Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Craving for Nature

Female Costa's Hummingbird in Palo Verde Tree 9-9-08
Click on images to enlarge for best viewing

It's another one of those days when I realize I have been inside for too long and I need to get out. My body is craving sunshine and fresh air and my spirit is craving the solitude of nature. It's been awhile since I've been out into the wash so, though it's already getting late for bird watching I pack up my gear and head out the door around 9:45 a.m. It's a short walk across the street to access Sycamore Canyon Wash. Dogs bark at me from behind block walls as a rapidly warming sunshine beats down on me. The humidity is lower than is has been of late, and for this I am grateful. Ahead of me a thunderhead is dancing on the Santa Ritas which look lush and green after this summer's monsoon rains. (Look for the photo in tomorrow's Skywatch Friday post.) They say the monsoon is ending, yet storms continue to roll through the area with more expected this afternoon and later this week.

Even before I pass the neighborhood boundary I am seeing and hearing birds. A Gila woodpecker laughs from a nearby bush, then drops to the ground beneath it. In that same bush some house finches hide in the dense greenery. Then, a flock of about 20 house sparrows flies from a nearby rooftop to land in a mesquite tree in the wash. Here is the edge of human habitation and wildness.

I start south down the trail to enter the big wash with the calls of cactus wrens and curved-billed thrashers following me. I pass numerous desert hackberry bushes bursting with their tiny orange fruit, so beloved by birds. These hackberries are edible and have a slightly sweet taste, but, while they may satisfy the appetite of a bird, it would take many to fill up the stomach of a human being.

As I pass through the barbed wire opening that leads into the canyon I am greeted by wild cotton blooming all along the edges of the sandy wash. The delicate white flowers open joyfully to the sunlight, exposing their fertile centers to desert pollinators. I can hear the buzzing of bees and other insects all around punctuated by the rapid clicks of Arizona Clickers hiding in the brush. I see the delicate and erratic fluttering of butterflies in every direction as they move silently about.

On the same wild cotton bush this pink veined bud belies the white blossom it will be once its petals open to the sun.

I am already feeling the heat of the day as I turn to walk up the wash by the big cliff. I am 20 to 30 feet below the houses that perch above on this canyon rim. From here they cannot see me, nor I them, and I feel as if I am alone in the desert with this wildness. A glance about me reveals all the trees, shrubs and flowers in full leaf and bloom. For the moment this verdant landscape looks like a lush oasis, but soon the drying autumn winds will turn the grasses yellow, and then brown. Drought deciduous plats will drop their leaves and once again the desert will turn brown, gray-green and sandy. Soil moistened by rain will crack. The Sonoran Desert Toad will hide. The White-winged Doves and Turkey Vultures will migrate south. The Purple Martins have already fled their summer homes. I may have seen my last one two days ago. I will miss their flute like twittering as they fly above my house.

Clinging to the side of the cliff a clump of trailing four o'clock tumbles down in a violet cascade. I listen to the noisy chatter of a verdin and soon spot the tiny bird with its yellow head and red epaulets flitting about amongst the foliage of a nearby tree. While I am in the process of locating the verdin I discover a female Costa's hummingbird roosting beneath the canopy of a desert Palo Verde. The Palo Verde tree is covered in thousands of tiny green leaves in response to all the recent rain. It forms a thick and shady shelter for this tiny bird. I recently read in Stokes Beginner's Guide to hummingbirds that Curved-billed Thrashers and Greater Road Runners both prey on this desert species and that Costa's Hummingbirds will avoid feeding if either of these birds are present. I can hear the "Whit WHEET!" call of a thrasher farther up the canyon. I hope this little gem is safe beneath these branches. I move quietly away and leave the tiny bird undisturbed.

