to have chemicals in my yard because of the birds.

For the past week we have had a roadrunner hunting in and around our yard. Last Saturday we came home from errands to find him perched on the block wall in the back yard. This was the first time I had actually seen one in my yard, though I have seen them more recently in and around the neighborhood. To my surprise and delight he jumped down into the yard and proceeded to hunt bugs. With the eye of a predator he watched, lowering his head and tail in typical roadrunner hunting posture. Upon spying an insect he would pounce! Then I’d see him gobble the morsel, raise his head, crest and tail, then scurry off hunched over to another corner again. We watched him for 10 minutes or more before he hopped back over the fence to hunt another territory.

The roadrunner is not my only insect hunter, however. A cactus wren has been hopping about the yard and in and around my patio looking for bugs. This one must be a young one for he has a stumpy tail. It’s like a miniature version of a real cactus wren tail. The bird is also puffed up to a round ball and does not have the typical sleek profile of a cactus wren. It is, however a cactus wren with the long curved bill, the white eye line and the speckled breast over a dark breast patch. I like to watch this plump little fellow hop about the yard in search of breakfast.

Even more delightful are the Gila woodpeckers. This morning five of them flew into the yard to peck at my peanut feeder and eat suet. With this cooler weather they are going through a suet cake every other day. As I watched from my dining area I observed a Gila woodpecker fly to one of the block posts that supports the block wall every 8 feet or so. It grasped the block with its vice-like clawed feet at the top of one block, then proceeded to shimmy down the post looking for insects behind it. Every now and then I would see it probe behind the post with its beak and then the swallowing motion as the insect disappeared down its throat. I swear it was swallowing crickets! Good bird! I’d rather have birds be my exterminators, than a person with a can of chemicals to poison my ground and air. With five or more Gila woodpeckers, cactus wrens and thrashers, and every now and then a road runner, I think I am in good shape.

The birds are such a delight to watch with their amusing antics and their variety of color, shape, and form. Still, one of the hazards of bird watching is window strikes. Anyone who loves birds and feeds the birds hates this by product of watching them. The birds see the outdoors reflected in the windows and try to fly into the scenery only to strike the windows and, either knock themselves unconscious, or fall down dead. I have taken steps to avoid this happening as much as possible but last night as the sun was setting in the west it shone through the transect window over the front door. My hallway is like a rifle barrel to the living room and straight beyond that is the picture window to the backyard patio. Gus and I were in the den talking when we heard the thump! I got up from my chair dreading what I would find.

Sure enough, a male house finch lay on his back on the cold cement. His little feet stuck into the air with clenched feet. For all appearances he was dead, but I had to find out, for if he was still alive, that cold patio would suck the life out of him. Cautiously I went out the door and picked the poor thing up. He was still alive and his eyes fluttered at my touch, but he did not struggle. I cupped him loosely in my hands and sat in a chair lending him the warmth of my own body. Then I sat there and prayed he would live and willed my life into his being. Gus watched from inside the house through the picture window.

The bird sat peacefully in my crossed palms. I watched him breath in and out with shallow breaths. I could feel its tiny claws in the center of my palm. I marveled at the delicate feathers and cursed my aging eyes which can’t see details as well. The bird suddenly extended a wing simultaneously rolling its head and closing its eyes. I breathed in sharply and prayed don’t die! Then it straightened from this contorted posture and seemed to rest there in my palms asleep.

I still had no idea if the bird would live, but I was determined to sit there as long as necessary to keep the thing warm. The sun had set by now and the dusk air was chilling. Gus brought me out a jacket and draped it over my shoulders. He stood next to me marveling at the little bird. Then, unable to resist, he tenderly reached out his finger to stroke the silken feathers. The house finch exploded from my hands and flew over the block wall into the desert! We both ran over to see if we could see him. Along the far wall four house finches and a mourning dove were perched. One of them was a male house finch. Was he mine? I don’t know. All I know is that little house finch survived his window strike and flew away into the desert. Perhaps he is feeding in my backyard this morning. I hope he is.

The birds are good company in all respects. They bring me close to nature and remind me that I am not the only species to occupy this planet. They remind me that my actions do have consequences for good or bad and to consider what I do as I move through life. I enjoy their musical voices in the mornings; their raucous chatter at times. I’m thrilled by the hunt of the hawks and falcons and horrified by the cruelty of nature. Perhaps I need to be. But I will choose this society of birds for what it adds to my life and how it keeps me grounded and connected to this earth I live on and the creator who authors both their life and mine.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Cienega Creek and Davidson Canyon

Ever since taking the IBA course my plan has been to go birding in Davidson Canyon and Cienega Creek. It is my hope that if we can establish this as an Important Bird Area it will give weight to the argument to prevent mining or other disruptive activities in this pristine area. As a County Preserve you actually have to obtain a permit to go hiking here. The permits are not hard to obtain, but scheduling a time for Gus to go with me proved to be difficult and I dared not venture into the canyon alone. The trip got put off more than once. However, on my December 5th bird survey in Sabino Canyon we were invited to Jean’s house for homemade granola afterwards. Jean is the leader of this group while Pam, Peggy and I are trainees. Pam was unable to come for granola, but Peggy came. We sat in the sun on Jean's patio with a Broad-billed Hummingbird visiting her feeder regularly. I met Jean’s husband, Mark while there. Mark Gerard Hengesbaugh is also an avid bird watcher and naturalist. He has written and published a book entitled Creatures of Habitat: the Changing Nature of Wildlife and Wildplaces in Utah and the Intermountian West. They had just obtained a permit to go birding in Cienega the following week. When they heard of my plight, they invited me to join them.

Our original plan was to go birding on Tuesday, December 11th. However, a storm rolled in over the weekend and refused to leave. Monday started out foggy, then turned to rain. The forecast was for rain the next 2 days. We postponed our trip until Thursday.

Tuesday morning I awoke late in the morning to an even thicker fog. It rolled into the backyard obscuring all but the closest houses. It raised and lowered; raised and lowered like breath in the chest of the earth. The fog didn’t burn off until after 11 a.m. I drove into town to do errands under heavy gray skies. When I left the store after 3 hours of shopping the sun was shining, but soon disappeared behind thick clouds in the west. As I headed south on Kolb towards home I glanced in the rearview mirror to change lanes. It almost took my breath away to see the snow capped Catalinas reflected in the golden light of the setting sun. I drove south with this beautiful view in my rearview mirror and finally pulled off the road when it was safe enough to have a good look. On all sides of me desert scrub and cactus spread out. The air was warm enough to be in my shirt sleeves. But there, suspended above the desert floor the mountains wore a coat of white with evergreen trees poking through the thick white blanket. The sight rivaled any seen in Utah or Colorado. I drove home with a smile in my stomach.

