Saturday, October 24, 2009

Counting Quail

Next to doves, Gambel’s quail are the most ubiquitous birds in and around our yard, unmistakable with their inquisitive question mark topknots. Their behaviors and social structures cycle dramatically with the seasons. Over the winter they form sizeable coveys, but in late winter and early spring the males begin crowing from prominent heights for mates. Paired up, the couples can be seen walking the garden walls, looking for promising nesting spots. Just about any somewhat sheltered spot will do, from under a dense shrub to a plant pot under my big gardenia in the barrio garden. The later complicates the near daily watering requirements as summer heats up since flushing the mother-to-be off her clutch of a dozen or more eggs too many times can make her abandon the nest. We’ve been known to let a plant or two die in such circumstances.

By late spring we’ve usually seen our first long strings of baby quail in the yard, fuzzy pompoms with legs, only hours or minutes from hatching, obediently following mom and dad’s instructions about vacating the nest in an organized fashion. Over the summer we watch the families’ strings of chicks dwindle. You do not want to be the slowest quail sibling. Still, it is a great victory for the parents to raise a quail chick or two to the juvenile stage. The parents are, after all, only trying to replace themselves in their lifetimes, and the chicks are (sadly) an important food source for other desert critters, from coyotes to snakes to raptors.

The quail have been a bit confused in this time of seasonal transition. In the desert the change from summer to winter mimics a second spring rather than fall. Many plants come into a strong second bloom this time of the year. During those inevitable spells of near 100 degree weather during our cool-down period, the heat spikes trigger a touch of the hormones of spring, and some feeble confused crowing ensues, but it is half-hearted and short lived.

Not known particularly for their flying abilities, quail forage on the ground by day for seeds and insects, flying short distances only when necessary. Shortly after sunset they do manage to fly up into their roosts, trees like paloverde and mesquite and even taller cholla cactus with all their thorns. In our back yard the favorite sleeping spot is in our olive tree, seen on the right in this sunset picture. It is a sterile olive and was here when we moved in, pretty enough and drought resistant, and we enjoy the shade it casts and tolerate it though we’d prefer a native tree in that spot. We think its size, about 20 feet tall, and density appeals to the quail, and there is always an interesting flurry of activity there at dusk.

Shortly after the sun drops behind the Tucson Mountains, we hear the congreating coveys just outside out wall start clucking and whooping, mustering the gang to retire to security off the ground. They chatter and call -- whut Whut, Whut WHUT, whut Whut -- and move more-or-less towards the olive tree, gliding like nuns in habits on an Easter egg hunt.

Tonight we decided to sit quietly where we could see them actually fly into the tree, counting their numbers. One, three, five, nine. Twenty three -- oops, that one fell out after a scuffle -- twenty two. There he goes back, twenty three. The roosting process is accompanied by a great squabbling and beating of wings. It is impossible not to anthropomorphize these birds -- “move over,” “I was here first,” “but I ALWAYS sleep there!” In the space of about ten minutes we counted 32 quail bedding down in our olive tree for the night. Eventually the fussing quieted down to a mumbling murmur. And then it was silent.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Friends Again

We arrived back from a week in the Colorado Rockies to two more days well into the triple digits, a real blow after a chilly week which included three days of snow. But yesterday there was clearly something changing with the weather. The sky looked like a meteorologist's cloud sampler. During our morning walk the dawn lit up the pebble paver clouds a bright coral against a robin's egg blue sky. By late morning there was a smorgasbord sky.
Some clouds appeared to have be scraped onto a brilliant blue canvas with a palette knife. Odd smeared lenticular clouds pocked the sky, while others could have prompted 911 calls about UFO's. Low strings of cumulus swept the far horizons.

By 9 PM when we went to bed it was 80 degrees and falling fast. We opened the house, turned off the A/C, and slept soundly, soothed by the fresh breeze and night sounds. Out walking before sunup, the temperatures were in the low 60s and it was blissfully cool. After 9 AM and the house is still open, though that will change soon as we'll hit 90 today, a near normal temperature for this time of the year. October is our big cool down month, dropping a good 10 degrees over the month.

We're getting our second "spring" as the plants rebound from the hard work of surviving a desert summer. Our Mexican sage is in full bloom and the chuparosa is starting to show its hot orange tubular flowers that will sustain our hummingbirds all winter. The Gambel's quail, parental duties over, have returned to their gender segregated coveys; I had a large group of males wander through the backyard yesterday on their eternal quest for food. We saw a straggler turkey vulture atop a telephone pole on our walk out into the desert yesterday morning, an unusual sight around here as they are almost always on the wing. He reluctantly took off, heading south, as we walked under him, possibly disturbing a brief migratory rest.

Fall changes everything for desert dwellers. For we humans, the great summer "hibernation" in the A/C is mostly over. We can emerge and rejoin our outdoor lives for the next eight months and remember exactly why it is that we continue to live here.