Vermilion Flycatcher male feeding nestlings
Vermilion Flycatcher male feeding nestlings

The nest is fifteen yards out and about fifteen feet up in the crotch of two branches in a mesquite, classic Vermilion Flycatcher, a shallow cup of twigs, grasses, and plant down, two nestlings in residence.  This is the third Verm Fly nest I've found already this season, and it's only the first week of April.  And the first nest was way back on February 28.  Maybe it's the wetter-than-recently-normal winter, maybe I'm slowing down and becoming more observant in my old age.

Thirty yards behind me in the bosque, across the old dirt access road down to the river, is a stunted, twisted mesquite with two woodpecker holes in a north facing branch.  The holes are small, probably Ladder-backed work and, interestingly, face downward toward the ground at about sixty degrees.  A pair of Lucy's Warblers are bringing tiny green insects to their young in the lower hole, but they are much more inconspicuous than the flycatchers, due in three equal parts to their drab raiment, the location of their entryway, and their circumspection in using it.

A male Bullock’s Oriole is proclaiming his territory from one mesquite top to the next all around me, but I’ve seen no rival nor any females, so he may be a recent arrival staking out his claim in anticipation.  It took me a moment to place the song since this is the first of season Bullock’s for me, but the oriole chatter finally cues me, and then I see the orange flash overhead through the mosaic of mesquite leaves and clumps of mistletoe.

A pair of Phainopeplas is coming and going from one of these clumps, but the density of the mistletoe greenery defies visual penetration so I can only guess they have a nest with young inside.  Our “Black Cardinal,” a member of the silky flycatcher family, is the only North American bird that nests twice in the same breeding season in two entirely different habitats.  This early spring nesting in the low desert is timed to the peak of the mistletoe berry crop and the desert spring’s first major insect hatch.  Though the relationship of mistletoe to mesquite is parasitic, the mistletoe and the Phainopepla enjoy a commensal association—bird ingests berry, seeds pass through digestive system and are deposited on mesquite branch, next years plant begins to grow from this deposit.

Two months from now this same Phainopepla family will be in a higher, cooler, damper oak/chaparral habitat, perhaps in the foothills of Mt. Ord or the Pinals, and the young from this nest will be helping their parents feed the next brood different berries and different insects.  It’s a toss-up whether the shining black robe of the male Phainopepla, punctuated by the deep red eye, trumps the fiery red raiment of the male Vermilion.

Out over the river in a break through the canopy, I spot the first Turkey Vulture of the morning, its dark wings upswept in the classic dihedral, rocking gently in the uplift already rising from the face of the bluff where the Great Horned Owls nested one year in a shallow rock grotto.  Discerning no red on its head, I assume the bird is an immature, but memory jogs and I raise the binoculars to study the undertail.  “Shazam!” as Al McCoy would declare at a Steve Nash three.  Two white bands are visible on the bird’s tail.  It is a Zone-tailed Hawk, a female, practicing its species’ unique hunting method utilizing behavioral mimicry of the vultures’ flight pattern and style.  Like some birders, every bird and rodent along the river will pass this killer off as just another of the harmless and more numerous scavengers, the vultures.  Inexperienced or inattentive birders will miss a tick on their list.  The inexperienced or inattentive bird or rodent will miss the rest of its life.

A flash of red shifts my attention back to the nest before me.  The male Vermilion has returned with a grasshopper.  A large grasshopper.  It is hard to believe an insect this big will fit into the mouth of a nestling this small.  The male Vermilion has the grasshopper positioned perpendicularly to its beak, so the first attempt to insert insect into young does not go well.  This is the proverbial square peg into round hole, and he withdraws the offering and appears to eyeball the young beak beneath him.  Then he tries its sibling’s beak, with the same result.