After a further stormy Wednesday, Thursday, December 13th, dawned sunny and bright. Mark and Jean arrived around 8:30 and we bundled everything into their vehicle and headed for Marsh Station Road. Though Cienega has a large parking spot with a big colored sign we headed for the more obscure parking lot with access to Davidson Canyon. We put the permit in the vehicle window, donned our packs, and headed down the trail. The gravel trail was a steady downhill slope. The morning chill combined with a brisk wind caused us to zip up our jackets and put on our gloves. Along the downward trail we saw Black-throated Sparrows and a gnat-catcher, most likely a blue-gray. We saw fresh plies of scat composed mostly of some kind of reddish berries at various intervals along the trail. When we finally reached the bottom we scrambled across a rocky out-cropping where we found ourselves on the canyon floor.

Beneath our feet the ground was gravel and sand. On much of the canyon floor the sand had gathered into deep sand bars or deposited in thick swaths. As we walked our feet squished in the sand and our legs worked twice as hard to push us forward with each step. A few Arizona Ash saplings gathered on the banks of the wash. A Gooding’s willow fell across the dry creek and we had to duck beneath it as we headed south. Here the leaves of the cottonwoods, ashes and willows still flaunted their autumn gold, while the mesquite endured in desert green and even a few cedars tucked themselves in along the banks. Dead leaves lay on the ground decaying in the moisture of the recent rains. The fragrance of wet leaves wafted up around us in the cool morning air.

Here past the willow the canyon took a sharp turn past a monolith that formed a cliff on the south side of the wash. More rocks poked out from the each side and we walked through the middle on the sandy bottom. Above us prickly pears clung to the cliff edges, their roots exposed by erosion. In spots we glimpsed saguaros on the bluff above, but down here in the canyon it felt almost as if I were back in a New England forest glade. The ground was damp in spots from the recent storms and water collected in pools carved out by the raging floods.

At the corner a rock wren whistled and bobbed on the cliff above us, but as we hiked farther south the birds were few and far between. When we did spot a bird it was hard to see definite markings as the sun was before us and behind the birds causing them to be little more than black silhouettes. We quickly realized that to birds this area we would need to start at the south end of the canyon and walk north. But would there be an access point? We hiked on.

As we continued south down the canyon the sun rose higher in the sky. The canyon widened out to a more open area with a grassy island in the middle with a smaller side channel. We continued on the main channel and stopped to investigate footprints in the sand and mud. We saw prints that could have been from coatimundis or raccoons, as well as javalina prints. We found evidence of cattle in the form of large cow pies, and still more scat piles of reddish berries. Whatever deposited them had been here recently for they were still wet and fresh. When we found a Hackberry Tree along the wash full of red berries we decided whatever deposited the scat must have been feasting on this and other Hackberry trees. The berries were hard and reddish orange. They didn’t look appetizing to us at all. However, the piles of scat looked like cranberry-orange relish being served up on desert stones, for that is where whatever animal was responsible seemed to always deposit their scat.

With the warming sun more birds ventured out. A flock of 20 or more white-crowned sparrows flitted in the brush keeping ever ahead of us. In the trees we saw numerous ruby-crowned kinglets busily collecting insects for breakfast. We turned around when we reached the bridge near I-10. Two huge Arizona Ash trees towered over the canyon here with golden crowns, but we found no access points from this end of the canyon. We headed back toward Cienega Creek stopping to observe a Northern Flicker as it flew with its undulating flight into a large cottonwood tree. The red of its underwings flashed in the sun and its white rump patch was clearly visible. We also saw a Say’s Phoebe along the way.

We ducked under the willow branch again and walked past the point where we entered the canyon. Now the canyon walls narrowed even more and cottonwood trees became even more abundant. They towered overhead forming a lemon and chartreuse canopy. Sunlight filtered down to the canyon floor in spangles. Here the sand and gravel gave way to larger stones and rocks. The creek was flowing here and tumbled noisily over a small rocky ledge. We scrambled over the piles of stone and debris underneath a looming train trestle, and rounded yet another corner.


Here the creek flowed freely. A black phoebe caught our eyes as it darted towards the water then flew back to its overhanging branch again. Another flash of movement proved to be yet another kinglet. The gentle gurgle of water was a soothing sound in our ears. It washed over my being with memories of other creeks, eastern streams and forest brooks. But I am here, this day in this place in Arizona. I am in a desert and this is a true desert oasis. It draws me even as it draws the wildlife with its promise of life giving water and cooling shade. Above us the open desert burns, but here deep in the canyon is shelter, shade and serenity.
We crossed the creek 2 or three times and passed beneath the bridge that carries cars 75 feet of more above us on Marsh Station Road. Above on the roadway a marker says the bridge was built from 1920 to 1921. I knew the main parking lot with its large painted sign was somewhere near this bridge, but still we found no access point anywhere nearby. Another train trestle ran overhead even higher than the road, and we later discovered train tracks passed by beneath that bridge along the canyon wall, but from that parking lot there was no good access point. The smaller parking lot with its brown sign that read “trailhead” was truly the best access point to the preserve.

In the creek Mark noticed tiny minnows swimming against the current. Along the rocky cliffs Jean pointed out a spider web hung with cottonwood leaves giving the effect of a child’s mobile hanging over a crib. At this point we turned back due to time constraints, but we were delighted with one more surprise when we saw a Canyon Towhee bathing in the creek beneath an overhanging tree. The towhee stayed close to the bank but splashed with delight in the pool formed by the bend of the creek.