Across the wash from the Costa's I seek shade beneath my favorite overhanging mesquite tree. The fluttering of a plastic bag catches my eye and I glance up to see this blue "desert bloom" caught in the spines of another tree. While it almost looks pretty set against the sky, this plastic poses a real danger to wildlife and is evidence of our human impact on the land. I would like to take it down and bring it home to throw away, but there are 2 reasons I don't. One is that it is up too high for me to reach. The other is that I have learned by experience that if I want to collect garbage from off the desert plants I'd better have some thick gloves for, usually whatever is caught on the spines is also full of spines and glocids it has collected on its windy and tumbling journey to wherever it is now caught. Perhaps I will come back later to purposely remove it. For now it serves as a reminder to close our trash and recycle bins tightly. This is one "desert bloom" all of us can do without.

I feel the tension and stress leave my body as the rhythms of nature wash over me. It's as if the air, soil, sunlight and greenery permeate my being. Though I can hear the sounds of construction in the distance, here the sounds of nature are closer and sooth my frazzled soul. I catch the motion of birds in a bush and find some Black-throated Sparrows flitting about. While two are mature Black-throats I am momentarily thrown off by the presence of a juvenile with it's still developing facial markings. I hope I am seeing the much rarer five-striped sparrow, but quickly realize it is a juvenile Black-throat.

I am tricked once again when I find this juvenile Rufous-winged Sparrow deep in the heart of another desert bush. I saw the adult with it's rufous crown, and rufous wing patches with two distinct malar stripes, but this stripey young thing puzzled me until I was able to look it up at home. My two favorite field guides were of no use to me as neither Kaufman's nor Sibley's described or had an images of a juvenile Rufous-winged Sparrow. I then pulled out my National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America (which I rarely use) and from this I was able to identify this juvenile as a rufous-winged sparrow. Notice the eyeline, and the two developing malar stripes on the sides of the throat but the breast is slightly stripey and not yet clean and clear like an adult bird would have. This little bird is also still developing its rufous crown and wing patches. Larry of the Brownstone Birding Blog recently did an informative post reviewing bird guides and in particular the new Smithsonian Field Guide to Birds of North America. Like me, he notes that most bird watchers usually consult more than one field guide.

This pile of debris beneath a bush is not the result of flash floods, but rather the collections of a pack rat in the construction of its desert den. This desert creature is smarter than I am, hiding from the heat deep with in its shady interior. As sweat pours down my back I decide it's time for me to head home also.

As the gravelly soil crunches beneath my feet the Zebra-tailed Lizards hightail it away from my footsteps with tails curled over there backs. This one stops on a rock to gaze at me as if to decide whether it really needs to flee. It does a few push-ups while waiting. I would like to reassure it that I mean it no harm but I don't know how to speak lizard. So, I snap a few photos and it doesn't seem to mind until I take JUST ONE STEP closer...then Zip! Up curls the tail and this lizard is gone! I identified this lizard from the Lizards of Arizona web site by Thomas C. Brennen. Click on the link if you need help with lizard identification.

I leave the desert where I entered it and walk back home. The fairy dusters growing in the parking strips are all in bloom also and a powerful attractant for butterflies like this cloudless sulfur.

Across the street my eyes are drawn to these Texas Rangers exploding with blossoms. These plants seem to burst into bloom overnight creating vibrant purple splotches to the landscape, then just as quickly the blooms seems to fade and drop, but when they are in bloom, the effect is spectacular. A little research reveals that they blossom in response to heat and humidity and are sometimes known as the barometers of the desert. Read about these drought hardy plants here.

My walk is done, my soul is soothed. I've quenched my nature fix for today. Who knows how long it will last. I suspect I will need to feast from nature's bountiful table again soon for my soul is soon famished without her. It is a healthy fix, however, one that shall sustain me throughout my life.

Photographer's Note: All of today's photography is by kathiesbirds with the Nikon D80 set in sports mode and the 70 to 300 mm lens with VR reduction.

Birds Seen Today

Location: Sycamore Canyon Wash
Observation date: 9/9/08
Notes: At 9:45 it was 77 degrees F.
Also saw 1 cottontail rabbit, 1 ground squirrel, some Zebra-tailed lizards and numerous butterflies. Mostly clear skies with a light breeze.

