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.