We found our access point and hiked back up to the world above. Even as we ascended we noticed more birds. Mark spotted a huge red-tailed hawk perched in one of the towering cottonwood trees in Davidson Canyon. We stopped to watch until the hawk felt our eyes upon him and took flight. I lingered in the spot a bit longer to take in the sweeping view. Below in the canyon the tree canopy is a fluff of green and gold. Beyond that the gray-green desert painted a swath across the horizon. Then, even farther the Empire Mountains are silhouetted against the azure sky, their flanks a deep purple and blue, as if they are freezing in these cool December temperatures.
Cienega creek has more secrets to tell, but we will not learn them today. Today we head home to share a meal and memories and plan for another adventure to Cienega Creek. Perhaps on our next visit we will see the elusive Green Kingfisher. It would be a life bird for all three of us. Perhaps next time Gus will be able to come with us. Perhaps today, besides exploring and birding, I have made new friends.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Foggy Morning

When I open the shutters at 7 a.m. I'm greeted by a thick fog wrapped around the house. The damp road glistens in the soft light of dawn. Mt. Fagan is shrouded behind a gray curtain. All the world feels close and intimate. This is the first fog fog I have seen here. Within minutes the fog lifts and the gray face of Fagan appears again.

Outside my den window 30 mourning doves are huddled near the feeder. Puffed up for warmth they appear to be fluffy gray rocks with beaks and eyes. None are feeding. They seem to be enjoying a communal roosting, a group "waiting" for the day to begin. Two hours later the flock has dispersed. A few doves are feeding now, joined by the nomadic Gambel's quail. The quail are busier than the doves are. They scratch frantically at the seed, constantly changing position. As one bird moves down the slope into the wash the others follow in spurts until one lone female remains. She pecks and scratches furiously, then frantically follows the rest down the hill. A new day has begun in Sycamore Canyon.

Over the weekend a cold front moved in. It rained off and on leaving puddles in the yard and ponds in the washes. The birds always take advantage of this abundance of water by splashing and bathing in it. The males Anna's hummingbirds have joined the males Costa's. They do battle for the feeders or for favorite lookout spots in the mesquite tree. I had suspected I was seeing female Anna's, but seeing the male with his rosy head on Saturday confirmed it for me.

I finally bought myself a binocular harness, which allows me to carry my binoculars hands free without the strap hanging across my neck. I attached it to my binoculars last night and set out for the desert to try them out. It isn’t long before I am wondering what took me so long to purchase one. I can easily raise my binoculars to my eyes, focus on a bird, and then let go. The elastic straps hold the binoculars snugly to my chest and I can put my hands in my pockets for warmth, or pull out my notebook and pen to record a sighting. The weight of the binoculars is supported by my shoulders instead of my neck, which is far more comfortable and less cumbersome as the binoculars don't bounce around or swing free like they do with just a strap.

It was about an hour before sunset when I headed out the door. The western horizon was blanketed in clouds. A stillness hung over the desert magnifying sound. As I headed down the road I thought I heard water flowing and walked off into the desert towards one of the many washes. But the wash was dry. Where was the sound coming from? I walked a bit further and was surprised to find the source was someone’s backyard fountain a hundred yards away. It sounded like a swift flowing stream!

Farther down the road I see a coyote cross just after the passing of a car. Mourning doves are everywhere and they walk swiftly away or fly off with whistling wings if they feel I am too close for comfort. I hear little zeets and chips, but whatever birds are making those sounds are well hidden in the desert scrub. Car after car drives by on the road. Their presence makes bird watching a self-conscious activity, so I veer off on a new trail for privacy and peace.

This trail meanders along a wash on one side and the back of a neighborhood on the other. Along the wash the trees, cacti and scrub grow thickly. I hear birds chattering down in the wash. A quick motion catches my eye and I see a desert cottontail hopping off to denser cover. To my right I see the backyards of houses through the view fence that allows the homeowners to see into the desert. One person is grilling his dinner and I wave hello as he is only about 20 feet from me. We chat for a few minutes before I move on.

The sun has set now and I know I must get home before it gets dark. As I have not been on this trail before I have no idea where it comes out or how long it will take me. I follow the trail past the fenced in neighborhood in the gloaming. Soon I find a break where I can access a street. I am almost home now. I hurry in the rapidly darkening night. Christmas lights are coming on all around me. Inflatable snowmen and penguins with igloos dot the yards of these desert homes. I smile at the irony of it all as I walk through the chilly night air and up my driveway to home.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Coyotes and Quail

Late yesterday afternoon while the guys were watching football I decided to take Blossom for her evening walk. We hadn’t been to the park in a few days, so off we headed for the grass. She usually likes to go there to smell all the places the other dogs have been. The sun was just setting at the western end of the park as I walked onto the paved track that encircles the grassy area. A huge flock of mourning doves were gathered on the lawn and as I started to walk the track I noticed movement at the far end. I had to shield my eyes from the setting sun but that’s when I saw the coyotes—2 of them! I did not fear for myself but Blossom’s safety was cause for concern. Everything I have read says coyotes will attack and eat small dogs like her. I wanted to sit and watch them romp, but turned and headed back toward the road and home. I called Gus on my cell phone to come pick me up because it was only a short trot across the grass and a slim strip of desert for the coyotes to get to us. It wasn’t long before he was there. I guess I’ll just have to walk Blossom closer to home from now on.

As I headed for bed last night I took a quick peek out the back door. After 48 hours of constant wind the velvet night was now so still. I could see the stars brightly shining in the cool night. By morning I had to add an extra blanket to the foot of the bed because our room was so chilly from sleeping with the door cracked about 4 inches. As soon as I wake up I am out the door again to see what the day is like. The sky has not yet begun to lighten and a slight breeze has picked up. I see a falling star in the northern sky as I gaze at the big and little dippers.

Later in the morning as I bustle about my kitchen I smile to see a male Costa’s hummingbird show up. I think he is the same young male I saw coming to the feeder yesterday for he has this bit of fuzzy down poking out the back from the crown of his head giving him a punk-ish look. I’m totally enthralled with these tiny feathered emeralds.

I busy myself about the kitchen once again and as I turn to put another batch of Christmas cookies in the oven I see a large bird walking along the top of the block wall. It isn’t the shape of a mourning dove but more upright with a little question mark sprouting from the top of its head. I can’t believe my eyes. A Gambel’s quail! I rush to the den to retrieve my camera but freeze in my tracks, my jaw slack, when I see a whole covey of quail feeding at my quail block and beneath my seed feeder. They scratch away in the soil and peck at the quail block. All the while the little question mark plume atop their heads bobs up and down with the motion of their feeding. While I have seen coveys of quail numerous times in the desert around here, this is the first time I have seen this many at my house. There are between eight and ten birds! Prior to this I have only seen 1 pair feeding here, and that was months ago.