But I’ve watched this same scenario with other species, and I’ve witnessed it with small herons and large fish.  Food is never abandoned, and sooner or later a fit will be found.  The male withdraws again, pins the grasshopper to one of the nest’s supporting boughs and maneuvers it until it is parallel to its own beak.  Now it will also be parallel to the receiving beak, and he turns and crams—there is no other word to better describe this process—the insect down into the first nestling’s mouth.  I can just feel the little barbs on those stiff grasshopper legs scraping down my own throat.  Anthropomorphism works in strange ways!

I have been watching and photographing, discreetly, for two hours now.  The male and female Vermilion are making one trip to the nest approximately every ten minutes but, as you might suspect from reflection on the domesticity our own species, mom makes about four trips to every one of the male’s.  I’ll give him this, though.  Unlike that other species, he’s not shirking any duty.  Both male and female are removing fecal sacks as they are deposited in the nest, and at the going rate of protein consumption, those deposits are coming with regularity.

When I arrived at sunrise, I had difficulty relocating the nest which I had first discovered a week earlier, this because the parents were not coming to it.  The first thought, with inactivity around a known nest, is always that the nest has been predated or abandoned.  Avian parents, however, instinctively work on the same principle every airline passenger is taught by every flight attendant.  Put the mask on yourself first, then help the children with theirs only after yours is secured.  Nesting birds feed themselves first in the morning and only then begin ferrying prey items to the nest.  It’s survival of the species.  Without enough fuel to sustain themselves as they hunt, the young would perish too and, yes, songbirds searching for berries and insects are “hunters” in just the same way the Zone-tailed Hawk seeking prey is a hunter.

It is Easter Sunday, and though the scene playing out before my lens and me at the flycatcher nest is not the traditional “sunrise service,” this is the only morning my schedule will allow before the nestlings fledge.  And, come to think of it, what better way for an amateur naturalist raised as a traditional Christian but evolved into a non traditional one, to spend an Easter morning than witnessing the dawning of a new generation of a small but spectacular piece of work by the traditional god with whom I grew up.

Except that this bosque encloses a popular national forest campground busy enough during normal spring vacation times, but swollen now with some of those made homeless by these definitely abnormal economic times.  And then there is this little matter of the large, extended family (or is it a whole neighborhood?) that is celebrating this Easter sunrise with beer and barbecue down on the river bank below and behind me.  What began as a trickle of young men pushing wheeled coolers and grills the size of Volkswagons has become a virtual parade of old folks, mothers with infants in strollers, and teenagers with boom boxes.  And the boom boxes, they are abooming.

But the bosque’s avian parents all around me don’t seem to feel threatened.  They have domestic duties to carry out, and as long as those in the parade along the road to the river do not get too close with their activity and their noise, the birds are not bothered.  But I am.  The unleashed, medium sized dog belonging to the couple camped down the way has already run and jumped on me, from behind and totally unexpected.  And how many times have the revelers in the parade stopped and asked exactly what I’m doing with my big lens?

“It’s a caution”, as my grandmother used to say about something unbelievably and comically stupid.  The Vermilion nest, remember, is only 15 feet out, but this is a 600 millimeter lens, itself probably the size of a Volkswagon to those ignorant about nature photography, and those who pause to inquire just what the heck I’m about immediately start looking off toward the distant horizon.  This is why I’m not worried that I will attract the wrong kind of attention to the nest.  These curious folks always invert the aphorism about the vision thing—they miss the nearby trees because they’re looking off into the forest, assuming that telephotography is about bringing the distant up close rather than making the close fill the frame.

Alright, I promise myself, I will spend next Easter sunrise in a wilderness area far from all this.  In the White Mountains, perhaps--where the reintroduced wolves will not jump me from behind like some camper’s unruly dog, where the bugle of bull elk does not jar the forest solitude, where the scent and sough of the pines replaces the stench of beer and the clamor of boom boxes.  But still, right here right now, amidst the myriad manifestations of our overcrowded planet, its good to know that a little slice of the way it used to be still exists with what we have become.`