Getting Familiar

Cactus Wren - Phot by Tim Giller
Cactus Wren - Phot by Tim Giller

Anyone who has spent time in your typical campground vault-type toilet knows that they can have some interesting acoustics. I was wondering if the Cactus Wren that had alighted atop the vent chimney above me knew just how loudly his morning song reverberated inside. These charming birds with a raspy call are one of the year-round residents here and they were the first to welcome us. Not terribly shy they hop through camp able to discern sand from seed from tiny insect across the gravelly ground. As I stood outside the door of our now semi-permanent home one scampered to within a couple inches of my foot, its feathers fluffed out against the morning chill, cocking its head to get a better look at me before hopping along, not begging, just curious. Among birders the voice of the Cactus Wren is often described as unpleasant but I enjoy it and the rough edge of its dry trill has a mysteriously appropriate quality synonymous with the breaking dawn in the Mojave Desert. (Listen Here)

Digger bee on Turpentine Broom - Photo by Tim Giller
Digger bee on Turpentine Broom - Photo by Tim Giller

After a year of near-constant movement it is a joy to get to know a specific place through a whole season. A desert is a place that can teach you to see. The vegetation is never thick here but I can detect over the past few weeks the hint of extra green across the slopes of the nearby buttes. Barren clusters of twigs have flushed with subtle leaves and created an Easter egg hunt of tiny flowers. This is a place of interesting contrasts, a place of hardy plants with aggressive and pain-inducing defenses. The same plant that the Spanish explores dubbed bayonet has stabbed my shins and thighs leaving scars. These Yuccas are currently putting out fleshy maroon buds the size of footballs that then explode in a profusion of lemony-white flowers, home and food source for a delicate moth. The barbed spines of Buckhorn Cholla that find their way into my skin on a daily basis are sheltering the first hint of red fronds that should blossom within the month.

Tent caterpillars on Catsclaw Acacia - Photo by Tim Giller
Tent caterpillars on Catsclaw Acacia - Photo by Tim Giller

A home range that one gets to know intimately is a customary domain of the naturalist. Thoreau had his Walden Pond and rarely strayed from New England. However this is also a wanderer’s vocation. John Muir is known for his passion for Yosemite, but he also tramped near and far from Ohio to Georgia to California and Alaska always in awe of what his great Creator had to offer in nature’s grandest cathedrals. Being a naturalist is less about having all the answers or knowing all the things so much as it is about being wiling to see and to ask questions that might lead to a handful of understanding. In this way it is a portable avocation.

Mojave Yucca Flower - Photo by Tim Giller
Mojave Yucca Flower - Photo by Tim Giller

A year of practiced observing on the move has made our senses keen to the subtle changes of this place that is often overlooked and hard to appreciate. Having worked outdoors most of my life I’ve long been sensitive to the weather as something I feel more than I see. In the Bay Area I trusted my gut more than the online weather robots and I was usually right. It has been fun to learn new patterns. February came in with snow and 50 mph winds and left unseasonably warm, enticing an early bloom. The interim has gotten us accustomed to wind, frequent and chilled out of the north, gusts announcing their arrival in rumbling preamble moments before they buffet our wobbly home. Most often winter weather has simply been a hint of more robust events to the west or north of us. The moist Pacific storms of this long anticipated El Nino struggle to reach this far across the dry ranges of the Mojave. Each scattered mountain range, the San Gabriels, the Tehachapis, the El Pasos, gleaning moisture successively until out here we’re often given only a hint of damp air and high wispy virga.

Our fixed location allows the sky to inform us in other ways. The sun crests the angled butte to our east right about 6:40 am, its procession towards equinox stunted by the mountain slope. Sunset over the crags of volcanic tuff to the west has been stretching later each day. At night we watch as Orion marches westward, as a winter visitor he’ll exit the nighttime stage in a few months. We knew we’d been up late the other night we saw him reaching the western horizon.

Our seasonal changes have stimulated some of the dormant neighbors we hadn’t meet yet, exothermic creatures can’t do much if the temperatures drop. A few lethargic lizards have been around since January but our newly arrived warmth has them scampering and doing push-ups in escalating numbers. The insect spattered windshield of a recent evening reminded us that we hadn’t seen much in the way of bugs for a while. Their flourishing has attracted some more accomplished wanderers. A new bird seems to arrive each day to join the company of our Cactus Wren and Phainopepla residents. The Phoebe was an early newcomer, followed by humming birds, hawks, and swifts darting along the cliff faces quickly silenced by the presence of a Peregrine Falcon. New birdsong has entered the morning wake-up call. Even an exceedingly common sight of a Turkey Vulture is notable when they have been gone for months. I wonder if the Cactus Wren was as pleasantly surprised to hear the sound of his cousin as we were. Thinking they prefer more water than the Mojave can provide I didn’t expect to be visited by Canyon Wrens. It sings one of my favorite birdsongs and hearing its descending notes echo down our canyon walls like I have in some of my most beautiful memories across the west reminded me that sometimes home is more of a feeling than it is a location. (Listen Here)

Joshua Tree Blossom - Photo by Tim Giller
Joshua Tree Blossom - Photo by Tim Giller