To the south the jagged peaks of the Santa Rita Mountains loom against the pale blue skies. A few wispy clouds float above the mountains, hinting of the monsoon just south of the border. A cactus wren flies up cackling to a nearby rooftop as we pass through the block walls that define our neighborhood. The tall saguaro condo greets us on the left—a home to woodpeckers and martins. A small flock of rufous-winged sparrows seeks shelter in the desert scrub beneath the saguaro. The song of a curved-billed thrasher follows us as we pass through the barbed wire gate into the wash.
Here we head north so the sun will be at our backs, better for identifying birds and taking photos. We keep to the wide sandy bottom of the wash but scan the Palo Verde, mesquite, acacia and creosote bush along the edges for signs of life. The wild cotton is blooming again, while the dried bolls from the last season still cling to leafless twigs. A lesser nighthawk flutters overhead searching for breakfast in the ever warming day. Gila woodpeckers chatter as they cling to nearby saguaros. White-winged doves call out, “who cooks for you, who cooks for you?” over and over again. The air is full of bird sounds.
As we progress farther downhill the side of the canyon becomes narrow and steep. Soon tall red banks loom over us and we can see the layers upon layer of gravel and rock that have been laid down and then carved through by the force of water. It’s always hard for me to imagine water rushing down this dry bed with crunching sand beneath my feet. I have yet to see this wash flowing fast and deep enough to have carved this canyon out. I wonder as I’m walking if millions of years ago the Grand Canyon started as something like this.
High on the east bank we spot a female hummingbird gathering nectar from a saguaro blossom. Her tiny size is emphasized by the large green cactus. With her tiny feet extended, she looks like a helicopter coming in for a landing on a frilly helipad.
An ash-throated flycatcher hunts from a nearby mesquite tree. Then a Gila woodpecker decides the flycatcher is too close to home, and chases the intruder away in a blur of black and white wings and chestnut tail feathers. We watch a canyon towhee fly to the center of the wash, then skulk along the bottom as it proceeds to walk to the opposite side. Once there it alights in a tree before turning and flying into deeper cover.
We listen as a male Gamble’s quail calls from the west bank.
A deep basin filled with riprap is on the north side of the bridge. I can only guess that it is to hold the water and debris before it overflows and continues on its way downhill. We skirt the edge of the basin and re-enter the wash again.
A Gila Woodpecker and Gilded Flicker cling to separate arms of this green monster. The spiny flesh is pocked with holes. Still, this ancient giant produces blossoms in an ever hopeful attempt to reproduce.
We step out of the desert and onto the pavement of the track that encircles the park. After the dry sand and gravel and sparse vegetation of the desert the large expanse of lush green grass is a cool feast to our eyes.
Along the edges of the park a few scrubby shrubs and trees still grow, though many have been removed to make way for the community center and neighborhood swimming pool that is under construction. A little gray birds flits among the twigs of an acacia tree. I have seen several of these birds in the canyon today but I have not been able to identify them.
As for the mystery bird, well, I searched three bird guides and numerous web pages without success. While I hoped it might have been a gray flycatcher, it didn’t have that silhouette or behavior. Also, a gray flycatcher is about 6 inches and this bird seemed smaller. I considered the blue-gray gnatcatcher but that wasn’t it. No eye ring, no black tail, not the right profile or behavior. Was it a vireo? I checked those out also, but still the shape of the beak was not vireo like, nor did it have the eye lines or spectacles of the gray vireo. On Tuesday one landed in the Palo Verde tree in my backyard. I quickly grabbed the camera and stepped out the door. The bird didn’t seem to mind my presence but as soon as it heard the camera click, it flew off. On Wednesday it came around again at about the same time. This time I stayed inside and clicked off about 100 shots through the glass windows and doors. I off-loaded the pictures, enlarged them and examined each one. Its shape and behavior suggested a Verdin, but there was no yellow head, no red shoulder patches. Could it be a juvenile? Perhaps, but none of my bird guides had a good picture of one. Off to the internet again where finally I found a photo and a description on the 10,000 Birds Clinic page. Apparently I was not the only one stumped by trying to identify this bird, for it stumped these guys too. But in the end it was confirmed: Juvenile Verdin!
- Kestrel (1)
- Turkey vulture (3)
- White-winged dove (4)
- Mourning Dove (4)
- Gambel's Quail (6)
- Gila woodpecker (5)
- Gilded Flicker (4)
- Ash-throated Flycatcher (2)
- Canyon towhee (1)
- Lesser nighthawk (2)
- Purple martin (19)
- Barn Swallow (1)
- Cactus wren (4)
- Curve-billed Thrasher (7)
- Verdin (6)
- Black-tailed Gnatcatcher (3)
- Pyrrhuloxia (1)
- Rufous-winged Sparrow (6)
- Great-tailed grackle (2)
- House Finch (7)
- Common raven (1)
- Hummingbird species, female (1)