This afternoon as I am returning from town, I decide to drive down to the park to see if the coyotes are there again. I park my car and get out with camera and binoculars in hand. I have arrived earlier than yesterday and the sun is still above the horizon. The sprinklers are running in the park making the grass glisten with their spray. No mourning doves or coyotes in sight, but I walk the perimeter anyway enjoying the peace of the empty park and the long shadows cast by the late afternoon sun.

For the moment there are no houses near the park. It is still surrounded by undeveloped desert. I don’t know how long it will be this way, but for now its beautiful. The Santa Rita Mountains rise to the south, while the northern horizon is rimmed by the Catalinas. Huge saguaros spot the desert around the park. At the far end is one down a bit of a gravel path and it is here that I see a Gila woodpecker clinging to the edge of a hole in one of the saguaro’s arms. Its back is to the west as if waiting to catch the last warm rays of the setting sun. I creep ever closer and quietly snap a picture. It doesn’t seem to mind, but then decides I am too close and flies farther up the tall saguaro to another hole where he laughs his squeaky laugh at me.

I head back to the pavement and continue the rest of the way around the circle. I am on the south side of the park now, and to the north through the sparkles of spray I see two ravens fly in and land at that edge of the grass. Have they come in for some water? I watch them walk and strut on the lawn in their sleek black suits. Perhaps they are the desert version of the Mafia. They look as if they are having a conversation with each other. As I near the car another movement catches my eye. This time it is a cactus wren in a spikey cholla cactus. It hopes down to the ground seeking who-knows-what in the grass and weeds. Then a curved-billed thrasher comes out from behind a prickly pear near a mesquite tree. It starts to taunt the cactus wren, but upon seeing me it retreats cautiously to the cover of the cactus once again. The bold cactus wren is undisturbed. It is joined by another and they continue to hop about searching the ground for insects.

The soft hiss of the sprinklers follows me as I head back to my car. In the short time I was there the sun has sunk even lower and with it the temperature. I’m feeling chilled as I get into my car, but internally I am warmed by beauty of this place.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

I Meant To Do My Work Today















I Meant To Do My Work Today By Richard Lagallienne is one of my favorite poems. Following is the original. Below that is what I call the "Revised Desert Version" which I have revised and illustrated with photos from the desert. Enjoy!

I meant to do my work today—
But a brown bird sang in the apple tree,
And a butterfly flitted across the field,
And all the leaves were calling me.


And the wind went sighing over the land
Tossing the grasses to and fro,
And a rainbow held out its shining hand—
So what could I do but laugh and go?


I Meant To Do My Work Today (revised desert version)
By Kathie


I meant to do my work today—

But there were cactus flowers I had to see,















And a butterfly flitted across the wash,















And the desert lizards were calling me.















And the wind went rushing over the land















Tossing the tumble weeds to and fro,















And a rainbow held out its shining hand—















So what could I do but laugh and go?














(butterfly photo by Gus)

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Wild Air

I lay in bed last night listening to the gentle pitter-patter of rain outside my bedroom door. The soothing sound relaxed me after a busy day of holiday preparations. I settled snugly into my bed beneath a downy quilt when suddenly I snapped to attention. A sound like a rushing freight train washed over the house. The flag across the wash started snapping and flapping. The metal pulley clanged against the flagpole. The storm front was moving through.

All night long the wind lashed the house. Outside my poor mesquite tree whipped in the wind. Rain pounded down leaving a puddle in the middle of the yard. This morning as the sun rose in stormy skies the wind is still gusting. Tattered clouds scud across the sky dome. The sun rising behind Mt. Fagan gilded the cloud edges gold. Sunbeams stream out between a rift in the clouds, then disappear behind the wooly blanket once again.

In the brief rift the sunlight washes over the desert. Palo Verde trees shimmer in the dramatic storm lighting. Their winter branches toss in the gusting wind. Dark storm clouds to the north provide a charcoal backdrop to the green branches and trunk. Water lies in puddles on the street and in the desert. I feel the wildness in me. I want to run like the wind and toss my cares into the sky. I want to feel the freedom of a bird as it takes flight. I want to be part of this earth, part of this place. I want to be a wild thing.


At home again as I prepare my breakfast the birds have arrived in droves. All my feeders are covered with birds. The ground beneath is thick with them. The hummingbird feeders are being visited regularly. I cracked the window to let in the fresh, wild air. I see a raven flying towards the house. As the black shape approaches the window it flies over the rooftop so close that I hear the rush of wind through its wings.

As I sit here and write the storm clouds have thickened to a solid gray blanket once again. It looks as if we could be in for more rain today. I hear a squeaky squawk and, glancing out the den window, I see a flicker hanging from the wire cage surrounding the bird feeder. It reaches its long beak in through the wires extracting safflower seeds from the mix. I watch as each white seed slides down the pointed beak. The spotted breast of the flicker peeks out between its wings and legs as it clutches the wires. A chorus of House Finches watch as the flicker scarfs their food. It doesn’t stay long and soon flies off to the desert once again.

Friday, November 30, 2007

The Last Week of November

November 27th

Evening falls on Sycamore Canyon with a golden glow. In the gray dusk a shadowy bird flies past like a thought, undefined and fleeting. Silence descends upon the desert in fits and starts, until, by midnight, I question if the earth is still breathing. Then a yapping starts, followed by louder barks and howls, voices lifted in a frenzy, then tapering off to silence once again. Who knows what other creatures stalk the night?

November 28th

With dawn the daytime desert comes alive. Now the sunlight brings the birds. Finally a male hummingbird, the first I’ve seen here at my house, alights at the feeder, its purple gorget flashing the reflected sun. This violet hood stream backwards on the bird’s throat as if blown back by wind as he streaks through the air. The males are shier than the females. They dart off at the slightest movement I make inside the house. The females will sit and let me watch them, unafraid. I can sometimes see the yellow pollen on their beaks and their tiny tongues flicking in and out as they sip the nectar from the feeder.

I hear the rolling trill of a rock wren. Looking up I see it right outside the window on the block wall. It bounces up and down as if doing deep knee bends. I wonder if there is a bird drill sergeant in its mind commanding the rhythmic motion.

When I first moved here and put out my birdbath the birds didn’t seem to know what to do with it. Now they visit regularly. Today up to four house sparrows at a time are splashing merrily in the water. There is something so joyously happy about a bathing bird. They seem to go at it with reckless abandon as they dip their bodies into the water and splash small ripples across their backs. Then the flight into a nearby tree or onto the block wall to sun themselves.

