December 18, 2013: It’s a partially cloudy Wednesday afternoon and I am caught up in the usual rush of holiday preparations. I’ve been working on making my own Christmas Card since last week and I am down to the final formatting. I am trying to get this done before Chris calls to tell me he is on his way to the Tanque Verde Wash where we plan on meeting and searching for a vagrant Magnolia Warbler that has been seen there. I have only birded that wash one time before and that was when I first met Chris in the fall of 2012. It was a hot day that day and though we saw some great birds, we both remember it as being hot, dusty and sort of miserable. We have not gone back since. But, the chance to get a magnolia warbler is enticing, and so we agree to a plan.
Chris calls me as I am formatting text on my computer. He is on his way but it will take him awhile to get here from his location on the northwest side of Tucson. I grab my painting and head out the door to a printer in a nearby shopping center. With a bit of consultation we agree to a price and a plan, but I have to rush back home to reformat one section of the printed document and re-email it to them. Chris calls just as I pull into the driveway. I tell him I will be there soon. I go as fast as I can and drive back to the printers. I want to get this done today! We soon have things set and I am off!
It doesn’t take me long to drive to Wentworth Road where the trailhead is for the wash. I am talking to Chris on my Bluetooth the whole time I am driving. He tells me he has located the warbler. I wind my way through the construction on Houghton Road. Though the air is warm, overhead the clouds continue to thicken into a velvety gray blanket. In a few places there is a tear in the cover and silvery light streams through. I turn west onto Speedway towards the Rincon Mountains. Ahead of me a line of cars drives slowly behind a horse trailer. To my dismay the entire line of cars turns north onto Wentworth Road! I creep along slowly past the old ranches where the horse trailer finally pulls over and the other cars proceed. One pulls into a driveway and another forges ahead in the direction I am going. I can see Chris standing by his car ahead of me. I turn my car around and pull in behind him.
Last time I was here Chris and I hiked the east side of the wash. This time we head down the sandy trail to the west. The gravel trail is the width of a four-wheeler and I listen as the gravel crunches beneath my feet. Desert broom, mesquite and acacia are just some of the bushes that line the wash. Here by the road the trees and bushes are small and the area looks wide and open, but up ahead I can see tall cottonwoods tossing golden leaves the size of small plates to the ground. To the north there is some kind of human activity with heavy machinery making loud, growling noises. Still, we can see and hear a few mourning doves and white-crowned sparrows in the brush as we pass. Then Chris stops me as we near the location where he spotted the magnolia warbler.
We have not walked very far down the trail; only about ¼ of a mile. Here the tall cottonwoods shade smaller trees and bushes and we are on the edge of what I later learn is a golf course and some maintenance buildings. The light is soft and gray with muted shadows. The air is still and calm, but our hearts are pounding as Chris spots the warbler bouncing around in a small nearby tree. I get my bins on it and see the bright yellow breast and belly. I see the darker back and its wingbars. I start to raise my camera to get a shot when Chris steps a bit closer to take another picture himself and the bird flies off toward the maintenance building! And though we hunt for it, we cannot relocate it again. We spot a few Western Bluebirds also flitting around in the same trees, but when a big and loud piece of machinery drives by, all the birds flee and the woods grow quiet.
As Chris and I are standing there on a golden carpet with a golden shower of leaves that continues to fall we suddenly see a horse and rider emerging from a tunnel of trees to the west. A gal is on a lovely cream-colored palomino horse which balks at the sight of us standing on the trail. Chris and I move off to the side as the rider encourages the horse to move on. Soon they are walking past us in a soft clip clop and I can’t help but wish that I was riding a horse through these still woods on this soft day.
Now that the horse and rider have left and the birds have all dispersed Chris and I decide to head farther down the trail to the west. We walk through that same tunnel of trees and emerge in a wider area of the wash with towering cottonwood trees and invasive phragmites lining the edges. These plumed reeds look so pretty, but they do not belong here in our desert washes. However, today I am not here to make environmental judgments. I just want to relax and enjoy this moment.
