Richard Shelton on Birdwatching

The river has a single, fairly broad channel here, about twenty-five feet across and almost knee-deep. The cool water on my hot feet is exhilarating. As I wade in, I can see that there is more water than there was when I was here in the spring. Then, it was only slightly more than ankle-deep. I wade upstream under the bridge and around a bend. I haven't managed to fall down yet, so I pick a spot with a soft, sandy bottom, lower my tail to the surface, and fall backward with a great satisfying splash. The shock of cold water takes my breath, but in seconds I'm comfortable, sitting in the San Pedro River and listening to the birds.

I never seem to have my field glasses with me when I need them, which pretty well proves that I'm no bird watcher. Bird watchers have a tendency to be too single-minded for me. Sometimes I think that that in their anxiety to add one more bird to their life list, they miss everything else. They stalk birds with a quiet frenzy which bothers me a little. And if I were a dedicated bird watcher, I would probably go crazy along the upper San Pedro River where 315 species of birds have been identified. As it is, I can just enjoy myself, sitting in the middle of the river and not worrying about keeping my field glasses dry.

I think I can hear about 300 of those species from where I am. Many of them are old friends. I know from the Tucson Mountains - the cardinal and its pale Mexican cousin, the pyrrhouloxia, the curved-bill thrasher with its wicked red eye, the lovely Gambel's quail. I can hear at least two kinds of doves with their soft, drowsy murmurs which are exactly the right accompaniment for late afternoon relaxation. One is the white-winged dove and the other I'm not sure about, probably an Inca dove.

Somewhere behind me a cactus wren is quarreling with the world. There are canyon wrens here, too, but I think they are more common over in the canyons of the Huachuca Mountains on the west side of the valley. I'm always startled by the differences in personality between those two closely related wrens. Although the canyon wren is a little smaller, they are similar in shape, but that's where the similarity ends. The canyon wren is shy and coquettish with one of the sweetest, most seductive voices found in the Southwest. I usually see canyon wrens along streams in the mountains, and their voices remind me of the gurgle of water over stones, as if they had learned to imitate that sound but with a broader range. It's delicious, like the sound of a cello coming from a distant cave. On the other hand, the cactus wren is incorrigble, brash, tendentious, assertive, and has one of the ugliest voices in the bird kingdom. It's more of a harsh squawk than a song, and once it gets started, there is no stopping it. It reminds me of the yapping of a small, ferocious dog.

Suddenly something very black, shiny, and streamlined, like an obsidian arrowhead, flits above me across the river, giving off flashes of white each time it spreads its wings. I'm lucky today. It's a male phainopepla, the silky flycatcher. Phainopeplas are actually tropical birds who usually subsist on mistletoe berries but catch bugs on the wing when berries are not available. I can see two huge clumps of mistletoe in a nearby paloverde, so there are probably plenty of phainopeplas in the area. They are one of the most elegant birds I have ever seen - slim, with long, graceful tails and a crest. They are small, only about seven inches long, but they have an upright posture which gives them great dignity when perched. They seem to hold their heads higher than most other birds, and they dress with such good taste and so formally. The female wears a soft gray, but the male wears a solid black with a sheen like silk. When he flies, he shows white wing patches, his only decoration.

Phainopeplas are much too well bred to be intrusive, and usually stay out of sight, especially the females, but I have the good fortune to see one of the males on a fairly regular basis in the Tucson Mountains. He and his mate have a nest in a thicket near where I walk the dogs, and if we walk early in the morning, he almost always puts in an appearance, and sometimes he sings. Because phainopeplas sing so seldom, many bird books ignore their song and record only their call, which is nondescript. I don't know about the female, but the male certainly can sing if he wants to. It's a short song, but magnificant, an arpeggio of descending notes like drops of crystal. It's startling to hear such a song in the desert, where birds generally have more strident voices. It's worth getting up early for. But I have learned to listen closely the first time, because he would never do anything so vulgar as give an encore. I listen now, hoping this one will sing, but he doesn't. Wrong time of day, I suppose. At least the cactus wren has stopped its vitriolic yapping.