Suddenly there is the rush of wings as birds scatter in all directions. I watch amazed as a cooper’s hawk flies in, soaring through the wash, then banking. It flies strait towards me as I watch from inside the house. At the last minute it pulls up and flies over the rooftop. The next thing I see is it landing on the bock wall behind my mesquite tree. It tarries but for a moment, then flies off in pursuit of prey elsewhere. The yard is empty and silent briefly, but before long the birds return to feeding, bathing and sunning themselves.

November 29
The sweet scent of the damp desert awakens me. I brew a cup of tea, gather up my notebook and some yogurt, and head out onto the patio to welcome the dawn. Wrapped in a blanket with pen in hand I write in my journal as the morning birds descend upon my feeders. I listen to the other sounds of the waking world: trucks backing up with their warning signals beeping, garage doors humming as they open and close. Nearby I hear the echo of worker’s hammers ringing off the mountains, and always the peeping, cheeping, twittering sounds of birds. Sometimes the mourning doves will fight for position beneath the feeders. They raise their wings and snap them at their rivals. It sounds like a locker room during a towel fight.

As the sun rises behind leaden skies a soft gray light washes over the canyon. Soon a gentle rain starts to fall, soaking the earth around me. The sound of water in the desert is a wonder, a melody from a dream, perhaps. A remembered, comforting sound of life. The collected water from my rooftop pours from the rainspouts into the back yard splashing off the hard soil before soaking in. All day long the rain comes and goes teasing us with its life-giving properties. Autumn rain is gentle and promising.

As I walk through the neighborhood I see more and more Christmas decorations appearing in the front yards of my neighbors. Without evergreen trees to decorate I see live oaks and willows adorned with garland, lights, and ornaments. As in every other state I’ve lived in the rooflines are strung with lights. Today I saw my first Christmas tree peeking through a front window. This will be my first Christmas where it doesn’t snow.

November 30, 2007

Today the air is pregnant with a storm. All the world is waiting. It is as if the desert is holding its breath. I have so much to do, but the desert is calling me. A comfortable coolness envelops me as I step out the door. On this last day of November I marvel at the land around me. The gray light from overcast skies lends a softness to the desert. It is a thorny quilt spread out before me. Beyond the cacti and ever rising houses Mt. Fagan watches over us, his slopes now burnished copper, gray and sage. A low cloud rests on his shoulders, then drifts away.

The bare ocotillo branches scrape the November sky. Finches grasp the thorny branches and then a Gila woodpecker. I wonder how they can avoid the thorns? The smaller birds I can understand, but how does the larger woodpecker manage it? The woodpecker is a gray silhouette on a gray branch against a gray sky. It looks like a large bump on the branch, part of its structure, but then it moves, climbing the branch like a ladder.

At home once again I am looking out the window at a gilded flicker on the suet. Explosively the birds take flight. The Cooper’s Hawk is back! Though she swoops and soars she is unsuccessful. She lands on the block wall across the wash. I grab my binoculars and focus on her. I can only guess that she is a female because of her size. In birds of prey the females are usually larger than the males. She is rather large with a dark cap and dark gray back. Her breast has the rusty barring of an adult. A juvenile would sport vertical striping instead. She scans the wash and drops below the sight line of my own block wall. I rush out to see if she is in the wash, if she has gotten prey, but she is gone. I never saw her fly up above the wall. I can only assume that she flew low up the wash before rising to the sky once again.

Monday, November 26, 2007

An Angel in Sabino Canyon

Finally a team was assembled to begin an Important Bird Survey in Sabino Canyon. Emails had been exchanged for two weeks. It was decided that we would meet at 8 a.m. on November 14 at the Sabino Canyon Visitor Center. None of us had met each other, but we all agreed to identify each other by our hats and binoculars—standard fare for bird watchers. Our plan was to get to know each other and hike into the creek to walk the transect route for future surveys. Once again I got up early, fed cats, and dogs, ate breakfast and walked the dog.

My husband and I left at the planned time of 7 a.m., which I thought would get me to Sabino Canyon on the north side of Tucson in plenty of time. We stopped at the Roadrunner market in Corona De Tucson where Gus filled my gas tank as well as his. I had put all my birding gear in the car the night before in order to save time in the morning. The weather was suppose to be in the 80’s, so I had not brought a jacket with me. However, when I opened the window to talk to Gus at the gas station a chill breeze blew through. I suddenly remembered how cold it was birding in Green Valley the week before, so when the gas tank was full, I decided to head home for my jacket—just in case. Wrong move.

After retrieving my jacket, which took about 10 minutes, I headed north on Houghton Rd. The drive to Sabino Canyon took me much longer than anticipated. By the time I arrived it was twenty-five minutes after eight. Birders wait for no one, though I suspected they had waited a few minutes. Now what to do? I had never been here before and had no idea where the riparian area was. However, I really wanted to meet these women and see where we would be birding. Undaunted, I went into the visitor’s center and asked where the riparian area might be. I knew from the emails it was only a mile in and they were hiking there, so I knew I could do that also.

After obtaining instruction and a map from one of the volunteers I headed for the Sabino Dam Trail. In spite of my fears of being cold, it was quite warm and I didn’t take my jacket with me. Dressed in a T-shirt, light sweater and crop pants I was comfortable with my camel pack on my back and a granola bar in the pocket. The dirt trail was wide and golden in the morning sun. Long shadows lay across the trail. In the brush I spied a phainopepla, a silky flycatcher with black feathers and a crest. I walked on, unsure of myself, but determined.

Along the way I met other hikers already returning from their morning hikes. I asked one and then another if they had seen three women with hats and binoculars. No one had. Another women walked towards me with a floppy hat and a walking stick. Her hair was shoulder length platinum gray/ blond. A thin nose separated kind eyes. Older and shorter than I, she looked like a forest gnome. I asked her the same question. She had not seen the women either but offered to accompany me when she heard this was my first time in the canyon. I took her up on her offer and we introduced ourselves. Her name was Beth.

Beth and I headed farther up the trail, chatting as we went. She told me that mountain lions had been seen in this area and she didn’t want me to go alone. We talked about lions and birds and nature. Beth told me she lived nearby and often walked this trail. I looked about me at the high rock walls closing in around us. The creek bed was mostly dry, but during the Monsoon it had raged with water. Two people were swept away during a flash flood just this summer and drowned. Walking in the rocky and sandy creek bed now, it was hard to imagine.

