We walked this afternoon along the San Pedro River in southern Arizona. The San Pedro is about a stride wide in this season and looks more like an irrigation ditch than a river. It has likely served more as an irrigation ditch than as free river for more than a century. Despite the narrowness of the river’s channel, one feels the richness of its domain. A richness of cottonwoods and birds. The cottonwoods fill the broad flood plain. The birds are abundant well beyond the trees.
We walked along the lip of the floodplain, which is sharply incised, and through the grassland of the surrounding valley. Gila Woodpecker’s, male and female, held separate mesquite shrubs. ‘Pew . . . pew . . . pew,’ the male called. There are also pyrrhuloxias in the mesquite—three or four in a shrub. They flutter among the branches and among the mesquite. They drop from branches into the bunch grasses and then back to the branches. The deep red stripe that runs from face to belly on these birds is warming, especially so in the chill wind this afternoon.
There are numerous sparrows in the grassland. White crowned sparrows hold the lower branches of mesquite. I thoroughly enjoy the crisp black stripes of their heads. There are also Song Sparrows and other sparrows, which require more time than my chilled hands on binoculars can hold.
A kestral hovers over the grassland—it is stationary just before us for what seems like several minutes. We can see its brown head, gray cheeks, and dark eyes. Its tail is fanned before us—the feathers tipped in black. Its wings wimple and straighten—moving slightly, quickly—then they seem to fill with wind and all of the wing feathers quiver—the wings beat once to lift and hold place. It’s magnificent to watch face-on the bird, which seems nearly within reach. Although kestrals are very common and often seen hovering over the wheat fields where we live, we don’t often get such a close, head-on view of the hunting birds.
At the end of the afternoon, we see another bird on a high, outer branch of a mesquite between us and the sun. It’s a bit far, especially for a back-lit bird. I think for a moment that it might be a trogon—it has that shape and a large bill—but it isn’t. The bird’s belly is white and its head is black. I decide it’s a Thick-billed Kingbird, although Adrian opts for an Eastern Kingbird.