Hummer has been slang for hummingbird since 1868, when Titus Fey Cronise used the term in The Natural Wealth of California. For birders, the term refers to one of dozens of species of hummingbirds rather than obscenely big cars or bedroom frolics. Having spent some time in Abbey Country with birders, I often forget it has any other connotation.

Cochise County, May 12, 2012

For a couple of months each spring and a couple of months each summer, dozens of volunteers gather in Abbey Country to observe and band local and migratory hummingbirds. Banding takes place at SABO (Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory) and at the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. SABO is administered by Sheri L. Williamson, who wrote the Peterson’s Guide to Hummingbirds, and her husband, Tom Wood.

Banding takes place at the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area on Saturdays from 4-6 p.m. in April and May, July and August. The event is free and interactive.

4:00 p.m. The bird trap is set to catch a hummer. A bird enthusiast holds a remote control device about twenty feet away from the trap. When a hummer starts to feed, down goes then netting. Sheri Williamson waits nearby at a processing table to band caught birds and release them.

This giant cottonwood is just feet away from the trap. Many hummers nest in this tree. During the two hours this Saturday, they flew out of the tree and right past the trap to sip nectar from ocotillo and other blooming desert flowers.

4:15: Tom Wood waits near the trap. The previous week at San Pedro, SABO caught and banded twenty hummers! So far, not one has gone near the trap.

4:30: Tom (left) and another hummer-lover wait in stillness for a capture.

The minutes ticked by. About a dozen children in the crowd continued to wait with more patience than I thought possible. The afternoon breeze along the San Pedro was warm, and the calls of several kinds of birds dotted the relative silence. Tom and Sheri speculated that the birds weren’t coming to the trap for two main reasons: They were already on their nests, and the nectar of the blooming ocotillo was preferable to the clear sugar water in the feeders.

5:00. One hour in and no birds captured. The man with the remote waits quietly to trap a hummer.

The hummers that hang around San Pedro in April and May are mostly local, and many are on their nests by the beginning of June. The hummers in San Pedro over the summer tend to be migrants from Mexico, some bound as far as Montana and beyond.

Finally, just as the crowd was beginning to give up, a cheer came from around the trap. Tom carried the black-chinned hummingbird in a small net cage from the trap to Sheri’s processing table.

Sheri’s examination begins. She’s wearing high-powered magnifying glasses.

Hummers, according to Sheri, have excellent spatial memory. They remember what flowers they visited and when. She is often asked if the banding process harms the birds. “They are incredibly brave and tough little birds,” she says, “They are emotionally durable.” They are not physically traumatized, of that she’s sure. It takes one to two minutes to process a bird, and they won’t leave birds waiting for more than ten minutes. The birds are handled gently and given a drink when the banding is complete. Sheri says she’s caught some birds up to sixteen times, five times in one year. Given their intelligence, she thinks, they wouldn’t return if they were emotionally traumatized. She says, in fact, that it’s difficult to emotionally traumatize a wild animal. Given the intelligence of the average hummer, the birds tend to go into a “this is weird…what happens next” mode, playing possum. Most birds take the drink at the end, and this is their way of saying that they’re okay with the process.

The band goes on the leg. This banding number goes into a national database that helps SABO and other groups track the migratory habits and numbers of hummers. The pliers Sheri uses were made especially for the purpose by a retired machinist. These are heirloom, she says, and will be passed down to another bird bander when she retires.

The band goes on. This little guy’s band number is P44045.

Now that the band is on, Sheri will quickly assess the health of the bird.

Sheri determines that this bird is male. Susan Ostrander, the SABO spokeswoman for the afternoon, explains that birds such as this are “dead beat dads”. Many species of birds mate at least for the season, and the male helps build and guard the nest as well as feed the hatchlings. Not hummers. Once the eggs are fertilized, the couple separates permanently, and the woman is on her own. Hummers are loners, as well, not migrating in groups but preferring to go it alone. Once the female’s hatchlings leave the nest, she flies solo once again.

Measuring the bill determines the age of the bird. This guy’s bill measured 19.1 mm.

Based on the size of his bill, Sheri concludes that the bird hatched last year. She also notes the “perfectly clean, uniformly green back”, and explains that black-chins molt partially in the fall, partially in the spring. If he were older, some of his feathers would have turned blue and be broken at the tips.

Kathy records the data that will be sent to a central banding laboratory in Maryland.

Sheri explains her process to the crowd as the dozen patient children wait for a chance to hold the hummer.

Using a straw, Sheri blows aside the hummer’s feathers. This allows her to assess the bird’s percentage of body fat, which is too high for him to be a local bird. He’s a migrant, Sheri concludes, “one of the millions that uses the San Pedro as a highway to get up from Mexico to the Rocky Mountains, the Great Basin, into western Canada and even Alaska.”