We got out of the creek bed and back on the trail. Soon we came to the dam. Bamboo grew thickly along the creek edges, along with cottonwoods, sycamores and willows. "This is where the lion was spotted," Beth told me. We crossed the damp creek bottom to the other side, but then returned. I wanted to walk up the creek bed, but Beth suggested we stick to the trail. "I don’t think they will be in the creek," she said. I thought to myself, "that’s exactly where they will be," but I followed on.

The smooth beaten path wound through more bamboo and trees. We could not see very far ahead or even off to the sides. I was beginning to think we would never find the others when we came to a bend in the trail and there ahead of us were three women with binoculars, hats and a clipboard, walking up the creek. "Are you Jean, Pam, and Peggy," I called out. The three women turned to look at me, astonishment on their faces. We had found them! Beth graciously retreated, but not before I thanked her profusely. She was a guiding angel for me. A forest gnome with a walking stick.

I joined the others and introduced myself. I apologized for being so late. We continued our trek up the creek searching for the best path to take and deciding where we might stop for point count surveys come breeding season.

The creek snaked through the canyon past rocky cliffs. In places there was water lying in pools. The mud and sand adjacent to it held footprints of animals other than dogs or cats. They reminded me of raccoon footprints. Could they be coati’s? Beth had told me she has seen them here before. Farther up the creek two rock wrens bobbed and called from scattered stones. Then we saw a flash of chestnut as a canyon wren scurried in and out of the rocks looking for insects. In a thicket in the middle of the creek a tiny bird scolded and chattered at us. We never got a good look, but the others thought it might be a Bewick’s wren. On some stones in the middle of the creek someone spotted a tiny tree frog the gravelly color of stone. It blended right into the rock and was no bigger than a pebble. I was surprised anyone even noticed it, then concerned there may be more and I might step on them.

We finally climbed out of the creek at Tram Stop One. Sabino Canyon has a paved road it uses to transport people farther up the canyon. You pay $5 to ride the tram and can get on and off as many times as you want to. I haven’t ridden it yet but I was told it use to go all the way up 9 stops to the top. A huge flash flood a couple of years ago wiped out the road and now you can only ride to stop 4, but repairs are being done and the hope is you will be able to ride all the way to the top again.

Here in Sabino Canyon, which is a National Park, they actually have restrooms with flush toilets. We all took a restroom break before heading back down the canyon. As I sat on the seat I pulled the toilet paper down and was startled when something fell out of the roll! There on the floor was another tiny tree frog! This one was a bit larger, about the size of a dollar coin, with reddish toes like suction cups and a translucent tan body. I gently cupped the poor creature in my hands and escorted it outside the building. I dreaded the thought of some one stepping on it or, heaven forbid! —flushing it down the toilet! It stuck to the brick exterior on the side of the building with no trouble. It was the highlight of my day!

We hiked out of the canyon two by two. Jean and Pam chatted with each other up ahead while Peggy and I got to know one another. It had grown even warmer while we were hiking and I had removed the light sweater long ago. I never needed my jacket and if I hadn’t gone back for it I would have been on time, but I never would have met Beth or had such a fun adventure!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Winter Warmth

The golden sun rises now behind Mt. Fagan. There is a chill in the air as I step out my back door to read the thermometer. It registers 44 degrees at 7:35 a.m. Last night we turned our heat on for the first time in this new house. A new sound came from the garage as the furnace kicked in. It filled the rooms with the odor of heat and stale air. Still, the heat felt good against the evening chill as we came back from our walk with Blossom. I am really wanting a fireplace!

This morning the sunlight only slants across the farthest kitchen corner. The winter angle of the sun and the permanent placement of my house prevents sunlight from piercing the interior now when I want it most. The sun will briefly flood my bathroom with light as it has the only south-facing window in the house. Then, in late afternoon the front bedroom will be full of light as the sun sets in the west, but that will be it. If I want to bask in sunlight now I will have to go outside and find a place sheltered from the wind.

After breakfast Gus and I decide to take Blossom for a walk to the park. We feel the chill in the air as we head out. At the bottom of the cul de sac we cut through the desert trail. Across the wash my eyes catch the movement of a large bird in a tree. While I have left my binoculars behind, the huge dark bird is plainly visible. As it flies from its perch its red tail confirms it as a Red-tailed Hawk, probably the same one I heard crying as I stepped out the front door. The whole desert seems alive this morning. I see towhees, sparrows, thrashers, and cactus wrens all the way to the park. Once again I hear the silver tinkling of black-throated sparrows. As I think about it, I am amazed at how many birds I can tell by their voices now. This is a new skill for me, but I still have a long way to go.

We walked the paved trail around the park, the only place we can see grass out here. The green lawn is dotted with rabbit scat. They must come out in herds at night to feed. The green expanse glistens with silver water droplets from the morning’s irrigation. On the sidewalk I also observe fox scat. Unlike dog excrement, it is full of animal hair and sometimes, small bones or seeds. They like to mark their territory in this manner. We walked one loop around the park, then headed home. By now the air has warmed and we are feeling it.

In the late afternoon we drive to Sahuarita to get pizza, an easy and welcome change after days of turkey leftovers. Gus drives while I look out the windows, scanning as always for birds. I see another Red-tail perched atop a phone pole. Small birds perch on wires, or fly through desert scrub. The sun is sinking behind a bank of clouds low over the horizon. On Old Nogales highway we drive through a tunnel of pecan trees, still in full green leaf.

The pecan groves wind like a green river through Sahuarita and Green Valley. I have been watching the pecan trees to see if they change color before they drop their leaves. I know they drop their leaves, for their bare branches reached into the winter skies in January when we visited. However, it is almost December and there is only the faintest gold appearing in some trees. If the leaves change and fall, it must happen quickly, and they aren’t gone for long. By the time we moved into this house in April a faint lime blush was visible in the pecan orchards. New leaves were already emerging.