It feels so different here in this wash. I realize that I am missing such tall trees. I like the way it feels here and I want to stay. I no longer feel like I am in the desert, but rather a cottonwood forest with mesquite trees on the edges. In some spots I can see and smell the damp earth where the water moves just beneath the soil. Chris and I stop when we observe some bird action in the trees. Suddenly a flock of Western bluebirds flies in. Overhead we hear ravens calling. High in the trees a Gila woodpecker squeaks, and then I spot a small gray bird high in what looks like a slim poplar tree. At first glance as it sits behind a branch I almost think it is a cedar waxwing. Then, as the bird moves out from behind the branch its colors and patterns become evident. It is a yellow-rumped warbler. Shortly thereafter a ruby-crowned kinglet puts in an appearance, and then another small gray bird is spotted. Chris gets his camera on it while I try to decide what it is. When I see what look like pale gray spectacles around its eyes and two wingbars on a lead-gray body I start to get excited. Chris and I now both know that we are seeing a vireo. But is it Cassin’s or Plumbeous. After a few more minutes of observation and a study of Chris’s photos we realize we are seeing a Plumbeous vireo! There is no yellow wash on the flanks anywhere.
We continue west down the wash. Clouds thicken overhead. We both wonder if it is going to rain, though none was predicted for today. A woman walking the wash on the southern edge waves happily to us and wishes us Merry Christmas. She enthusiastically asks if we are seeing any good birds. The birds are between her and us. I try to answer politely and quietly but the birds all take flight from our noisy exchange! Oh well! I am still pleased by her kindness and friendly attitude and we walk on. Soon we are overtaken by the first horse and rider on their return trip.
All along the wash we encounter piles of brush and debris from the summer monsoon. In almost every one of these piles we find Abert’s towhees and White-crowned sparrows. Then, to our amazement, we find a lone chipping sparrows mixed in with the White-crowns!
I cannot tell you how it feels to walk in-between these towering cottonwood trees! I feel I have left the busy world behind and entered a place of peace and magic. This place seems so disconnected from the hustle and bustle of holiday traffic and activity. I must say that I did not want to leave! But as the sun slips farther towards the horizon it sends silver shafts of light shooting towards the dome that is our sky. One especially tall cottonwood tree is backlit by this light and transformed into an almost holy spectacle. Chris and I both pause to observe the tree at this moment. All the world falls silent and nothing moves. This is one thing I like about Chris. He knows how to be in the moment and he knows when to be quiet. As we move on from this spot we are both talking in whispers.
I can be lured ever onward by what is around the bend, but I know the daylight will soon end and I must return to my home and to the busy-ness that is this time of year. Ahead of us we see a little island of bush in the middle of the wash with a pile of debris surrounding that trunk of yet another tall tree. Atop the brush pile is what looks like a plywood board and leading up to this platform is a small wooden ladder. In front of the ladder and the platform a rope swing dangles with a wooden bar for grasping. It doesn’t take either of us long to realize this is a rope swing. We decide to walk just that far and turn back. While we don’t find many more birds in this location, we are still caught up in the jungle-like feel of this place and the ethereal light that we are bathed in.
Of course, since we are both children at heart we both take a turn at the rope swing. I am reluctant to left my feet and dangle by my arms since I am afraid I will pull my arms out of their sockets since it has been so long since I have even attempted something like this, but Chris does manage to briefly get his feet off the ground before he too stops the swing in fear the tree or the rope will break. It’s time to go and we know it. We turn our faces east and head back the way we came. As we walk the sandy trail a different horse and rider pass us. This girl is a bit friendlier and I comment on what a nice day it is for a ride. She enthusiastically agrees with me and we bid each other a good evening. As she passes by I feel the slight niggle of a childhood dream to own my own horse. It is a dream that has long since faded but every once in awhile emerges again. Then I think about the cost and danger and all those “practical” things and I stuff it back down once again. It’s best if that one stays a fond memory!
The woods behind and around us fall silent and it is not until we emerge into the wide area closer to the road that we start to see birds again. Then a Phainopepla flies overhead while pink and gray mourning doves gather like stones on branches. Beneath the doves a flock of white-crowned sparrows is on the move once again. I start to scan them for something different and though I hope for a rouge white-throated sparrow or even a golden-crowned sparrow all I find is yet another chipping sparrow mixed in with the flock.
As we make our way back to our parked cars we are rudely reminded of the real world when a border patrol truck comes rushing by with flashing lights and screaming siren. I have no idea what the emergency is but not long after I get a phone call from the printer. My Christmas cards are done and ready to be picked up! It’s time to go. Chris and I both get in our respective cars and drive off. The thought is not lost on either of us that soon we will not be able to do this. I try to savor the sweetness of this moment and not let myself cry. I know that moment is coming, but I push it farther down the road of time. Today I will revel in this moment and this feeling of magic and mystery on a walk in the Tanque Verde wash where we saw the Magnolia warbler and listened to the tink of Abert’s Towhees and the clip clop of horse’s hooves and where, for a brief moment I felt like a child again.