Thursday, December 24, 2015

Crowback Birding at Circle Z Ranch

By Keith Ashley, Development Director
We arrived at Circle Z Ranch ( after dark and a little late for birding—or so I assumed, but in my room I discovered two Arthur Singer prints hanging above the bed: a pair of Northern Mockingbirds, and another of Eastern Bluebirds. More modernist paintings of Gambel’s and Scaled Quail bookended the room from opposite walls. There were even birds on the bathroom tiles and the bedroom curtains. Good omens for morning birding, I thought.

After dinner, lively Patagonia naturalist Vincent Pinto almost added to my list of unexpected sightings as he provided guests with an astronomy program by bonfire light. He described a constellation I had never even heard of—Corvus, the Raven. Though not in our line of site this evening, the discovery got me thinking—there are always new ways to encounter birds, including through historical and cultural contexts like constellations of the ancients and (soon-to-be) 90- year-old dude ranches, like the Circle Z.

I was awakened the next day, before my phone alarm could buzz, by the double whistle of a Curve-billed Thrasher—a sound I’m certain has always greeted folks before dawn at Arizona’s longest continually-running dude ranch. I found my way to the edge of Sonoita Creek well before the sun rose. A flock of Brewer’s Blackbirds huddled in a tree by one of the pastures and something croaked (a Green Heron?) further down the creek.

Curve-billed Thrasher by Joan Gellatly

Bridled Titmouse by Rhett Herring

Canyon Wren by Alan Schmierer

As the sun worked its way from the tops of the Cottonwoods down toward the creek-bed everyone seemed to spring to life at the same golden moment; Northern Cardinals, Gila Woodpeckers, Bridled Titmice, and White-breasted Nuthatches called, sang, and flitted about in search of breakfast. A Black Phoebe perched and pumped its tail just over the glistening water. I followed the call of a Canyon Wren until I found the bird standing sentinel on a mini-cliff above the creek, white-breast puffed out as he sang his cascading song. Although it was late November, I’m pretty sure a Gray Hawk whistled in the distance.

Back in the dining room I warmed my hands with a cup of coffee and took in a trio of Ray Harm prints: Phainopepla, Pyrrhuloxia, Lazuli Bunting. Breakfast was itself a cultural event not to be forgotten: chile rellenos, beans, potatoes, biscuits. When we stepped out into full morning, I found that the birds I had tracked down earlier had also come back to the ranch house for breakfast. Here again at the feeders were nuthatches, a phoebe, and now a Canyon Wren singing from the cantina patio. I learned later that a family of them fledged last spring in the tack room. Ahh, yes, the tack room—I had been looking forward to the birding considerably more than the promised horseback ride, but if I was going to ride a horse, I figured this was definitely the place for it.

If you’ve been told there are no crows in southeast Arizona, you haven’t met the horse they set me up with at Circle Z. I was a little concerned when I heard his name that he might have big ideas about flying across the countryside—with or without me managing to hold on—but Crow turned out to be a very patient and gentle fellow. I’m pretty sure all four feet never left the ground at the same time.

Karen and Keith on the Circle Z

Using binoculars is frowned upon when horseback riding—at least for absolute beginners (I’m pretty sure the Cavalry, Comanche Chiefs, and the Lone Ranger could manage it no problem)—but, as it turned out, I really didn’t need them. Crow carried me at a dreamy pace through the fall woods, up into the desert hills, across miles of Arizona’s most beautiful landscape, and down toward Patagonia Lake. He also transported me back in time to an Arizona I have read about forever, but never really touched—certainly not like this. We still saw birds, of course—Rock Wrens, gnatcatchers, Ground Dove—not to mention a javelina we surprised—and I’m pretty sure all four of his feet did leave the ground at the same time!

It dawned on me that like Tucson Audubon, Circle Z engages people with the great outdoors for the benefit of those people as well as the benefit of Arizona. They care for their land in partnership with the Arizona Land and Water Trust. They inspire others to care by offering them a unique kind of access—and they care for our cultural history by keeping it alive.

The Circle Z Ranch is a member of Tucson Audubon's Birds & Business Alliance program. Learn more about the program and support businesses that support Tucson Audubon!