Wednesday, July 11, 2007

LIfe in the Desert

A thin wisp of clouds surrounded the hint of the blood red sun still mostly obscured by Cat Mesa in the distance. A portent of precipitation to come, possibly later in the day.

By the time, the sun peeked over the mesa top, I had already been awake for hours, and was in place at my designated research site in the pre-dawn shades of gray. It was harder today than others, for I knew that my target species, the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, would not be present in the scorched earth that had formerly been a marsh. No life-giving water was present even during the first survey, in mid-May, and without water, this riparian obligate bird would have moved on to wetter locales with abundant food resources, the ubiquitous mosquito that plagues humankind. Only a few desperate mosquitos were present, trying valiantly to draw blood from me as I futilely stood to play the taped song of the flycatcher. But, federal regulations require 5 surveys annually in potential habitat, even in those years when water flows elsewhere. So, here I was, fulfilling my contractual obligations to a government agency.

What is one to do when faced with the prospect of a negative survey result? My personal favorite is to take in the special treasures that this largely unknown site provides, the plants, animals, and geology that make it unique. It wasn't long before an earth-colored toad hopped across my path, and stopped so I could photograph it. As the sun rose higher, the granite and gypsum cliffs of nearby White Mesa glowed in the morning light. A few warblers sang from high in the trees, and as I parted the vegetation to enter my secret world beyond the public access area, I wondered if my little friend would still be there, a bird not often seen, the Lazuli Bunting. He had been in the same area for the past three surveys, singing up a storm. I wondered if he had attracted a female who might be on the nest with their offspring. I wondered if he, too, would have moved on in search of a better and wetter neighborhood. But, there he was! I heard him long before I saw him, singing up a storm, perched on the tip of a juniper tree. Later, I heard and watched as three Western Kingbirds mobbed a Cooper's Hawk. I wondered then, if the coop had stolen one of their youngsters to feed one of his own.

It was another beautiful day in the desert, and another day in which the rains fell somewhere else.

The photo of the Lazuli Bunting was taken by my good friend, and wildlife photographer, David Powell.

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