Sunday, October 28, 2007

A World of Birds

I was on my way home from the grocery store when I saw it: there on the road before me was a roadrunner. I suppose for those from this state it is no big thing, but for me it’s like seeing a unicorn. This is a bird of myths and cartoons- a bird seen in books but not in real life. But, there it was before me and I stopped my car to watch.

It ran off to the side of the road, lowering its head and tail as it ran. Then it paused and raised its head and tail before running a few steps again. The bird was on the hunt with the prowess of a Hollywood dinosaur. Its wary eyes stalked its prey and when a butterfly flitted overhead the bird gave chase, running, then hopping into the air before giving that up as a lost cause. Last I saw it was heading over a ridge into the desert running as only a roadrunner can.

At home once again I watched the birds at my feeders. The typical house sparrows, house finches and mourning doves crowded each other for positions, but then I saw something different! One sparrow had white stripes on its head—a white crowned sparrow! The first I’d seen in the canyon, and here it was at my feeder.

I’ve tried to minimize my feeders since the death of the house finches. Now I only have three, though I did break down and buy a quail block again on Friday. I’d only found one dead finch about a week after the other died until Friday when I discovered another dead finch by the block wall. Only the house finches are dying, and I have yet to find anyone who cares. I shall try emailing the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and see if they take an interest. Now that I’ve joined my local Audubon perhaps they can help. I clean my birdbath weekly with bleach and carefully maintain my feeders. I do not know why these birds are dying. If the birds weren’t drawn to my yard would I even notice their deaths?

I certainly notice their lives. They bring joy to mine. When I see the birds splashing in my birdbath I smile and watch. When the Gila woodpeckers come to my peanut feeder I marvel at their colors with their zebra striped backs, their tawny bodies and red caps. I like their laughing chatter when they fly into my yard and out again. It sounds so wild. In this tame world I need some wild.

What amazes me here in Sycamore Canyon is the variety I’m able to see. I can start my morning with Gila woodpeckers and mourning doves. Before long the hummingbirds arrive to fill up on nectar. The house finches and house sparrows are regulars, and now and then I’ll catch the flash of lesser goldfinches as they flutter in to feed. Sometimes a curved-billed thrasher hops the wall and drinks from the birdbath, or, perhaps a cactus wren or canyon towhee. The evening is when I’m most likely to see the rock wrens in my yard, but at anytime during the day I can hear their ringing call from the neighbor’s rooftops. At dusk the lesser nighthawks wing overhead in their erratic moth-like flight and deepest night brings the hooting of great-horned owls.

Here in Sycamore Canyon I am reminded daily of what is at risk as humans encroach on wild places. We deserve a place on this earth too, but can’t we be good neighbors to the wildlife around us? I, for one, do not want to live in an artificial and totally manmade world. I need stars in the sky, moonlit nights, saguaros in the desert, and tossing tree branches. I want to hear the gurgling of a creek as it tumbles over stones that flash in a rocky mountain sun. I want to always be able to hear elk bugling in autumn during the rut. I hope we always have sage grouse dancing on leks in spring and swallows in summer. I hope our world is always full of bird songs and birds.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Perigean Moon

The Perigean Moon. That’s what our local weather forecaster, Chuck George called it. It’s the full moon when the moon is closest to the earth making it appear 14% bigger and 30% brighter then when it’s in apogee, or farthest from the earth. Knowing its name is one kind of understanding, but watching it rise behind the Rincon Mountains large and glowing like a moon balloon is another. Hearing the coyotes yapping and howling at one a.m. in the silvery light of this bright night makes me wonder if they, too, are affected by a Perigean Moon.

I walk out into the yard to see the source of this midnight day. A few feathery clouds float in the velvet sky. Overhead the pearly orb is circled by a ring of light. If this was winter in the north the ring around the moon would portend a snowstorm, but here in Arizona, what does it mean? When the sun rises later this morning it will rise in a blazing ball of autumn heat that will raise our temperatures into the 90’s: No snow here. So, what does a moon ring mean to coyotes? Did it tell the Native Americans anything?

I go inside and fall asleep with silver moonlight pouring into my bedroom. A few hours later the howling of coyotes once again awakens me. They sound so close! I shake the cobwebs from my brain and throw the covers off. In the pale light streaming through the door I find my sandals and run outside. I so want to see the wild dogs of the night. I cross the yard to the block wall and peer beyond it in the direction of the sound, but all I see is an empty wash and the model home beyond the far wall. I cross the yard to the north side where the wall is lower and I have a better view, but still nothing. The coyotes have quit singing, though the neighborhood dogs haven’t quite settled down yet, their anxious barks still piercing the night.

