Thursday, June 19, 2008

An Early Walk and a Mystery Bird

Long shadows lay across the desert on Saturday morning, June 14, when Gus and I entered the big wash across the street. We got up early to beat the heat and were out the door by 6:30 a.m. Gus carries the camera and I have my binoculars harnessed to my chest. We both have hats and bottles of water hooked to our belt loops. While there air is still cool in the shadows, one only has to step into the sun to feel the coming heat of the day.

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.

The Santa Rita Mountains look so lovely in this morning light. They have a bluish cast as the sunlight plays along the gentle slopes casting purple shadows. Nestled along the canyon rim the saguaro sentinels reach for the sky with purple martins circling like satellites around their desert homes.

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.

Most of the vegetation is up on the canyon rim now, or growing along the edges of the wash. Huge roots lie exposed in the steep bank in their search for water.

Their twisted shapes look muscular and thick as they grab onto the eroding soil of the red caliche walls. The wash curves left, then right, then flattens out again before it reaches the newly constructed bridge that will bring people and cars to the new neighborhood on the west side of the wash. At this point they are only putting in roads, but someday the pounding of hammers will be heard as more human homes invade the desert. For now, the birds and wildlife are the only residents here.

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.

He walks out into the center with his questioning “whoop? whoop?” When he is halfway across we spot the female at the edge of the bank.

She looks out, gauges the danger, and decides to head back into cover. The male turns around and crosses the wide expanse of gravel, then disappears into the brush with her. I guess we know who’s in charge in that family!

So far I have been able to keep to the shadows of the eastern bank where it is cooler. Now the cliffs have flattened into low banks and Gus and I pass through the large cement openings of the new bridge. It is the gateway to a different world.

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.

I have never been north of the bridge before. This is all new territory for me. Gone are the step banks and cliff edges we have just walked past. Now it feels more like an alluvial fan as the gravel spreads out into various channels before us. There is more vegetation here and suddenly we hear the whirr of cicadas in the brush around us. One insect starts to whine on the left, then another picks up the chorus on the right. The insects sing us down the dry gravel bed while the sun beats down and cooks us. I am vigilant in my lookout for snakes, but all we are seeing are lizards. I glance back towards the mountains and see the bridge we have just walked under set against the beautiful Santa Ritas.

I don’t find this flat place quite so interesting. We aren’t seeing many birds anymore. The heat is making us tired and we are both hungry since we haven’t eaten breakfast. So, we decide to head for the big saguaro to our right which we know is at the edge of Sycamore Canyon Park. As we walk cautiously through cholla and prickly pear we see birds all over this old man cactus.

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.

They are a plain gray with no wing bars or eye rings, but they have this distinctive yellow base to their lower mandible. Gus snaps off a few photos for me in hopes that I will be able to identify the bird at home.

Just as we are about to leave the park area and head home I spot a kestrel atop a distant saguaro. Gus walks back to get a photo as purple martins dive bomb the bird. Irritated, the kestrel flies off with a lizard in its talons in search of a more peaceful place to consume its breakfast. Speaking of breakfast, it’s 8:15 now and our stomachs have been growling for at least an hour. We stride home in the heat and cook up a feast to consume in our air conditioned home.

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!

(Note: All of today's photography is by Gus except for the 2nd photo of the juvenile Verdin which was taken by Kathie on June 18th.)

I counted 22 species of birds in the canyon today:

  1. Kestrel (1)
  2. Turkey vulture (3)
  3. White-winged dove (4)
  4. Mourning Dove (4)
  5. Gambel's Quail (6)
  6. Gila woodpecker (5)
  7. Gilded Flicker (4)
  8. Ash-throated Flycatcher (2)
  9. Canyon towhee (1)
  10. Lesser nighthawk (2)
  11. Purple martin (19)
  12. Barn Swallow (1)
  13. Cactus wren (4)
  14. Curve-billed Thrasher (7)
  15. Verdin (6)
  16. Black-tailed Gnatcatcher (3)
  17. Pyrrhuloxia (1)
  18. Rufous-winged Sparrow (6)
  19. Great-tailed grackle (2)
  20. House Finch (7)
  21. Common raven (1)
  22. Hummingbird species, female (1)


kjpweb said...

Wonderful sights all around and excellent images as well!
These Cacti are something else (at least your not stepping in or on them like you do with our prickly Pears!)
Cheers, Klaus

Kathie Brown said...

Weel, Klaus, we do have prickly pears here but I try to avoid touching them at all costs. I do like to make jelly from prickly pear fruit. And it's almost time to do it again! Yum!

Lynne at Hasty Brook said...

My first thought is a Verdin.

Kathie Brown said...

lynne, well done! I would have asked you if I thought you'd know the answer! How'd you guess? I know Verdin don't live in Minnesota.

Anonymous said...


In anyone's book that is a good list of birds all in one walk.

Its a real problem some times with some species especially if they are a juvenile.

Well done

Bonnie Story said...

Fantastic blogging. Your nature reporting is excellent, good pics too. Best of luck with your struggle to preserve what is absolutely irreplaceable there. When will we learn? They should definitely be thinking "infill" in AZ now for housing. Revamp some shabby city areas and focus on that, leave the wildlands alone! Are people pursuing Urban Growth Boundaries there? Bonnie

Kathie Brown said...

Bonnie, thank you for your thoughful and sincere comments. I do believe they have a master plan for developemnt, especially with our limited water resources. I am still new to AZ so I don't know if they have Urban Growth Boundries. It sound slike a good idea.

Amy said...

I just despise the sight of green grass growing in the desert like that! Grrrr! Let's hope and pray that people wake up before it's too late for the American deserts.