My mom and I are walking along the Colorado River at Lee’s Ferry. It’s Mother’s Day, 2013. During the drive, we had stopped and were able to see some endangered California condors. She took a photo of me standing with my arms outstretched against the sign showing a condor’s actual wingspan, laughing at how small I looked. Enthralled with the river that the ferry once crossed, she’s also just plain happy. A yellow bird in the vegetation makes harsh rasps, followed by gorgeous clear whistles. Like someone playing washboard with a parrot for a band mate, and added to that my mom’s and my voices in conversation.
Verde River last month, 1pm and so hot that I’m walking in the river. Lots of bird activity in this thick river forest. A summer tanager male flies in his red glory, perching briefly, then vanishes into the multi-leafed green. I hear the jostling of the flowing water around my shins as I take a few steps. He shows up again on a branch upstream, my direction of travel, a crimson jewel Iost and then refound. Ah, and there, there — the sound, of that wildly oppositional set of rasps and whistles!
The yellow-breasted chat was teasing me, enticing me to follow and try and see him. I felt so close, the whistle echoing against the wall of cliffs. Thirty seconds later I heard him way up the Santa Clara River. I walked along the trail for a few minutes, getting closer, even closer… It was briefly quiet before I realized he was up beyond the next bend. Worn out, but not disappointed, I turned around and hiked out. This same pattern has repeated across many summer hikes here.They merge into one.
Floating through Desolation-Gray canyons on the Green River years ago. My first overnight raft trip, and inexperienced as I was, more than once I stepped out of the boat with the anchor line onto what I thought was a gradual shoreline. But the shore was abrupt, a mini cliff, and I promptly ended up in the river. One of these times later in the trip, I had my binoculars around my neck, and they suffered from being submerged. Happily, up until then I had heard and viewed innumerable chats. Patches of loud yellow in the delicious green foliage
On many spring and summer mornings, I wander out at the day’s break to join its life. Roadrunner with tail up then suddenly flipped down, like a switch, and rapid bill snapping; 6:05am flight to Salt Lake; grasshoppers perched on ridges of stucco; dull construction roar from the development to the west; garbage truck back-up beeper.
In May I began noticing a repeated harsh jeet-jeet-jeet followed by deep clear whistle notes. I racked my brain. It was coming from the small oasis of cottonwoods and seep willows down the hill, fed by the condo complex’s irrigation, swimming pool, and storm runoff. It couldn’t be a chat — no, not in this mistreated place of illegal dumping and ATV use. And yet, behold the sound of yellow in green, my stalking hikes, feet fresh in the cooling river, walking with my mom — who passed away six moths ago — at Lee’s Ferry.
This bird-place-time is a map of memory throughout the Colorado River Basin, along rivers, streams, and even in my suburban backyard. Like eBird, the real-time citizen science initiative that maps peoples’ bird sightings, I am populating the yellow-breasted chat’s range with points connected through space and time, heightened by the loss and re-finding of my mom.