I ran out the door so fast that I had no idea what time it was. I came out because the coyotes called me, but now the pure beauty of the night holds me spellbound. The Big Dipper is upended in the northern sky. The Little Dipper is not visible, save for the North Star in its constant place. Above the eastern horizon a planet glows brightly at me. I do not know enough astronomy to tell you which one it is, but it shines so big and bright I can almost imagine another world on its surface.

I am hot from being under the covers in bed, but now I press my body against the cool block wall as I scan the neighborhood still hoping the coyotes will caper into view. A cool eastern breeze ruffles my hair as my nightgown flutters against my legs. I rest my chin on the block wall after first scanning it for bird droppings. When you feed the birds, you have to watch out for things like that, but the feeders are located near the back wall—apparently I am safe!

How still and cool the early morning is! The shrill chirping of the monsoon crickets is all but gone, replaced by a soft and gentle autumn song. By now the moon has moved farther into the west but I am amazed at how high in the sky it still is. While I am wondering if it will still be visible at dawn I hear my clock chime five times through the open windows. The sun will rise in about an hour. Will it say "Good morning" to the moon?

A little over an hour later I have my answer as the eastern sky turns a light mango behind the lilac mountains. Now the wispy clouds that appeared white in the night are smoky gray. Far above the western horizon the moon awaits the coming of the sun. A few minutes more and the sky changes to a baby blue; gray clouds blush pink and lavender. Still the moon shines brightly. Will moonbeams touch sunbeams when the sun breaches the horizon? I have my answer now. They will greet each other with reflected light before the perigean moon sets in the western desert.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Vermilion Flycatcher Love

A week ago I had the opportunity to take bird survey training with Tucson Audubon. I learned how to do point count surveys, transect surveys and a census. With this training I hope to put my passion to use in surveying Important Bird Areas or IBA's here in Southern Arizona. I heard about this training the day before it happened from a gal I just met named Kate. She is an avid birder also and told me about the training. I met her on Thursday and the training was on Friday and Saturday. I rearranged my schedule and made it happen.

We spent Friday morning in classroom work learning about the IBA program and how to take the surveys. On Saturday we did field work and I discovered new birding areas that I didn't even know existed. In walking the survey areas we did practice surveys and I was able to add 5 new birds to my life list. On Saturday, October 13, I saw my first Lawrence's goldfinch, western sandpiper, blue grosbeak and Vaux's swift, but my best new bird I actually saw on Friday in Himmel Park right in Tucson.

It was after class on Friday I drove to the Audubon Nature Center at 300 University Blvd., #120 where I paid my dues to become a member of Tucson Audubon. While there I chatted with the woman who was manning the desk. Tucson Audubon's newsletter is called the Vermilion Flycatcher. I mentioned to her I had yet to see one of those birds. It was she who directed me to the park. As soon as I left the store I drove right over, parked where she said, and looked up into the trees, and there on a twig he sat, aglow in the late afternoon sun.

I sat on the grass with my binoculars and watched this tiny winged gem. His back was the color of mink which ran into a slight mask on his face, but his breast and head were aflame with red. I watched him fly out and catch a bug only to alight on his perch again. He didn't seem bothered by my presence at all, but watched me with his tiny liquid eyes. I sat and watched him for a good 15 minutes and during that time I fell in love. I was amazed by his small size and his brilliant color. How could something so tiny and brightly colored survive in this harsh world? I was thrilled to have seen him and feared for a world where he will no longer exist. I pray that world never comes into being. It is my hope that by participating in the bird surveys I can contribute to the establishment of more Important Bird Areas which could then be protected and preserved so that generations to come can see vermillion flycatchers and other birds and fall in love for themselves.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Ocotillo Rhythms

Ocotillos live according to their own rhythms. The tiny leaves emerge and drop according to the rainfall instead of as a seasonal change in light. When I first arrived here in Tucson their branches were bare and cruel looking with inch long thorns radiating up their entire length. But then the spring rains came. What once looked dead burst forth in green, the ends topped in flaming candles of orange. The cruel thorns were now hidden beneath a lush growth of leaves. Across the desert giant ocotillo bouquets dotted the landscape. Then the rhythm changed.

