Not long ago, I was staying with friends in the Sonoran Desert, not far from the Mexican border in southern Arizona. These friends don’t belong to that species known as “snowbirds” – town people, usually elderly, who drive south from more northerly states in the winter to save money on heating and other bills. My friends live in the desert all year round, accommodating themselves to their various neighbours with a strong sense that they are newcomers there and ought to practise respect for those older inhabitants.
I still recall the first night when, exhausted after my long journey, I headed off to their spare room, only to be offered some advice about the morning schedule that involved a little more than where to find my favourite cereal. Knowing my penchant for rising early and getting out of doors (especially in the perennially overheated United States), my friends advised me that I should put my boots on first. “That way, the rattler won’t catch you barefoot,” they said, with a grin.
It was true. They had a rattlesnake as their closest neighbour, a sizeable fellow who often climbed on to their porch to catch the morning sun. Other locals included coyotes and roadrunners, straight out of those old Looney Tunes cartoons with Wile E Coyote. And there were bigger and scarier critters to be avoided further afield (diamondbacks, bobcats, mountain lions).
The real beauties of the desert, however, are its birds, from tiny hummingbirds and red-tailed hawks to the strange burrowing owl, a creature that seems to live in a state of constant, wide-eyed surprise, and the only owl species known to live underground. My friends tended a large garden, and I saw birds just by sitting on their porch and waiting for what passed through each day, but they told me that if I really wanted to see birds, the place to go was Arivaca.
The town of Arivaca is nothing special, but the nearby cienega (a marshy area, here at the edge of grassland) was like a dream of heaven. Yellow-billed cuckoos, Swainson’s hawks, Lucy’s warblers and black-bellied whistling ducks breed here, along with thick-billed kingbirds, rufous-winged sparrows and the rare buff-collared nightjars. When we think of the desert, we usually picture monotones – sand, rocks, dry arroyos, scree – but wherever water is present, the daily round turns miraculous. At the same time, when birds find water, they linger, and they become easier to watch for longer periods of time.
So many bird encounters are teasing and elusive. Walking on a rocky trail, I have heard the song of the canyon wren – to my mind, one of nature’s most beautiful sounds – without always seeing it, while far too many warblers have passed by like restless spirits, filling my head with song but flitting away into the reeds or the shadows before I quite caught sight of them (though I have to admit that part of the reason for this is that I am not a proper birder; I prefer to saunter).
I should be more disciplined, for stillness occasionally offers treats. Take the day that I sat alone at the edge of a dry arroyo and watched as a roadrunner gave me a curious but far from fearful look, before moving on along the muddy track. It was a rare instance of proximity, even a kind of intimacy. I was about to carry on with my walk but something held me there and, a few minutes later, a not-very-wily-looking coyote appeared, trailing the bird, if in a rather nonchalant fashion. It wasn’t like in the cartoons at all: speed wasn’t a factor, or at least it wouldn’t be, until much later in the game. It reminded me, once again, of the patience of animals, and of how impatient we are.
Without further ado, I stood up and walked back to my world, a realm that all at once seemed endlessly frenetic, for reasons I was no longer so sure I understood.
Next week: Felicity Cloake on food
This article appears in the 19 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood