Mountain Thunder

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Coronado National Memorial

They say that the name “Huachuca” means “thunder mountain,” and this most beautiful of the border ranges lives up to its name and then some this time of year.

The monsoon rains come almost every afternoon, brief and powerful, flooding the washes and pushing soil and rocks onto roads.

The storms announce themselves from a distance with some of the most awesome thunder I’ve ever heard.

desert in Monsoon

It begins as a rolling rumble from afar, then cracks and snaps before descending into the canyons, where it echoes from the high steep cliffs, bouncing back and forth between the walls until the thunder doesn’t so much sound as feel, less a sonic phenomenon than a solid mass that tumbles down the canyon to submerse anyone fortunate enough to be abroad in it.

Coronado National Memorial

It’s exhilarating and frightening all at once.

As the sublime should be.

Coronado National Memorial

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Lectures and Field Trips in August

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Tucson Rudasill front yard

August is the classic time to visit southeast Arizona. The monsoons have cooled the air and greened the desert, and all the late summer breeders are singing, the “Mexican” specialties are fledging young, and northern migrants are passing through in large numbers. As if that weren’t enough, August is high season for vagrants from the Pacific and from Middle America. Who knows what this year will turn up?

There are plenty of opportunities to help me explore my favorite landscapes on earth. Why not come along?

Thursday, August 4, 6:00 am

Fort Huachuca Birds and History, with Tom Wood

Elegant Trogon Huachuca May 2007 013

Friday, August 5, 3:00 pm

Book signing, Cochise College

5:00 pm

Sparrow Tales: Discovering Brown Birds

rufous-winged sparrow

Saturday, August 6, 6:00 am

A Day with Rick Wright


Sunday, August 7, 6:00 pm

Boyce-Thompson Bird Sit with Rick Wright

Boyce Thompson landscape

Monday, August 8, 6:30 am

Boyce-Thompson Bird Walk with Rick Wright

January 9, 2007, Boyce Thompson 023

Thursday, August 11, 10:30 am

Museum Birding: From the Specimen Drawer to the Field

trop cass west thick billed left to right West Mexican Birds, museum skins 038

Thursday, August 11, 5:00 pm

Book Signing: ABA Field Guide to Birds of Arizona

Rick signing books at Cape May

Friday, August 12, 5:00 am

California Gulch, with Jake Mohlmann

California Gulch

Saturday, August 13, 10:30 am

Museum Birding: From the Specimen Drawer to the Field

white striped and ivory billed woodcreepers West Mexican Birds, museum skins 030

Monday, August 15, 6:30 pm

The Most Beautiful of the Whole Beautiful Lot: Birding Southeast Arizona

Lowland Painted Redstart Sabino / Bear Canyon IBA April 16 2007 015

Tuesday, August 16, 5:00 am

The East Chiricahuas

Pinery Canyon

Wednesday, August 17, 5:00 am

The East Chiricahuas

Portal, Arizona, landscape

Thursday, August 18, 5:00 am

The East Chiricahuas

Portal, Arizona, August

Friday, August 19, 5:00 am

The East Chiricahuas

Yellow-eyed Junco

Saturday, August 20, 5:00 am

The East Chiricahuas

gray hawk

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Alexander Wilson’s Crowded Page

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Alexander wilson VOlume 2 Plate 16

It’s one of the great commonplaces in the age-old Wilson vs. Audubon debate: Wilson’s birds are more “accurate,” but the aesthetic value of his plates is sadly diminished by the pell-mell crowding of so many species onto a single leaf.

Neither of those statements is invariably true, and the second one — the assertion of Wilson’s inability to compose a pleasing plate for the American Ornithology — is unfair. Wilson and his engraver and publisher were subject to different economic constraints from those in which Audubon worked more than a decade later. And unlike the late plates in Audubon’s Birds of America, some of Wilson’s bustling pages were put together with an idea behind them.

How do we know? Because Wilson says so.

Take Plate 16, which seems to throw together five not especially closely related passerellid sparrows and a joltingly dominant female American kestrel. It all seems uncomfortably miscellaneous until we read Wilson’s words on the composition: wintertime juncos, he writes,

have also recourse, at this severe season, when the face of the earth is shut up from them, to the seeds of many kinds of weeds that still rise above the snow, in corners of fields, and low sheltered situations along the borders of creeks and fences, where they associate with several species of Sparrows, particularly those represented on the same plate…. In the vicinity of places where they were most numerous I observed the small Hawk, represented in the same plate, and several others of his tribe, watching their opportunity, or hovering cautiously around, making an occasional sweep among them, and retiring to the bare branches of an old cypress to feed on their victim.

The assemblage, in other words, is an ecological one, and the birds on the plate were brought together to illustrate not just their identifying characters but their relationships one to the other on the bitter cold farmfields and roadsides of winter.

Had Audubon thought to paint those same relationships, I don’t doubt that the scene would have been far more dramatic and far more colorful, with blood and feathers flying. Myself, I have to say that I prefer Wilson’s subtlety, his restraint, and his powerful ability to articulate words and images in the American Ornithology.


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Junco Madame X

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Eighty-five years ago today, on July 22, 1931, Alden H. Miller witnessed a series of events seen by few ornithologists before or since.

Collecting in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains, Miller shot one of a pair of juncos attending young, Miller found that it was a male hybrid, with the back and flank patterns of the pink-sided junco but a paler, intermediate head. The female, a visually “pure” pink-sided junco, was spared.

Five hours after her mate had been collected, a new male had arrived, courting her with song and tail flitting. Miller shot this second male, a bird with pink flanks, intermediate head color, and a mixed back color.

An hour later, a third male had attached itself to the now twice-widowed female; the newcomer was quickly dispatched and found to be more or less a pink-sided junco, but with intermediate head color.

By noon, yet another male had given his life for science, victim to his interest in the bereaved female; this bird had the back of a pink-sided, the flanks of a gray-headed, and the head color of an intermediate junco. Miller wrote:

I am doubtful that these males were all unattached previous to their interest in female X…. There was no doubt of the attraction of the female for all of them, however…. No intolerance was evidenced by the female. Some of the males gathered food for the young. This indicates disregard on the part of the junco for differences in colors of sides and backs.

Any wonder juncos are so confusing?

Screenshot 2016-07-22 11.29.12

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Now that the tree swallows are done with them, it seems like every birdhouse at Mill Creek has been turned to a new purpose: as a song perch for noisy, feisty, fecund little spartina-dwellers.

marsh wren

Yes, that’s a wren. Yes, that’s a house. But that doesn’t make it a wren house — or a house wren, either.

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