Voices Carry

A close-up view of the head and body of a curve-billed thrasher as it sits on our fence in our backyard in Scottsdale, Arizona in February 2020

As we approach the anniversary of our first year in the house I added my 37th yardbird today, of all things a ladder-backed woodpecker. I saw 26 birds in our sixteen years at our Portland house, the urban neighborhood didn’t lend itself to the diversity of wildlife we see here. Equally as delightful are the numerous regulars we see despite the small size of the backyard, including the first bird I saw after we bought the house, the curve-billed thrasher. One is currently feeding a fledgling though we’ve not yet passed the Ides of March! As piercing as their yellow eyes is their song, while I was photographing some woodpeckers a month ago a nearby thrasher let out such an ear-piercing cry I’m surprised I didn’t fall over into the pool! More typically I hear their calls carrying across the desert as they are frequent companions on the trails, one of the many joys of the desert.

Singing Soaptree Stalks

A curve-billed thrasher sings from a soaptree yucca flower stalk on a sunny winter morning on the Brown's Ranch Road trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in January 2020

When I think of flower stalks I think of the delicate stems of the wildflowers I’d see on hikes through most of my life, like daisies or columbine or fairly slippers. The soaptree yucca, on the other hand, has a towering stalk that’s thick at the base like a tree limb before tapering into thin branches at the top. Even so it is a testament to how impossibly light birds are that this bedraggled thrasher only slightly depressed its perch as it sang on a sunny winter morning.

At Home With the Curves

A curve-billed thrasher sings while perching in a dead tree with short curved branches that mimic its bill on the Cholla Mountain Loop Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in December 2019

A curve-billed thrasher sings from a perfect hiding spot, the short curving branches mimicking its bill, taken early Friday morning on the Cholla Mountain Loop Trail. I barely slept the night before but thankfully didn’t crash until later as it was a lovely morning to be out in the desert.


A curve-billed thrasher looks down as it perches atop a chain fruit cholla on the Rock Knob Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizon in November 2019

On Sunday a heavy cloud bank in the east snuffed out the sunrise but as I made my way back up the trail I was delighted when the sun poked through with such soft, diffuse light that it revealed every detail in the feathers of the birds and the spines of the cholla. I turned around and commanded the sun and clouds to hold their position for the next hour, just in case I had been granted the power of omnipotence without my knowing. Sadly I had not, though there’s always tomorrow. I was able to watch as the thrashers chased each other through the cholla, the black-throated sparrows chittered about, three cottontails poked in and out of the desert scrub, and sight unseen Gambel’s quail and Gila woodpeckers sang the Sonoran song. Just another magical morning in the desert.

The Song Disruptor

A northern mockingbird sings in the reddish light of sunrise atop a rock on the Marcus Landslide Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2019

Back in June I woke up early before work so I went out for a short hike, spending the morning the way I had the previous two mornings, watching a mockingbird dance and sing as the sun rose. The previous day a curve-billed thrasher had flown in and the mocker stayed out of sight for a while, but on this morning I got a picture of it singing right as the first light arrived. But then almost on cue the thrasher flew in, dried saguaro fruit clinging to its beak, and the mocker yielded. I noticed the previous morning that although it would lay low for a while whenever the thrasher flew in, eventually it would always come back to dance and sing, but on this morning work waited so I could not.

A curve-billed thrasher perches atop a rock, dried saguaro fruit clinging to its beak, in the reddish light of sunrise on the Marcus Landslide Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2019