In our quiet village of 300 (Portal, Arizona), the loudest sound of spring is usually the bark of an Elegant Trogon. Today their sounds were drowned out by the drone of helicopters. These pass overhead relentlessly in support of 450 firefighters working non-stop to keep the escalating Horseshoe Fire at bay. The road up lush, verdant Cave Creek Canyon, so vibrant with life this spring, is blocked to all but (nervous) residents.
I have watched the pulse of migration surge this spring as songbirds come to this canyon. They come in droves, to feed on insects attracted to feed on new oak leaves, a veritable salad bar that is available for weeks on end, across the Chiricahua Mountain’s range of elevation. I noted arrival days for each species, watched the progress as courting trogons finally settle into nests. This road block stops the story. I wonder if the male Elegant Trogon I found today, in an unlikely spot on the bypass road up Turkey Creek, is one wandering, unable to cope with smoke and flame and the 450 firefighters we are so grateful for.
From an open viewpoint close to Rustler’s Park, I can see the full scope of the fire’s fury and, as fellow Naturalist Journeys’ guide Narca Moore-Craig laments, I want to weep. But I find my tears seem drained for such a loss from past experience with the fires of 1988 in Yellowstone, my treasured home of that time. So much of what I knew of Yellowstone seemed forever gone. “Again”, my heart screamed, then “why South Fork, why here?” We know only that this fire was human caused, under investigation as there has been no lightning. It comes from terrain too rugged for average campers. Likely the campfire or small stove of illegal’s, their paths so regular now in our mountains that we only notice when numbers are high, or when they line up tightly, wear black and carry bales to parts unknown.
I prefer to watch avian immigrants. I often go to Turkey Creek, a spot where the bounty of our region’s biodiversity boggles the mind. I watched in April as the mixed flock here grew to over 400 birds. I watched for hours as they fed in fast-paced synchrony, traversing some of the most complex forests I know. The warblers and attendant kinglets and vireos were so urgent and focused in their feeding mission, it was like watching army ants swarm over a log in the tropics. Mexican Chickadee’s metallic call helped me trace the flock’s route. In the US, this species is found only in the Chiricahuas and a neighboring range of New Mexico. Their occurrence demonstrates that these mountains measure higher on a scale that marks the Madrean contribution to diversity. The chickadee’s stronghold in their limited range here is the mixed conifer forest; much of their habitat is on fire today.
In our mountains, species from Mexico mix with those of the Rockies. Through intimacy with one flock and its dynamics this spring, I learned to cherish our mountains, clad so fine with a multi-layered canopy. I watched birds thrive on the mountain’s garments of oak, myriad species of pine, Douglas Fir, White Fir, juniper, Arizona Cypress, ash, locust and more. Resident Red-faced Warblers feed next to migrant Townsend’s and Hermit Warblers, which stop in to refuel before flying north. One day there was a huge influx of Orange-crowned Warblers, the next day, only two. Pine Siskins and Hepatic Tanagers mix calls with Blue-throated Hummingbirds. When a late-season snow caused the banquet of caterpillars to fall to refuge on the forest floor, the flock split – Red-faced Warblers diving down in elevation and northern warblers surprisingly going UP, to dine on insects tucked snug in the new branch tips of Douglas Fir trees which stood knee-deep in snow.
Our canyons provide refuge to migrant songbirds, tropical looking trogons and human souls. Today held perfect weather and, as we watched a hunting Short-tailed Hawk, I wished that I could stave off sobering sadness. To the northeast, I could see over 70 miles, up to the Gila Wilderness, the Mogollon Rim, the edge of the vast Colorado Plateau. The Gila is Aldo Leopold country, a man who tried to enlighten land managers on nature’s ways – fires, predators. I shudder in knowing that the fires I see to the south did not start from natural causes. They occur as a twisted consequence of our Society’s addictions and greed that fuel the drug trade and our inability of a culture to counter it, control it, or carve out a healthier path.
Turning back to the South Fork of Cave Creek Canyon, my view is of smoke. Soft smoke, for as of this moment, winds have given up for a day. They tell us these fires may burn a month, or more. Ridge after ridge, above some of the temperate world’s most diverse forests, is on fire. And this is not Yellowstone. Not vast, not wet, not as likely to heal. Our mixed conifer forest hangs on here as a relict, assembled during a cooler, wetter time. Hermit Thrushes emit flute-like tones to reverberate from the patch of forest I sit in. I begin to cry.
Read Narca Moore-Craig’s May 30 entry about the fires on her Blog.