With the sinking sun the temperature falls once again. While these nighttime lows are nothing compared to Utah, Connecticut or Maine, it certainly feels cold when the winds blows. After daytime highs in the 80’s last week, the 40’s chill my bones. I still get that cozy winter feeling, so I make a cup of hot chocolate and curl up with a good book. For winter warmth I have my cats who curl up with me and radiate heat.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Thanksgiving Evening and Beyond

Well, after the threat of stormy weather, Thanksgiving Day warmed up enough that I was back in a sleeveless shirt and sandals by noontime. It stayed sunny and warm for the rest of the day. I saw my first kestrel in the canyon as it flew in and alighted on the block wall across the wash. About the size of a mourning dove, its cinnamon colored back was to me, but it flew off when I tried to take a picture. I am seeing many more raptors lately, while the vultures have all but disappeared. They were a daily sight during the spring, summer and early autumn.

We shared Thanksgiving dinner with my son and his wife. We had our fill of turkey with all the trimmings, and my kid’s favorite—homemade crescent rolls. Around 10 o’clock at night Gus and I decided to go for a moonlit walk. An almost full moon cast silver light across the desert. Though cooler, it was still warm enough to go without a jacket. In fact, Gus still had on shorts, while I changed into a long-sleeved shirt. He’s from Maine and he insists he will wear shorts every weekend all winter long! A post holiday silence spread out like a blanket, wrapping the homes in comfort. We saw one house dressed in red and green Christmas lights. Another was fully decked out with lighted holiday figures. Across the desert to the north the lights of Tucson twinkled like a string of amber-colored diamonds. Every now and then a light breezed caressed our faces. It was after eleven by the time we returned home.


The next morning dawned sunny but slightly cooler than the day before. Gus fixed breakfast while I busied myself with filling bird feeders and the birdbath. We ate out on the patio with birds for company. Flickers, woodpeckers, finches and mourning doves flocked to the feeders, chattered on the block wall, and drank from the birdbath. Only four feet from Gus my iron ballerina sculpture held up a nectar feeder where hummingbirds boldly buzzed in for a sip. I smiled in delight at them all. I never grow tired of their antics. A Gila woodpecker fought with a mourning dove over position at the birdola seed cake. Finches are constantly bickering and fighting over seed, as dramatized by an incident earlier this week.

I have a bird feeder that is a tube type surrounded by a wire cage to prevent larger birds and squirrels from scarffing all the seed. It is right outside my den window and as I was talking on the phone and watching I saw 2 house finches get into a fight within the cage part. I thought they would tussle and get over it but one bird pinned the other to the bottom and just kept pummeling it with its beak! The under-bird was trapped with its head sticking out of the cage wires. On top the mean bird hammered, ripped and tore at the other finch’s head and breast. It couldn't seem to free itself to escape. I watched for about 30 seconds to a minute but I couldn't take it anymore. I rushed out the door with the phone still in my hand. As soon as I came around the corner the other birds fled, including the bully on top. The under-bird looked like it was still stuck in the feeder, its head dangling through the wires. I was sure it was dead, but then righted itself, found an opening, and flew off. I swear if I hadn't been there the mean bird would have killed it! Who knew that these benign looking finches could be so vicious! It was a fight to rival anything seen in Ultimate Fighting on TV.

However, most of the time it is quite peaceful here. When the mourning doves snuggle into the soil and sun themselves it is one of the most peaceful scenes to observe. They often gather beneath the mesquite tree for a snooze. Sometime they spread one wing out to catch the warmth of the sun, then they pull that one in, roll onto the other side of their breast, and extend the other. It makes me happy to know they feel that safe in my yard.

Yesterday grew colder as the day wore on. We closed all the windows in the house to keep the heat in. Last night the news was buzzing with Winter Storm Warnings. Having lived in Maine it was almost a joke to hear them talk of the temperature dropping into the 30’s with snow above 6,000 feet. We only had a brief shower last night and today woke to cloudy skies without a flake in sight. By noon it should be back into the 60’s. While I haven’t turned the heat on yet, today is the day I really wish I had a fireplace. I could at least pretend it is winter.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving Day in the Morning


After a calm and relatively warm night I awoke this morning to flashes of lightening and the gentle rumble of distant thunder. Now the wind is gusting, causing the trees to toss and the flag to flap and snap. The air is scented once again with the smoky sweetness of creosote bush. We must have had a light sprinkle for, while the street glistens in the gray dawn, the dirt is my back yard shows no trace of being damp.

I step out the front door to see the world on this Thanksgiving morning. As I open my door I can’t help but wonder what the pilgrims would have thought if they had stepped out into this desert when they arrived. After the lush, foggy dampness of England, this would truly be a foreign experience in more ways than one.

A rock wren’s call rings out as it lands on the street before me. Overhead I hear the whistle of mourning dove wings as they coast in for breakfast at my feeders. Soon all the feeders will be busy with bird life. When the Gila woodpeckers arrive they will announce their presence with laughter-like squeaks. A couple of days ago a Gilded Flicker grasped the cage of the seed cake while Gila woodpeckers feasted at the peanut feeder. It was the first time I'd observed them so close together and I was amazed by their size difference. The flicker is much larger than the woodpecker. House Finches and House Sparrows are still in abundance. I am getting more Lesser Goldfinches right now, and though they don’t come to my feeders, I see Say’s Phoebes in or around my yard almost every day. A form of flycatcher, they eat insects instead of seed.

I have discovered that now is the time of year when my birds need water more than any other. During the summer they were able to get water from irrigation systems or Monsoon rains. It wasn’t unusual then to see birds drinking from irrigation tubes as they dripped their life giving water at the base of trees, bushes and flowers, but now most irrigation has been shut off, and it’s been quite awhile since it has rained. My birdbath is one of the busiest spots in the yard.

As I head back into the house I steer clear of the acacia trees in my front yard as the wind whips their thorny branches. I walk back past the newly hung evergreen wreath on my front door. For me, Thanksgiving is also the beginning of the Christmas season. It's hard to believe it's coming, since yesterday we were still wearing shorts and sandals. However, with this morning's change in weather I am wishing I had a fireplace!

I have so much to be thankful for today. Before the hustle and bustle of baking and cleaning and cooking starts, I pause to reflect on the goodness of life. Like most people I am thankful for family. I have a wonderful husband, great kids, and awesome siblings. I love my in-laws and we are all thankful that Dad is still here to celebrate with us. He’s in the hospital recovering from open-heart surgery right now, but we hope he will be with his family once again by Christmas. I am also thankful for the many wonderful and faithful friends I have across the United states. Everywhere I have lived I have made at least one new friend and each one of you is dear to me. Besides nature and family, friends are what make life worth living.

