This last November a friend and I were camping in the Picacho Mountains. Not on the side of the highway where Picacho Peak towers above the landscape but on the western side where the expanse of rugged hills is far less travelled and hides many things, including petroglyph sites. Even in November the desert was warm and full of sunshine. It was good to be back in the low desert of ironwood trees and saguaros, an environment which always feels like home to me. The scrub brush was alive with birds. Everywhere we walked little birds were frightened from the underbrush by our approaching footsteps. There were countless birds, cactus wrens, curve billed thrashers, juncos, cardinals and many of them were chirping and singing.
We heard a lovely whistling coming from a palo verde tree where a small bird fluttered from branch to branch. My friend whistled in imitation of the song. The bird hopped to another branch and whistled in return. My friend whistled again. Thinking perhaps that it had found a friend or maybe even discovered a mate, the little bird took flight, moving in the direction of my friend’s call. The little bird landed atop Jerry’s head, searching for a companion. While the tiny little bird hopped atop his hat, Jerry remained as still as possible, trying not to frighten his new friend away. He whistled again. The bird whistled in return, but hopped about atop Jerry’s head looking confused.
Jerry identified the little bird as a pine siskin, a bird which lives in cool forests at high elevations. What was it doing in low scrub desert filled with ironwood trees and saguaro cactus? We spied other high elevation birds. It did not take much research to discover the answer. Every two to seven years there is a mass migration from Canada down to the southern parts of the North American continent. Scientists have discovered that these mass migrations are triggered by bad seed years in the northern forests. Usually there is a two or three year lag between rainfall and the seed harvest but there are other mitigating factors such as temperature and the previous year’s cycles as well. During some years bird populations in vast numbers, travel from Canada’s boreal forests thousands of miles to vacation in our southern states. It is mostly seed eating species which make these long irregular migrations, birds such as the pine siskin, cedar waxwing, and evening grosbeak.
I remember once washing dishes in the second story kitchen of a house in Sedona with a giant juniper tree just outside the window. Suddenly a small flock of cedar waxwings arrived and completely denuded that giant juniper tree of juniper berries in just a matter of minutes. They are beautiful birds with a pointed head that resembles a cardinal and raccoon markings around the eyes. Another Sedona bird moment came when I saw a small flock of western mountain bluebirds harvesting piracantha berries. Between the blue birds and the bright red berries it was one of the most colorful nature scenes I have ever stumbled across even if it happened in a convenience store parking lot.
When I lived in Oracle I had a bird feeder which sat right outside my desk window. While I wrote I would often pause to watch orioles and black headed grosbeaks. Another regular visitor was an extremely tiny bird with a red spot on his head – a ruby crowned kinglet. Every time this tiny bird saw his own reflection in the glass he felt compelled to attack it ferociously. There was also a small black and white bid, a nuthatch, who scrambled up and down tree trunks like some sort of feathered squirrel. I was able to identify a rufous sided towhee, a black bird with white spots and red sides, only because it stopped to bathe in a small puddle outside my door for quite some time.
I could always tell when a big storm was approaching. Birds from the top of the mountain would migrate down to the lower elevations to dine at my feeder. In particular, the noisy blue ubiquitous scrub jays would be replaced by their cousin the Stellar’s jay. The Stellar’s jays have pointed crests, almost as if they are adorned with tiny pompous plumes and black faces above their bright blue bodies. The Stellar’s jay is what most people picture when they try to imagine a blue jay.
The story of how the Stellar’s jay got its name is quite incredible. Herr Stellar was a good German doctor leading a comfortable upper class life when he was bitten by the exploration bug. It was the Age of Discovery and the exploits of Captain Cook, Humboldt, Lewis and Clark and John Wesley Powell’s journeys down the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon made international headlines. Stellar met Vitus Bering at a party for European royalty and at an age when many physicians were retiring, Stellar signed up to be the camp physician for the star crossed Bering expedition.
First, Stellar journeyed to the royal court where he joined Bering in bending down on one knee and humbly begging the czar to fund the expedition to find the fabled Northwest Passage from the Russian direction. Receiving royal approval and funding took almost a year. The journey from Moscow across the vast frozen expanse of Siberia took another two years. Building a boat on the wind swept Pacific coast took another year. A big storm arrived and destroyed the ship. Vitus Bering and Herr Stellar journeyed back to Moscow to receive funding to build another boat and then journeyed all the way back to the most remote reaches of Siberia. Then they built another boat. This ship sailed the storm tossed waves, crossing what is now known as the Bering Sea and reached Alaska. Herr Stellar was given a few hours on the North American shore to collect plant and animal specimens before being called back to the ship. Bering launched the ship again only this time the perpetual storms wrecked the vessel on a remote Aleutian Island. The survivors spent another year on the tiny island as castaways before being rescued and brought back to civilization. Herr Stellar’s odyssey took eight years and earned him only a few hours on the North American continent. While he was there, Stellar named a type of blue jay and that blue jay is spread all across the North American continent, the noisy blue birds explore the continent Stellar wished to see, exploring the continent with a million pairs of curious eyes.