Down on the Farm: Sitting on a rock
After weeks of unseasonable cold in the Southwest, the sun warmed the desert floor into the 70s again last week.
The weather became so perfect that it seemed criminal to sit inside. So, on Sunday morning, I walked down the wash near the house, found a rock the right size, sat on it and basked in the sun.
A "wash" is a ravine where water gushes only when it rains, which is rare. The rest of the time, a wash makes an ideal quiet place for walks, hidden as it is beneath thick desert vegetation, below the level of homes and streets beneath.
The number of birds in this area has doubled in the past weeks. A grouchy man across the road put out three feeders, and they have been inundated with business.
House finches come in crowds. A cardinal stops by every few minutes. Quail roam underneath to pick up fallen seed.
However, when I spent time about 70 feet from the man's feeder standing on public land but observing his birds, he stepped out of his house and glowered at me. I think it was John McCain. Or his brother. So, this time I climbed down in the wash and sat on a rock.
The first bird to stop by the saguaro which towered over me sang a song that thrilled me. For days, I had been trying to find out what unseen bird trumpeted this clear, taunting fanfare. The little black bird perched on the tip of a saguaro sang that very song.
Now it was just to find the little black bird in the bird book when I got back to the house.
Except, the bird didn't stop with the fanfare, which I did notice was a little quieter than normal. He went on to sing finch songs, woodpecker songs and mimick cactus wren buzzes. He did mechanical buzzes and squeaks.
A mockingbird? But mockingbirds are gray, not black. And this bird wasn't just black, it was oily black with rainbows, as if it had been dipped in motor oil.
Later, I would find out it is a starling.
A few minutes later, another bird landed on a dead limb and started making the original taunting trumpet fanfare, this time at a louder volume.
I was surprised to see the trumpeter was a male Gambel's quail. Quail gurgle and scold as they scurry on the desert floor in search of seeds, a sound familiar to anybody who takes walks in Arizona. But the trumpet call of the male was of an entirely different timbre.
Then, a tiny hummingbird perched three feet from my nose in the thick branches of a palo verde tree. He blended with his surroundings so well that if I took my eyes off him, I had to really work to find him again.
As I sat perfectly still in the stunning sunshine, I heard a buzz pass overhead like a bullet. Sounding like a dentist's drill, the pitch of the buzz would lower several steps on the musical scale as it went past due to the Doppler effect.
The buzz came and went every few seconds. It was so small and it moved so fast I would never be able to identify it. I almost wondered if it was an insect.
Later on, I found that when hummingbirds get it in their mind to fly in one direction, they can go up to 60 miles per hour.
When they fly that fast, which is usually in an attempt to impress mates, they angle their tail feathers to make a high-pitched hum.
The hummingbird is not called a hummingbird because of the whir of its wings. The hum that earned the bird its name is the high-pitched buzz of the tail feathers in high speed flight.
I know this because I found on the internet (the source of all knowledge) that a science student tested the various tail feathers of 18 varieties of hummingbird in a wind tunnel. One of the feathers made exactly the sound I heard while sitting on that rock.
After a fascinating fifteen minutes, my little hummingbird friend on the palo verde branch up and left. One of John McCain's neighbors saw fit to fire up his blower to move some of the leaves which have fallen since the recent frosts.
My time on the rock was over.
As I climbed out of the ravine back up to level and ambled back to the house, I realized how rewarding my minutes on the rock had been.
In addition to the fun, I may have learned more than I would have watching senators on the Sunday morning news shows.