There are scores of water birds and shore birds along the San Pedro, exotic to me because I live in the desert whose river is dry most of the time. Last spring I saw a great blue heron just a few miles upriver, and once a snowy egret. I wouldn't know a semipalmated sandpiper from a palmated one, but the sandpipers are here, along with the kingfishers, terns, gulls, ducks, geese, and snipe.

I always wonder about the people who named birds. Did they have a perverse and subtle sense of humor, or did they not have any sense of humor at all? I suspect that they didn't have any sense of humor at all, and those people are often the funniest. In their attempts to be precise, they have created the preposterous, and have stretched the language well beyond limits of the creative. The names are often misleading. Like the flammulated owl. Poor thing, how did it get that way? It's only an owl with reddish markings on the face, but it sounds as if it were on fire. How bitter is the least bittern? Surely the white-faced ibis is an Egyptian statue and the Virginia rail is some kind of fence. The northen shoveler must be a snowplow and the whimbrel is, I think, an eighteenth-century vehicle pulled by a horse. Isn't the water pipet the little gadget inside the faucet on the sink? I know the Nashville warbler is Hank Williams, but I'm not sure who the yellow-rumped warbler is. And they all live along the San Pedro River, pretending they are birds.

For some people, this kind of linguistic madness is infectious. I can't resist it. It leads me to the old Engleman dingleberry game, but the game is more fun with the names of birds, since the names of birds are intrinsically more insane and suggestive than the names of plants. When I am walking through the desert with a curious visitor from some other part of the country, especially a visitor who knows even less about birds than I do, I am overcome by the temptation to play the Engleman dingleberry game and see how long I can get away with it. It requires a poker face and a tone of complete assurance. And it's an incremental game. Each name must be slightly more preposterous than the last.

Usually the first bird that we see, or more often hear, is a cactus wren. When the visitor asks what it is, I say it's a hepatic virago. If I can get away with that, the sky's the limit. The next bird I am asked about, I identify as a semi-precious plover. Then I watch the visitor's face carefully to see how I'm doing. I can see some indecision, a dialogue going on inside the visitor's head.

"Is he pulling my leg? What if he isn't? I mustn't expose my ignorance. But if he's pulling my leg . . . no, I guess he isn't. He lives here, and I guess he would know. But it sounds a little strange. Lots of birds have strange names, though."

Then the clever visitor usually asks a probing question, but a question which would be appropriate whether I am kidding or not, a question which covers both possibilities. Like, "Just how precious is a semi-precious plover?"

I reply in an offhand way, but with complete seriousness. "Oh, they're fairly common here, but this is the northern limit of their range. They're very rare north of Phoenix."

The visitor looks satisfied. Score 2 for the offensive team, which is me. Then I usually throw in a real name or two as sucker's bait, maybe a white-winged dove or a white-rumped shrike. Sooner or later we see a curve-billed thrasher, very common in the Sonoran Desert. When asked, I identify it as a red-eyed vertigo. And anybody can see that it has orange-red, wild looking eyes. So far so good. Move up to the next level. If we see a hawk, buzzard, or raven - anything soaring, large, or formidable looking - I say it is a greater American regret. The game is usually over right there. But if it isn't, I'm prepared to go on to the rosy-breasted pushover and the extra-marital lark. I've never gotton anyone to accept wither of these, but who knows? Maybe someday. And I'm getting better at it with practice, learning the exact tone of casual authority with which to present my contributions to the art of naming birds. I don't think serious birdwatchers would approve of it, but the game has given me hours of pleasure. Not so much pleasure, though, as sitting in the San Pedro River on a hot afternoon, listening to the birds and letting fatigue soak out of my body.

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From Going Back to Bisbee by Richard Shelton © 1992 University of Arizona Press. (Hardcover)

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