February 24, 2022
Salt River
The good friend who lured me to The Valley in the late 70’s with a job offer was not into nature, so birds were not something we shared.  He probably knew only two things about “birding.”  He knew I did it and that it had to be done outdoors, but I doubt he could have used the term in a sentence with contextual correctness.  After my family and I had settled in for a few weeks, my friend suggested the Salt River would be a good place for my first Valley nature fix.  Little did I know!

We had arrived in early June, so this would have put me at one of the river’s recreation areas around July 4.  I have two lasting impressions of that introduction to the Salt as I looked down through a fringe of trees from an overhanging bluff.  I could not see the water for the bank to bank mash up of people, mostly drunken young adults, in tubes, these conveyances towing rafts full of coolers and boom boxes.

And then I heard a male voice scream from somewhere amidst this cacophony of revelry, “Show us your #&#$.”  Happily married for over a decade, I had no need or desire to view any young woman’s #&#$ and, not anticipating any bird life in this scrum of aural and visual disturbance, I quickly left.  I did not revisit the area for many years, and my friend and I still laugh about his misguided attempt to introduce me to the wonders of nature along the Salt River.

I sit there now, all these many years later, in peaceful tranquility on a gravel bar at river’s edge.  It is late winter and water levels are much too low for any kind of watercraft.  At one point just upstream water bubbles and burbles audibly over riffles shallow enough that I crossed last week to the other shore without getting water in my boots, just to see what I could see in the mesquite bosque on the far side.

As it turned out, I saw nothing except more mesquite, but questing is the goal.  Bird activity can be low this time of year, but the silence and serenity, that feeling of peace and wildness here in winter and early spring more than assuage the disappointment of a slow birding day, and experienced birders appreciate quality over quantity, nuanced observation over raw numbers.

An eagle tracking the watercourse flew over below treetop level as I arrived, and soon I saw an unkindness of ravens break out over Stewart Mountain, two stragglers playing, cartwheeling with locked talons, something I’m still hoping someday to see the eagles doing.  I’ve only seen pictures of cartwheeling eagles, so on this day the ravens will have to do.  Most importantly, though, I haven’t seen another human being.  Nary a living soul, as my grandmother would always describe empty, deserted places.

I watch again a Song Sparrow gleaning something, perhaps twigs, from subsurface river rocks and mud.  Last year I learned these “somethings” are caddisfly larval casings and Song Sparrows are experts at breaking them open for protein snacks.  When E.O. Wilson said there is no high like the high of discovery, he was talking about my species, but I’m guessing he could have been speaking for Song Sparrows as well.

Just upstream two Great Blue Herons have a brief contretemps marked by the harsh, hoarse croaking sounds which always send chills up birders’ spines if the singers can’t be seen.  Then brief pandemonium breaks loose.  A coyote trots to water’s edge, spooking the foraging yellowlegs which take wing with their frenetic “too, too, too” calls, and these in turn flush three Killdeer which have been hidden so well by their cryptic plumage amongst  the river rocks I’ve haven’t even seen them until now.

The coyote drinks, then leaves without seeing me.  Calm returns to the river’s world.  Every living soul which utilizes these waters knows what’s coming soon as the river rises with the temperatures, but we all embrace the winter’s quiet now.
Great Blue Herons
Great Blue Herons