One of the complaints about birding in summer in many parts of the country is the plethora of leaves hiding the birds. Just when you think you’re about to get a good look, the sparrow dives into a bush or behind a leafy branch, never to be seen again.
I figured that meant desert birding would be easy. Cacti don’t have leaves.
Almost nothing in the desert does. Piece of cake, right?
Yup, birding in the desert is a piece of cake just like a prickly pear is a cuddly snuggle-pillow. It is simply amazing how many hiding places there are in a cholla. In fact, one of the highlights of my recent birding adventure in Saguaro National Park was discovering an entire family of Curve-billed Thrashers in a small cholla tangle.
We’d heard the sound of fledgling birds begging, eventually catching the adult returning with food. Only then, at very close range, did we discover at least three birds within the branches of the cactus waiting for a meal.
Birds do an exemplary job of hiding in the desert. Most desert organisms take a decidedly more in-your-face approach to life. This is partly because nearly everything in the desert is venomous, poisonous, lethally sharp, or all of the above. Birds, however, are one of the most benign creatures in the whole angry ecosystem. Thus, they stay hidden.
Dawn is the time to bird in the Saguaro forests. Everyone wants to sing at first light, and this is the one time of day they may show themselves off.
Cactus Wrens love to sing from the very tip of the tallest cacti. Cactus Wrens are built like wrens, but with the size of a thrush or a thrasher. Their morning song isn’t very melodic, being more akin to the sound of a decrepit motorcycle trying to turn over. You don’t have to be beautiful in the desert, just effective.
House Finches are singing and readily visible everywhere. Gila Woodpeckers are likewise not very shy about their whereabouts in the early morning. The Gilas are among the most important animals in the Saguaro forest, being the excavators of a majority of the cavities found in the giant cacti. Those cavities are then used by a host of other birds like Lucy’s Warbler, Purple Martins, various owls, and even the American Kestrel. The list of species reliant on woodpecker cavities reads like a who’s-who of desert birds.
The Purple Martins are particularly entertaining. Where I come from, martins live in martin houses, the multi-unit birdhouses seen commonly in parks and urban areas. The reestablishment of Purple Martins in the east is so tied to those houses, I had trouble getting my head around the sight of swarms of martins coming in and out of holes in gigantic cacti in the middle of the desert.
We began our tour of the East (Rincon Mountain) Unit of Saguaro as close to dawn as possible. The drive opens at 7 a.m., and the ranger at the booth sent us in at 6:55 a.m. Still, it wasn’t long before most of the singing had stopped and bird activity slowed down to a trickle. It was 80 degrees at sunrise and would be close to 100 by noon. In heat like that, birds don’t expend much energy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find them.
Unfortunately, it does mean that you have to expend some energy in the desert heat. Parking the car and going for a walk turned out to be the most productive way to bird after 8 o’clock in the morning. Until that time, we’d been stopping at pull-outs and birding from that spot.
Once on foot in the desert, you realize there’s more life around than you thought. I noticed at one point that I was standing on or near an anthill. I wasn’t the only one. Not three feet away from my feet was a perfectly camouflaged Regal Horned Lizard, hanging out and picking off every tenth ant in line as they marched past.
I could have watched that all day, but a chipping sound in a palo verde tree nearby distracted me. It sounded like the Northern Cardinal we all know so well, but I had a feeling this was different.
Northern Cardinals can be found in the desert, but this bird was the “desert cardinal’, the Pyrrhuloxia. This is one of those birds that looks ridiculous in a field guide, and then you see it person and realize it actually does look that odd. A friend of mine says “pyrrhuloxia” is Greek for “a cardinal stole my red feathers and punched me in the beak.”
That’s precisely how’d I’d describe the bird, although I think the Greek roots actually mean “red” and “oblique.”
As the heat of the day continued to build, only a few birds were willing to show themselves. The house finches still gathered here and there. A Greater Roadrunner sauntered past, mouth agape, not looking like it had any intention of running on any roads today.
At one point we heard the morning wailing of two or three coyotes not too far away. That, along with the roadrunner and the cacti, made me feel like I should expect to see a package from the Acme Dynamite Company lying around somewhere.
The most iconic of desert birds doesn’t seem to mind the heat much. The Gambel’s Quail keep singing out their “Chi-ca-go!” song and scuttling around through cactus fields even as the sun begins to bake everything in sight. With its stout, wobbly shape and black upright tassel, the Gambel’s Quail looks cartoonish to start with, but one of them went above and beyond to provide some much-needed comic relief just when the heat was about to make the birding more miserable than fun.
I had approached a patch of prickly pear at the base of two huge saguaro, having seen a quail retreat to the shade there. I didn’t want to flush the poor thing, but apparently I got a bit too close, because he erupted out the back side of the prickly pears in a bulldog run, head forward, feet pumping furiously.
I had also inadvertently flushed a large Antelope Jackrabbit from the opposite side of the cactus thicket who was now bolting into the clearing on a perfect collision course with the quail. I’m not sure what capacity for fear quail have, but I swear that bird saw his life flash before his eyes. At the last second, he slammed on the brakes, lowered his head, and skidded to a halt. The jackrabbit didn’t slow at all, but executed a brilliant swerving maneuver by pushing to the right and high into air with one of its massive hind legs.
A very literal cloud of dust appeared, and when it cleared the rabbit was gone and the quail was casually walking away as if nothing had happened. Maybe I was in a cartoon world after all. It was over 100 degrees by that point, so I just held up a sign that said “That’s all, folks!” and went back to the car.