Sheri (left) and Kathy (right) continue to process the young, male, migrant black-chinned hummer as one young bird enthusiast takes it in.

Sheri wraps the bird in a screening material in order to weigh him.

He weighs in at 3.5 grams. That’s heavy for a hummer.

Right after the exam, the hummer gets a drink. It’s important to note that red dye should never, ever be used to feed hummingbirds. It poisons them.

The banding and exam are complete. Just about all that’s left now is his release. But before that, Susan whips out a stethoscope so that the children can hear his racing heart.

Their patience rewarded, the children wait to hear the hummer’s heartbeat. One of them will get to release the bird.

When birders arrive at San Pedro house between three and four to prepare for the banding, they are given a number. First come first served: if your number comes up you may hold the hummer before it’s released. Today, since there was only one capture, adults with numbers gave them to the waiting children.

According to Ostrander, some say the hummer’s heartbeat sounds like wind blowing through the trees, others say it’s like a cat purring. One man, she remembers, said it sounds like a Harley on a distant hill. Twelve hundred beats in a minute is not unusual.

Ostrander places the hummer in this boy’s hand as the crowd watches. Surprisingly, he does not fly away.

Since the hummer seems to want to hang out with the children, Ostrander transfers him from one child’s hands to the next. The atmosphere becomes hushed; the children even more reverent.

“We only got one today, but we got a lot of time with him,” one parent says.

These two brothers waited so patiently for the capture. I was impressed!

The bird seems reluctant to fly away, so Sheri gives him another drink to make sure he’s okay.

Fly away, fly away, fly away home.

It’s tough to say good-bye.

6:00 p.m. Sheri and the crowd wait for the hummer to fly away. He’s allowed Susan to transfer him four times, which is most unusual.

Then, faster than my camera can capture, the hummer is airborne, flying toward his superhighway and his summer home.

If you look closely, you can see the tiny black speck: our male, after hatch, migrant black-chinned hummer. Bon voyage!



Filed under Abbey Country, Back Yard Days, photographs, Sustainability

Riding the Wind

“I’m sure the way to enjoy life is to live in obscurity with frequent escapades” –Freya Stark, late 19th Century explorer

Cochise County: May 12, 2012

I arrived at the airport near my mom’s house with Tony the Amazing Tour Guide and Charles, another person who wanted to fly that day. I was a little nervous. I’ve been in many small planes and I love flying in general, but I’d never been in a glider before. I’d never flown in the air without benefit of the almighty engine.

The Sierra Vista airport in Cochise County is the most versatile airport in the country, my sources say. It is utilized by military, civilians, border patrol, and fire fighters.

The airport was quiet this Saturday, and we quickly found John, one of the pilots and partners in Southern Arizona Flight Services. His partner, George, was bringing the plane around.

John and George’s motorized glider sits on the tarmac at Libby Field–“Libby” to those who know it on a first name basis.

Despite the monsoon-like storm a couple days earlier, the May day was already hot. It was a little after noon as Charles prepared for his flght.

Charles, left, gets the 411 on the glider ride from George and John (right).

When Tony told me that George had been flying for 50 years, and John for 40, I had to admit the word geriatric came to mind. I was quickly humbled. Whatever ages these gentlemen are, it is the new 50.

George was a pilot in the army before he retired and started Southern Arizona Flight Services about fifteen years ago. Here, he quickly pulls the hatch down and starts the engine.

When Tony first told me about the glider ride, I pictured a hang glider and immediately thought: My mom will freak out! Many people first conceptualize a hang glider, Tony and John both told me. John reminded me that the typical glider is towed by a small engine aircraft, then released in mid air for the float down. But Libby won’t allow operation of that kind of glider, so they went with this Austrian motorized machine. The pilot (George today) will cut the engine at about 12,000 feet.

Charles (left) and George ready for the taxi out.

This baby is all wing.

Charles and George were gone from our landscape in a moment, audible only through the occasional radio transmissions that came through John’s walkie talkie while we waited and chatted about Southern Arizona Flight Services. In addition to helping out the military by shadowing its UAVs, the two entrepreneurs run a burial operation called Final Flight, complete with a CDU (Cremains Dispersal Unit) that George designed and the FAA approved. John, unlike George, came from a civilian background; he was a commercial pilot for decades before retiring. He’s also Coast Guard certified and in his spare time, if he’s not SCUBA diving, is a tennis umpire for the the professional circuit. (He’s officiated over John McEnroe’s games.) When I asked John why he and George chose to invest in the motorized glider when it’s a small, fiscally insignificant portion of their business, he replied without blinking. “For the love of it,” he said. “To share with people the joy of silent flight.”