Like the beating of a heart or a wave upon the shore the desert dances to ocotillo rhythms. The rains dry up and the heat intensifies. Caliche mud bakes in the scorching sunlight. Saguaros shrink in diameter as the plants use up water stored in their accordion pleated trunks. The mouse-ear leaves of the ocotillo fall to the earth exposing naked branches to the sky. As gray thorns claw skies of blue the desert moves into dry summer until the seasonal shift in wind that marks the beginning of monsoon.

Monsoon storms pound down in fury on the desert. Dry soil drinks the precious liquid up until it runs in streams and raging rivers down formally dry washes. With monsoon rains saguaros bloat, insects flourish, grasses sprout and ocotillos burst into verdant dress again.

Autumn has arrived in the desert. The grasses that greened up with the monsoon have now turned to a buffy brown. While the mesquite is still green, the ocotillos have turned golden. They drop their tiny leaves like golden coins upon the ground. Once again their stems rise bare and gray against the azure sky.

What will a winter ocotillo look like?
Will it scrape the sky with barren branches once again?
Will snow fall and soften their spiky silhouettes?
Will there be winter leaves on ocotillos?
I will have to wait to see
what ocotillo rhythms mean to me.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

I am Not Snow White

In the fairy tale, "Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs" the princess finds solace in nature. In her story she runs to the forest and the birds and butterflies befriend her, the trees hide her and protect her. I don't know if everyone who loves nature has this fantasy, but it certainly lurked quietly in my heart. However, 2 weeks ago reality broke through this dream for me.

I was heading out of town for the weekend and happened to step out the back door. A small female house finch was thrashing about on the ground. I picked her up and moved her onto the rug on my patio. I thought maybe she struck the window and was a bit stunned. This often happens with birds and I figured in a few moments she would regain her composure and be on her way. As she continued to flutter on the ground a small male house finch came around the corner and hopped over to her. He showed no fear of me (as I was quite close) but hopped to the female, then put his beak next to her as if to ask; "What's wrong, can I help?" Then he hopped over towards me, looking at me with his little head cocked to the side.

I only wanted to help. So, I dipped my finger in the dog's water bowl and placed a drop on the side of the poor bird's beak. She fluttered a moment, then stilled. She was dead. Perhaps she was just too injured, I thought, so I went in search of the little male who was still hopping around my small yard. I found him in the corner near the air conditioning unit. He was hopping about with his mouth open like he was panting. It was hot and sunny in that corner, so I put my hand out and he hopped onto my palm. I thought, Oh! this little bird knows I love him and would never harm him. How special I am that he trusts me! But, oh, how I deceived myself.

I brought the little red male house finch over to the patio out of the sun. Once again I dipped my finger into the cool water bowl and placed my finger above his head. He eagerly lifted his beak and tried to swallow the droplet from my finger. He barely swallowed before he tumbled over and died instantly. I stared at the limp feathered body before me, emotion rising in my throat. What had I done? Had I caused this little bird's death?

Initially I panicked. I wondered if my water was bad, or if I had chemicals on my fingers. Then my concern caused me to seek help. I started by calling my vet. This started a 2 hour ordeal of phone calls and being passed from one agency to the next. Before it was all said and done I had talked to 2 wildlife rehabilitators, the Arizona State Veterinarian , Vector Control, the Department of Game and Fish, the University of Arizona and the Pima County Health Department. They were the ones who finally asked me to place the birds in a plastic bag and refrigerate them. On Friday morning they retrieved them for testing. I haven't heard any results yet, though I did try to call on Monday.

Perhaps I will never know what caused the little finches to die, but I am left with this question: How is it that with nature, our attempts at kindness can go so awry? How little we understand this world we live in. My ignorance hastened the death of two house finches, a small thing in the vast ocean of problems plaguing the environment. It is past ignorance that is threatening our desert now.

Here in Arizona there is a vast effort underway to eradicate buffle grass, an invasive African species that was planted here years ago as forage for cattle. Now that it has spread it threatens the Sonaran desert and the saguaros because it is a fuel for fires. Before buffle grass the saguaros were mostly safe from fire since there were expanses of barren earth between them and fire could not travel without fuel. Now the buffle grass makes a fuel path straight to them, and they have no natural adaptation to withstand a firestorm.

I have heard that the definition of ignorance is not stupidity, but the lack of knowledge. Some people would say that ignorance is bliss, but I have discovered that ignorance is trouble and often I am not the only one who has to pay for my ignorance.