My dear friend and author Katie Towler recently visited the ranch from New Hampshire. Her part of the world was getting hammered by a late winter snowstorm. As a birder, she was grateful for the warm weather and bird songs. One morning after breakfast, we drove up into the Chiricahua Mountains about an hour west of here, looking for birds to add to Katie’s life list.
I didn’t know a sparrow from a Cactus Wren. I also didn’t know what to expect when we pulled into Bob Rodriquez’ driveway just down the hill from Portal, Arizona at the mouth of Cave Creek. Katie mentioned she’d found Bob’s bird sanctuary on ebird.org. Bob is one of a handful of folks who welcomes birders into his yard as a public service in exchange for a small donation for birdseed. His place offered parking and a narrow walking path that opened up into a clearing where feeders hung from trees and a rock fountain provided water. The only birds I recognized were the Gambel’s Quail in the sea of small, squawking feathered creatures that fluttered about in trees and on feeders. Someone had skewered oranges on tree branches. Katie explained that orioles like them. I was just along for the ride and had managed to forget my binoculars in the truck. We sat quietly for several minutes. The birds had a calming effect that drew me closer to the present until all my obligations, worries, and the list of chores waiting for me at home dissolved. We heard distinct chatter coming from the brush and turned slowly to follow the noise. To our delight, a Hooded Oriole perched on a branch above an orange. “That’s it,” Katie whispered.
It was a gorgeous day. There was a light breeze and the temperature was in the seventies under the trees. Katie slowly passed me her binoculars and pulled out her camera. To my surprise, the bird, clear as the blue sky behind it, came into focus. I caught my breath. “It’s beautiful,” I said.
I had never noticed the small birds that chortle and sing as the sun rises in the pine trees outside our bedroom window. Since Katie left, I carry a pair of binoculars with me when I work in the orchard, walk the dogs, or tend to the garden. I’ve started my life list using The Sibley Field Guide of Western North America and a small notebook. I like the physical feel of a book in my hands and the weight of a pen between my fingers. I like being outside with a purpose other than work. I like surprises. These intriguing birds force me to slow down and take stock of my environment and my place in it. I ponder the symbiotic relationship. The birds go about eating insects and spreading pollen while the ranch provides shelter, food, and water.
Last night, before sunset, I spotted a Vermillion Flycatcher rested on the garden fence. This morning a pair of Western Kingbirds called from an apricot tree. Each day I talk to the Great Horned Owl who has not left the nest in over a month while she incubates her eggs. Her partner is more elusive, but he visits at night and in the early morning bringing her food and conversation. Katie and I listened to the hoot-hoot of the owls one night while we lay awake in our respective beds. The sound settled deep inside me, lulling me to sleep.
Katie’s article in Literary Hub, “Why do Writers Love Birding so Much?” delves into the intellectual, joyful, and spiritual world of birding. The act of seeking out birds allows some writers an escape from the creative self that tends to needle at us. It is a must-read for anyone willing to step into their yard with a pair of binoculars.
Thank you, Katie, for opening the door to this new adventure. Gifts don’t always come in packages. Sometimes they are simply shared through friendship.
Portal–Bob Rodrigues yard (Dave Jasper’s old yard), Cochise, Arizona, US
Apr 2, 2017 1:30 PM – 2:15 PM
Gambel’s Quail 8
Broad-tailed Hummingbird 1
Curve-billed Thrasher 1
Black-throated Sparrow 2
White-crowned Sparrow 25
Canyon Towhee 1
Northern Cardinal 2
Hooded Oriole 1
House Finch 10
Pine Siskin 8
*Photos courtesy of Katie Towler