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The Big Yard: Notes from a Pajama Birdwatcher
May 3, 2023
She’s back again as I abandon the back porch and sit down at my desk to write. Perched on an oak branch outside my window with three black-headed grosbeaks and a tanager as bright as flame. A large, pale—almost pink—bill and chocolate streaks on her dingy breast. Yesterday, I had to run for the camera, flushing her into the trees. But she obliged me by returning for photos. Uncommon anywhere in Arizona, rose-breasted grosbeaks have visited the yard only a dozen times in 14 years.
Rose-breasted grosbeaks favor open woods, pastures, hedgerows, parks, and gardens across the eastern US and Canada where they breed after migrating from wintering grounds in Central America and northern South America. Many fly across the Gulf of Mexico in a single night. West of the Rockies they are rare. In Arizona, we usually see them in May, if we see them at all. Rick Taylor notes in Birds of Arizona that they seldom remain at one location for over two weeks.
Sometimes a rare bird is also a displaced bird.
My neighbor, Lucifer’s Mistress, just launched the Firewise phone tree for the second time in a week, only today’s call isn’t a test. The wind is gusting and the sky is ocher—the color of Armageddon. A fire is burning near the San Pedro House, a birdwatching hotspot at the river 13 miles away.
When I mention the grosbeak, she says I should expect more birds. “They’ll be displaced by the fire.”
I recall the horrendous Monument Fire in the summer of 2011. The 29,000 charred acres. The evacuations. The people of Hereford losing their homes. For days our eyes burned as ash fell over the canyon. Whole oak leaves, blackened, corkscrewed out of the sky. I remember the stories of hotshots holding the firebreaks, only to have them breached as flaming cottontail rabbits raced through the lines and spread new fires.
For weeks afterward, I listed new birds for the yard. Warblers and tanagers and flycatchers nearly unrecognizable in their sooty plumages. And two birds I’d never seen here before, or since: A sulphur-bellied flycatcher sounding like a squeaky toy and an amazing yellow grosbeak calling with a single-note whistle Woee, woee from a juniper.
This afternoon, few birds sing in this hellish wind. All I hear are the slurry bombers flying down the canyon.
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