I lay on my back on the ground and look up. In the space directly above me, a shape flitters in and out, back and forth. It is a hummingbird, wings drumming profusely. It goes up, it goes down, it goes sideways. That’s not the usual flight pattern I see with these little ones. Usually it’s straight down to a bright flower, round about it, then back to a perch. I know they are weak-footed and have to get directly back to a perch, unable to stand on anything. So why would a hummer dart out and back, circle round and repeat? It must be looking for bugs, I surmise, needing protein to supplement its sugar diet. What else would be in the air to make the little hummer stab at it randomly? True, I’ve seen them dive, zoom back up, and do aerial rolls, but that maneuver is always done with a partner and accompanied by rattles and tings. I’ve also seen them hover over lawn sprinklers, drinking water on the fly.
My attention is drawn to movement in the sycamore tree just beyond my reclining patch. Up higher than the hummingbird, at the very top of the tall tree, I see another whimsical flurry of flight. Crazy, alternating half-songs ring out from the chaotic scene. Are there birds fighting? I’m pretty sure the mockingbird’s nest is up there, and I know how protective they are of their young, so my first guess is an avian smackdown. Perhaps it is grackle versus mockingbird. Grackles are noisier than the mockers, who sing everyone else’s song. The gracks are also terrible bullies. But as I watch for a while, I see only a single mockingbird. It is singing to itself and doing a bit of a silly air dance. Springing up just about a foot from the nest, wings fanned out, doing a somersault, then down to the nest again. It does it again and again. An enlightened thought crossed my mind: maybe it’s showing the fledglings how to fly. “Come on kids, push off and go like this, see?” I can’t imagine any other reason for short take-offs, unless it’s getting goosed over and over.
Now my view spans the sky overhead, and I see other birds passing through. My first instinct is to turn my head away from the grackles, annoyed by their intrusion. But I see that they are not acting normally, either. They are dive-bombing something else flying about – cicadas. The insects are out in mass and getting picked off quickly. This may be the only time I am tolerant of the big corvids.
My approach to birding this day is not lazy. In fact, I hadn’t even intended to be birdwatching. Relaxing in a prone position, I was just doing my normal nature reverie, seeing what I could see and drinking in the beauty and calm. Our yard was certified as a backyard wildlife habitat, and we are regularly rewarded with the sight of creatures of all kinds.
Around in the backyard, again laying back to get that birds-eye view, I spy the verdin, a beautiful little yellow-torsoed character with red spots under its wings and a beak made for cracking seeds. It has made a nest in my Vitex tree. The nest is a feat of avian architecture. It is enclosed, and built horizontally, with the entrance on the side and facing down. How do the birds stay up in there? The verdin’s flight is a like a fast arrow shot out from the nest. Straight out to the next tree. Then it zooms to another, and back to home base. I ponder how good this bird must be at escaping predators, or warding them off. I know it has babies in the nest, but doubt that anything could get into that strange nest with its tiny uphill opening. Later I will see how the nest is constructed, when a violent wind storm blows it down. It is thick and insulated, with a heavy inner layer of downy feathers.
I look up to the corner of the house, and there is a soft, fluffy, and larger visitor who seems to be deciding whether it wants to descend into my yard or not. It bobs up and down, then gently floats down to the grass. Its wings remind me of an angel’s, fanned out and catching the air. Gliding up to the garden wall, it sits there for a while, undisturbed by my close presence. What is that, with its muted brown back and nice orange breast, I wonder? Why, yes, it’s a wonderfully displaced robin. We don’t have robins in the desert valley where we live. They keep to the mountains for the most part. This one must have lost its way and I am so grateful. Such a calm, almost tame presence, the sight of it gives me joy. Just as I gasp with awe, it lifts itself away.
There are other birds that I see in my yard, although not today. Pretty Say’s phoebe is only seen in the late winter and early spring. I don’t know where it lives, but I can always pick out its yellowish body and crested head in my garden. Often it has babies in tow. Some of the wind-riders just pass through. Northern flickers stop briefly in the autumn and grab your attention with their almost foot-long frame and bright orange underpinnings, always posing on the side of a tree trunk. Some of the passers-by are real oddballs for the desert. Some of my favorites are orioles, shocking yellow against the blue sky, and Audubon’s warbler, aka butter butt, bright yellow at front and back. While most birds that reside on the desert floor are duller in their dressage, to match the brownish landscape, we are lucky to get the brighter songbirds that visit when it’s too cold at their higher home elevations or northern home ranges.
As I pull myself up from an inclined position and my line of vision parallels my own level again, I tend toward philosophizing. Birds are winged messengers that flit through our lives, occasionally making us aware of the world around us and its relationship to the closed-up world of our own lives. We often remember where and when we saw a certain bird, and the circumstances of our life at that time. Birds are like a fragrance, a song, a phrase—that place us in a certain place at a certain time—memorable. Birds remind us that our journey is short and soon we will take off for a new horizon. Meanwhile, let’s enjoy the view where we are.
Margie B. Klein has been a resident of Southern Nevada for 27 years and has worked in the environmental field for almost as long. She began her career by inspecting outdoor environments and retired doing environmental education. Currently she is semi-retired as an Interpretive Naturalist and Nature Writer. Much of her writing is about the desert locale, and she enjoys sharing this information with others.