Number of species: 15

Turkey Vulture 3
Mourning Dove 7
Costa's hummingbird 1
Gila Woodpecker 3
Gilded Flicker 2
Verdin 2
Cactus Wren 4
Curve-billed Thrasher 4
Phainopepla 2
Green-tailed Towhee 1
Canyon Towhee 1
Rufous-winged Sparrow 2
Black-throated Sparrow 5
House Finch 7
House Sparrow 20 All the house sparrows were behind a house at the edge of the wash. They did not go far out into the canyon.


kjpweb said...

I'm in awe on how many songbirds you get on your walks. I'm happy to see one or two each time I'm out!
Well done!
Cheers, Klaus

Lynne at Hasty Brook said...

"I feel the tension and stress leave my body as the rhythms of nature wash over me. It's as if the air, soil, sunlight and greenery permeate my being."

Kathie, your words speak to my heart!

Another wonderful, lovely post.

Deborah Godin said...

I feel refreshed and lightened myself, just from reading your wonderful desert journal, and feasting on the photos.

Kathie Brown said...

Klaus, well, even if you only see one or two birds at a time the photos you get are fantastic!

Lynne, I thought you might be a kindred spirit. Glad to know you can relate.

Deborah, glad you enjoyed the feast!

Anonymous said...

This is a neat post. I love your photos and your walks. I saw the white flower and thought how much is looks like my "Mock Orange," flower. I don't think I have ever seen wild cotton and didn't know it existed. So I learned something today.

Shelley said...

You had a little bit of everything to make someone smile - sweet birds, beautiful flowers - all lovely!

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed your mornig walk. A beautiful post, Kathie.

Doug Taron said...

I was just thinking the other day that I miss the desert. Thanks for sharing your walk. It made me feel as though I was right back there.

Nice cloudless sulphur photo!

Texas Travelers said...

I learned something new today, I only knew the Calliandra eriophylla as False Mesquite. Fairy Duster, that's a nice name.

Great post and a terrific write-up as well as wonderful photos. I do believe your photography is getting even better, if that's possible.

Great job.

Troy and Martha

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that Kathie,
I tried to imagine being there with you, but not knowing the various species it was difficult. It was a nice account to read anyway.

Yes you do need to refer to more than one bird book as the photos/drawings/descriptions etc vary so much sometimes.

Kathie Brown said...

Abe, I didn't know about wild cotton until I took a walk in the wash with some of my new birding friends. They educated me about it so now I know what I am looking at!

Shellmo, Hello! Thanks for stopping by.

gardenpath, thank you! and you are welcome too!

Doug, Thank you so much for confirming that for me. I tried really hard. I couldn't believe how many kinds of "sulfurs" there were and all with such subtle differences! Perhaps someday I will get to Chicago and you can return the favor by showing me your beloved fen! It looks so lovely in the photos.

Troy, thanks for the encouragement and the compliment. It is truly appreciated. I am trying.

Roy, thanks for visiting. The Sonoran Desert is a world away from East Anglia. Heck, it's a world away from most of the rest of the USA. I have had to learn all new speicies since moving here as well as a new rhythm of life. For me, part of the fun of blogging is sharing this new experience and reading about different places on other blogs. It only makes me want to see more of the world than ever before, but I still want someplace to call home. I love it here but it is quite an adjustment because it is unlike any place I have ever lived before.

bobbie said...


2sweetnsaxy said...

What a great post. It was such a pleasure taking this little walk with you and seeing what you saw.

Bonnie Story said...

Beautiful pictures and wonderful narrative, as always!! I love your blog and your observations. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your wonderful world!! Bonnie

Larry said...

It was wonderful reading this post. I have not had a real outdoor experience for some time now. I've been studying shorebirds and watching hawks but that all takes place in one location.-I miss really filling my soul with nature and exhaling the garbage that accumulates from everyday living in this world of ours.
Great post! -Also thanks for the mention.