I am thankful for all the places I’ve lived and the amazing birds I have seen in each place! I’m thankful that someone had the foresight to preserve wild places like Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon and Saguaro National Park. I’m glad they are not paved over with million dollar mansions with million dollar views that only billionaires can see.

And, I am thankful to be alive. I am grateful to my son and all of the military who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. I pray for their safety this morning and hope that we can bring them all home soon.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Whitewater Draw


On Sunday, November 11th I awoke at 4:30 a.m. to prepare to meet another group of birders from Tucson Audubon, only this time, my husband was going with me. I kept expecting him to come up with some excuse to back out. I still couldn’t believe he agreed to go with me, especially on a Sunday when his Giants football team was playing, but he insisted he was going and he never changed his mind.

I was told to never be late to a meeting place as the others would not wait for you, so Gus and I rushed around the house feeding pets and trying to eat breakfast ourselves. The meeting time was 6 a.m. We had put most of our belongings in the vehicle the night before. Now we packed our cooler with drinks and sandwiches. As Gus reached in to grab one last can of Pepsi his hand brushed a glass bowl which smashed all over the tile floor spreading broken glass and green goo everywhere! Somehow we were able to clean it all up, stop and fill the car with gas, and still make it to the parking lot north of I-10 on Houghton Road in time.

We met the other birders and headed out with 10 people in 4 cars. We headed east on I-10 and stopped in Benson to pick up one other birder. After a brief restroom and snack break we continued through Benson to highway 80 where we turned south towards Tombstone. It is an odd thing to me to travel through these historic western towns. They are stuff of TV westerns, not reality. However, I grew up in the east where George Washington was suppose to have eaten at just about every wayside Inn in the state. I grew up surrounded by history also, but it was the history of pilgrims, Puritans and Patriots. The Revolutionary war just didn’t grab my imagination like the west does.

Tombstone is pretty quiet early on a Sunday morning. It’s not very big and we passed through quietly. We continued our southerly trail until we turned east once again. Eventually we reached a place called Whitewater Draw. I had never head of this place, but hey, I’m new here. It had taken us over 2 hours to get here. As we turned into the gravel road leading to Whitewater Draw the group leader, John Yerger pulled over and we all got out. Overhead a prairie falcon soared, though it took a moment to confirm its identity. Then they set up scopes to view the various sparrows hiding in the field grasses. We saw Brewer’s sparrows, white-crowned sparrows, Savannah sparrows and lark buntings. It was my first time seeing lark buntings and to me they just looked like house finches with smaller beaks, but John and his friend Jake pointed out the eye rings and the white wing patches that became visible when the birds took flight.

On a nearby snag someone spotted a larger bird roosting. A look through the scope revealed a scaled quail just sitting there warming itself in the early morning sunlight. This bird is a rare find and we were all pleased to see it, another life bird for me. We added a meadowlark, a red-tailed hawk, a vesper sparrow and a loggerhead shrike to our list before we continued into the Draw.

This time there was a restroom right in the parking lot. We barely got out of our vehicles before we saw a black phoebe. Then, right under the picnic pavilion we found two Great-horned Owls roosting. But, most amazing of all, on a gravel heap before us was a Crested Caracara, or Mexican Eagle. It just stood there on the mound undisturbed by our presence as if to say, "Hey, look at me! I’m posing just for you." Crested Caracaras are rare in the U.S. This was a marvelous addition to my life list. The bird appeared to be a young one as his colors were more subtle and not quite the dark contrasting black and white of an adult. The eagle’s shaggy leg feathers looked like bloomers on its long legs, which met at an almost 45 degree angle to the horizontal body. From the front of this plane the neck rose almost vertically to the crested head and a huge beak. The hooked gray beak had a blush of pink near its base. A look in my Sibley’s bird guide told me that the beak can change color in an instant! However, it failed to tell me what causes the change—fear, excitement, temperature, who knows. Gus found this bird most interesting and we watched for quite awhile. He said he could have watched it for hours. Even when we moved off to look for birds on the ponds the Crested Caracara never left though the trail passed quite near him.

Whitewater Draw is apparently a wetland with 3 or 4 ponds. Surrounding the ponds are fields and farmland with mountains in the distance. Overhead we heard the "garooing" of Sandhill Cranes as they crisscrossed the ponds flying above us in small groups. We saw more ducks and grebes and blackbirds in and around the ponds. In some nearby willows a ladder-backed woodpecker drummed on a branch. With all the autumn gold and chartreuse of the foliage and the steel blue of the water a beacon of color caught my eyes. The blood-red feathers of a vermilion flycatcher flew up over one of the ponds. It caught an insect and then alighted on its perch once again. It is as if nature concentrated all the red it could in this one tiny bird.
We headed to a willow grove strung out like a tail at one end of the ponds. Long-eared owls had been spotted here in previous years, but this time we were unable to find them. However, someone did find two barn owls roosting for the day in the thick of the trees. Their gray and tawny bodies looked exactly like a broken tree branch until you saw their white heart shaped face peering back at you. We stood on a sandy bank with our scopes and viewed these sleek owls from a distance.

Our lunch was consumed on the fly, so to speak, as we continued on our trip. We were headed north now towards Wilcox, but not before stopping a couple of times along the way. Our first stop was on a dirt road along the central highway near some farmland just south of Elfida. Here we looked for more sparrows in the grasses and were rewarded with a Cassin’s sparrow among others. Gus took a nap in the car while us crazy birders tramped through the fields getting our socks full of stickers and grass seed. We flushed a covey of scaled quail a couple of times. Overhead we trained our binoculars on what looked like a swarm of black flies but was really huge flocks of Sandhill Cranes riding the thermals in the warming sun. The sounds of their garooing filled our ears as their images filled the eyepieces of our binoculars. What a spectacular sight! Just as we headed back to our cars to continue our journey a young golden eagle came soaring across the fields out of the mountains beyond. Its wide wings showed the typical white wing patches of a young golden, along with the white base at its tail. Young Bald Eagles do not have a white tail and in fact take up to 4 to 5 years to develop their typical adult plumage.

We made a couple more stops in a place called Kansas settlement where we were able to see a ferruginous hawk and a roadrunner. We ended our trip at Twin Lakes Golf Course in Wilcox where we saw shore birds and ducks once again. This daylong trip yielded me a list of 63 species of birds, the most I had ever seen in one outing. When we returned home Gus was able to watch his Giants football game with our son, which he had recorded on the DVR.