Tucson: Desert Birds

We found a comfy hideaway on the eastern side of Tucson, renting the next to smallest of six casitas (Spanish for little houses), called “Rain Dancer.” Second morning as I read to Fran from a new story-in-progress, the ceiling started to drip on his side of the bed–Rain Dancer, living up to its name, but it was a danse macabre in my story. My character, a young woman who was scheduled to waitress at a restaurant in the World Trade Center, had called in sick. The 9/11 attacks occurred. Now she was tormented with guilt at the death of her stand-in. Drip, drip, drip went the gentle rain on my husband’s side of the bed.

“This is the greenest desert in the world,” a ranger told us. Huge saguaro cacti poked up throughout an uneven terrain of barrel cactus, organ pipe cactus, prickly pear cactus, mesquite trees–some gnarled like ancient bodies gripped by pain. Mesquite protects the small saguaro from heat and predators until they can rise into 200-year grandeur. I was awed. A twelve or twenty-foot saguaro has roots extending the same number of feet in all directions. Even below ground they dominate this desert.

Eventually we had to move out of Rain Center to the larger casita next door. It was decorated with deep indigo-blue tiles around a rounded Mexican fireplace. Deep blue indigo suggests water in the tan and gray-green of the desert, water so rich as to be jeweled, humming with shadowy eminence. In my story set on the North Shore of Lake Superior, water plays a savage role. An ore boat cracks apart in mammoth waves and wind. A sailor from Uzbekistan is rescued and brought into the life of the guilt-ridden young woman.

In our week in the desert, half the days were overcast, but rain fell heavily only once, scaring us out of the Rain Dancer casita. Days later, down a slow incline we reached a “wash.” Parts were still wet. A starry plant close to the ground sparkled with drops of dew or left-over rain. Under the dry surface, the sandy soil was still wet. Cottonwoods bent down to get their arms in the dirt. Tall western ash trees turned golden and did not bend at all. It was quiet except for the birds.

Was it the spiny resistance of the vegetation, making one feel alien, that fixed my eyes on the sky? There on wires in the back yard sang a burbling, warbling, scolding, twittering big gray bird with a curved-downward beak. It sounded like a mocking bird. Suddenly I was home in the lush green of a South Carolina Christmas. My father would soon get out his violin and we’d play duets, he counting Italian solfeggio to keep me in tow. The curved-bill thrasher would keep us company.

Walking one evening up the road, I spied a brilliant red bird high in a mesquite bush. Suddenly it swooped into the air, displaying black wings, and returned to its perch. A Vermillion flycatcher. I was mesmerized. It kept spiraling away and returning against the slowly receding light.

From morning to noon, hummers chased each other away from the feeder near the covered patio. One hummer took its time. It was bright green with a touch of black on its cheek. Its beak would tilt down to suck, lift out while the bird looked around before tilting down again into the tiny hole of sugar water. Calm, almost nonchalant before another whose black head ruffled open into brilliant red, chased it away with a huge buzz. It was a bit like slapstick, except to the humming birds, territory was everything.

There were no flocks of birds, but four Harris hawks–huge brown-black birds with white across their tails–flew through the brush, posting themselves on electric poles or atop the low trees. Almost too big for the diminutive scale of the desert, these hawks, we learned, work as a family team, scouting and harrying their prey. Our arrival sent them packing to quieter territory and leaving the sky to us and the jewels and capers of the desert.

Maybe the one who made me laugh the most was the rather ungainly Gila woodpecker, with its black and white striped coat and tail. This bird would crouch on the tiny hummer feeder, almost embracing it, as it awkwardly tried to fit its thick beak into the sipping holes. We laughed and felt rather ungainly ourselves in the spare, muted quiet of the almost-winter desert.

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