“You hear that?!” I asked as Sam fidgeted with the speaker.
“Hold on,” he put the speaker in his pocket and readied his binoculars, “OK, where was that bird singing from. His eyes disappeared into his binoculars.
“It sounded like it came from that Goodding’s Willow out there.” I pointed to a tall willow in the middle of a marshy pond. The rising sun warmed my back as I squinted into my binoculars toward the bird.
“Do you see it?” Sam stepped through some low branches for a better look. “These fucking limbs are in the way,” he swatted branches with his free hand as the other continued to hold the binoculars to his eyes. “I see it! He’s about 5 meters off the ground just on the left side of the willow tree….”
“Hey, Danny. I can see him. He’s flying around on the willow.” Sam was occupied while I lifted pieces of wood and litter from my knees.
“Nice, I’ll be right there.” I hollered from under a nice piece of scrap metal siding, determined to find the lizard.
I had seen the lizard dodge under the debris pile, but no sign of it remained as I crawled along the ground searching. It probably shot out of the back of this pile before I saw. Zebra tailed lizards are damn fast, I thought to myself. Lot’s of places to hide too.
“Ok, so where’s this bird at?” I dusted off my pants as I brought my binoculars back to my eyes and looked over Sam’s shoulder.
“So, what’s the total count here, Sam. I counted 4 WIFL, 3 Verdin, 1 Phainopepla, about 20 tri-colored blackbirds in that flock by the first pond.” I rambled off several more birds that we’d seen as Sam tallied and checked some additional boxes on the data sheet. His focus honed in as his pencil danced along the paper.
“We had a total of 4 Willow Flycatchers! Hell yeah.” We slapped a happy five. The sun was now rising above tops of the cottonwoods to the east and the temperature was rising.
“I’m gonna go find Ronald?” I pulled a water bottle from my bag for a drink and made for Ronald’s house.
It was easily well into the upper 90s now, and the birds were mostly quiet. Except for the occasional murmur of mourning doves throughout the property, it was still. A jet plane passed overhead, leaving a white streak and a soft rumble. I looked toward Ronald’s small white house and far in the back, behind, near one of the tattered old barns, I noticed an RV with a white four door truck parked in front of it. I hadn’t noticed it the night before, or in the morning when we got up.
“Huh, yeah, ok… I’m gonna go read my book.” Sam, distractedly, called back as he bit into an apple.
The sun beat down as a gentle breeze cooled my sweaty skin. As I walked thru the gate on the front lawn, I checked the juniper tree for the resident long-tailed brush lizard I had seen before. No sign of it now, maybe too hot. Ronald’s front door was open, with just the screen door to keep the flies out. The television was on again. This time, a late morning infomercial touting the benefits of an all-natural Ginkgo Biloba derived weight loss supplement.
“You watching this shit, Ronald?” I teased from the screen door.
“Ah hell, Matlock reruns were on earlier, then this crap.” He called thru the kitchen as he prepared a sandwich. “Come on in, Danny. I was out this morning on the other side of the property working on the irrigation for the corn field. Came in for lunch and get out of the heat for a while.”
He slowly stood from his kitchen chair and walked in stocking feet to greet me.
“Who’s staying in the big trailer out behind? Hadn’t noticed it before.”
“Oh yeah,” Ronald gave a sigh and strained his face, “that’s Charles. He stays out here for usually a week or so at a time. He’s a USDA biologist.” Ronald had joined me by the front door now. “He stays out h…..” Ronald suddenly stopped talking and looked behind my shoulder out the door.
I heard a diesel engine pull up to the parking areas just beyond the fenced yard. The ash-throated flycatcher nesting in the porch awning flushed and flew around to the back of the house.
“This is him here. I’ll tell you more in a minute.” Ronald watched as Charles stepped thru the gate.
“Hi there, Ronald. How ya doing this morning?” Charles greeted us from the bottom step.
He was tall, maybe 6 feet, but pencil thin. His short dark hair was covered over by a ball cap with ‘USDA’ printed on the front. He squinted through glasses and made his brown eyes wrinkle at the corners. He wore a long-sleeve field shirt, also labeled ‘USDA’, tucked tightly into his jeans. A brown leather belt cinched tight around his waist and held his pants comically high. He had an overall happy demeanor, if not slightly pitiful as well.
“Good afternoon, Charles. You here for a while?” Ronald stepped onto the front porch. “This is Danny, he is here surveying the property for Southwestern Willow Flycatchers.” He proudly announced as he gesticulated toward me.
“Hi Charles. Jealous of your trailer out back…I noticed it earlier.” I grinned at him.
“Yeah, that’s me back there.” He replied with a toothy grin and adjusted his pants.
“You work for the USDA? What ya do?”
“I work on Raven control.” He started in a dignified tone. Ronald looked uninterested as Charles continued on with apparent excitement. “Surveyors come out and locate Raven nests, particularly the ones that eat tortoises…Ya see, some nesting pairs, not all, but some, will eat desert tortoises. And you know, they’re endangered. So, the surveyors look for desert tortoise shells around their nests and record the location of any that do.”
Looking at Ronald, I could see on his face that he’d heard this all many times before.
“So then,” Charles continued on, “I get all the locations for Ravens that eat tortoises and go…”
“Then he shoots them.” Ronald interrupted.
“Well yeah,” Charles interjected guardedly, “if a pair of birds is known to prey on tortoises, then I shoot them. Only the birds that eat tortoises though. Not all of them eat tortoises.” He must have defended his position often.
“Well, gettin hot out. Have a nice afternoon, Charles. See you soon.” Ronald said as he stepped back into the coolness of his living room. Charles gave a sheepish grin and a half turn. Standing between, I could sense the awkward relationship these two had.
On the one hand, Ronald seemed very fond of all the wildlife on the ranch. Even tortoise eating ravens. Besides, ravens were just as much a part of the desert as tortoises. They were simply carving out a living in the unforgiving land.
Then again, raven populations had unnaturally expanded after human development over much of the desert landscape. Charles’s job was as much a necessity as it was a perceived evil. I wasn’t so much against the killing of the birds, but it seemed like a pathetic attempt at mitigating the larger problem of human disturbance across the landscape. Like bubble gum plugging a hole in the side of a dam. Like a band-aid on an arterial wound. Like spraying cologne on a dirty diaper. The desert, with all its amazingly adapted organisms, was being fragmented, desecrated, and more or less destroyed by society’s thirst for more. More development, more energy, more outlet malls. And now, rather than taking aim at the larger issue, we kill birds.
I stood there for a moment, contemplating. Ronald had stepped back into the comfort of his house.
“Well, have a good day, Ronald. Nice meeting you, Danny.” Charles was turning back now.
“It was nice meeting you, too, Charles. Enjoy your afternoon.” I called back to him as he climbed into his idling truck.