Halfway between Flagstaff and Sedona lies a lush bird oasis along Oak Creek. Exploring there one morning close to Cave Springs Campground, Sandra and I witnessed the magnetism of water in a dry land. We explored the richness of life in layers, from the pooling, flowing and swirling creek to the streamside wildflowers and higher to shrubs and at last to the spreading sycamores and ponderosa pines. When a red-shafted flicker spread his wing to preen, the fiery feathers matched the fire of the red rocks. Life is both halcyon here – tranquil and green – and as dazzling as flames.
Reflecting later, I’ve thought about this experience in two ways. From a practical point, I take inspiration from the wild to this beautiful idea of re-wilding our own yards and communities in multiple layers of life that match the nature of the place we life. Every plant layer yields homes for countless insects and in turn the birds that feed upon them and nest within trees, on branches or tucked under logs. From a spiritual angle, layers teach us about living life not just as a linear chronology but to plumb the depths of our experience, so that each day is fully three-dimensional.
What is it to live life like the red-faced warbler we witnessed that morning?
This magical long-distance migrant sipped water from Oak Creek, its startling scarlet and black face reflected in the shiny surface. Then up it flew to a branch close above us to hunt for caterpillars. The red-faced warbler nests in a small hole in the ground, lining its cup nest with soft grasses and hairs of wild animals.
To see the little-studied neotropical migratory bird in the United States takes visiting the higher forests of northern Arizona and New Mexico. I had the good fortune to watch several of these mysterious warblers along Oak Creek as they flitted from the water to the outer branches of trees, tracing the layers of life with agility and grace. Sandra and I saw juveniles begging for food, too. What a place to raise a family! Their life here seemed so safe, anchored in a protected paradise of green with bountiful insects an sheltering leaves in layer upon layer.
To reach this breeding home, the adults had to fly from Central America or Mexico northward hundreds and hundreds of miles. From on high, they sought out safe places to rest and to feed that grow fewer and fewer as our cities and suburbs sprawl, and as waters dry up to quench our thirst and desire. They had to risk striking high buildings perhaps in Tucson or Phoenix and to dodge the propellers of wind farms. In spite of such forbidding obstacles, they made it, finding wild stopovers that very possibly included the yards of people who are cultivating native plants and adding their habitat patch to a quilt of hope along flyways.
The flight story is true not just for the red-faced warblers. but for the painted redstarts we watched that morning too. Borrowing Sandra’s Canon Powershot SX50 camera, I was able to zoom in on birds with unpracticed zeal. Here’s a juvenile painted redstart on a sandstone boulder just above the creek.
The flashy adults with their brilliant red bellies were trickier to focus on as they flitted among branches, fanning their tails and lighting up the sycamores. Like the red-faced warblers, they are southwestern novelties and also nest on the ground, which I found fascinating and a reminder to always delve beyond identification to finding out more of life history.
Delving into life history of the remarkable birds of Oak Creek Canyon we saw that morning enriched my understanding of their journeys and habitat. The more I savor and learn about birds in the wild, the better I can then convey what it is to be “bird-friendly” around our homes, schools, community parks and more. That’s part of my quest as I journey now in my “Alcyon” camper. The other part? I’m learning from birds and experiences about life well below and above the surface of existence.
Coming up? I’m writing next about a truly unexpected gift in the company of Steve Loken and his cowboy brother Terry – a sermon “from the mount” on the rodeo grounds of Driggs where a cowboy preacher on horseback offered a few pearls about living to our fullest potential. What does that have to do with birds and halcyon and life? It’s another mysterious layer that takes an open mind and an embracing of the unfamiliar.