Charles landed safely and I took his seat, remembering the thrill of being in a small plane, and thinking, as I inevitably do in such situations, about perceived risk.

George’s wings reminded me of my father’s. It’s fascinating to find put your life in the hands of a complete stranger.

I got the feeling that George could fly all day every day and still have this smile on his face.

George started the engine and the propeller quickly became a blurry circle directly ahead. It was noisy, hot, bumpy, and exciting.

leaving the tarmac for the hazy desert sky

We flew over the outskirts of Fort Huachuca and the town of Sierra Vista.

We traveled toward the Mexican border and the Huachuca Mountains.

9,500 feet and climbing

We almost have the altitude we need as we approach the Huachucas.

The bits of verdant green on these high desert mountains were encouraged by the early monsoon three days before.

Bird’s eye view: The Huachucas

The desert as it wanders into Mexico

We climbed and climbed, glimpsed the border and the Coronado National Monument as we peeked over the Huachucas. I watched the altimeter complete circle after circle with its two hands–like a clock gone mad. I wondered how it would feel in my body when George cut the engine.

12,500 feet. it’s time.

George pulls down on the throttle. The engine stops, but the sound of the wind is almost as strong. The propeller freezes and I stare at it whimsically through the windshield. It’s a strange, exhilarating feeling.

There we were, hovering over the mountains I love, a tiny plane with two people, riding the wind.

The propeller rests as we begin our very gradual descent over the Huachucas.

The closer we nestled into the land, the more I felt that impatient feeling I remember from my childhood. I did not want this to end. I wanted to hover above those mountains and never come out.

Before I knew it, we could see Sierra Vista and the tarmac. George spoke to John over the radio: a bunch of numbers and of course “Libby”.

We glide in for the landing.

John and Tony watch us taxi in. Another glider ride; another enthusiastic passenger.

Although my glider flight lasted about an hour, the afterglow lingered for days. It is a privilege to see our world from a different perspective. A few years ago my friend Holger took Mr. Lightcap and me up in his Cessna. It was mid winter and we asked him to fly us over our house and then up into the high country we love so much. We saw Lake Faucherie snowed over, Jackson’s Meadow a luxurious white canvas, sleeping deeply. Then, here in Abbey Country, I went inside the hills that protect Kartchner Caverns, and said as I still often do, that I will never look at a hill or mountainside the same way again. “It pleases me, loving rivers,” Raymond Carver said, but it is the mountain that is my greatest lover, and seeing one from the sky or from the inside out is beyond breathtaking for me. The morning after my glider ride I enjoyed my usual sunrise walk, complete with a view of the Huachuca Mountains. As I gazed up at them I felt a deeper kinship, a kinship that came from riding the wind.

The Huachuca Mountains on my sunrise walk.


Filed under Abbey Country, Back Yard Days, photographs

Border Tour: Naco, Sonora

Cochise County, Arizona

I’ve been visiting here for over twenty years, since my parents left the Sierra Nevada foothills community we shared and started a new life here in Abbey Country. For many years, my dad would take us down to Agua Prieta for a fun walk and lunch in Mexico. He died right after 9/11, and the changes in the country at that point included a general opinion that the border towns were unsafe. The media encouraged this conception, and even now Americans are afraid to visit the border. As I’ve made friends down here the last few years, I’ve heard a much different story. This week my friend Tony drove down with me and we walked across the border into Naco, Sonora. As I crossed over, I felt as I always have when I’ve been in Mexico, whether it has been a border town or the natives’ district in Cancun, during the WTO in ’03. There is something so appealing,so genuine, so homey to me about Mexico that I wish I could stay. I feel more at home there, in a way, than I do in Cali. I have no explanation for this. I might be tempted to cross over and stay, except that unfortunately Mexico’s treatment of illegals is not as compassionate as ours. Maybe some day I’ll get a visa and live the ex-pat life for awhile, as so many of my friends now do. The afternoon we visited Naco, a monsoon-like storm had graced the border. It helped put out a fire west of us and gave the May desert a rare, plump drink. Here are some photos of our hour in Mexico.

crossing the border

Naco, Arizona is a ghost town compared to Naco, Sonora.

This handmade sign weathered the rain storm, and speaks to the “homespun” vibe I appreciate about Mexico.

Many, many US cop vehicles on the U.S. side of the border.

The first thing you see after crossing: this mural painted on corrugated steel.

a collective signature

The main drag: Naco, Sonora

One of the few residences on the main drag.

The street sports a large median and walkway with dilapidated statues and parklets.

apartments above, boarded up businesses below

One of the two types of businesses that are prolific in Naco, Sonora. Can you guess what the other type is?

city park

police station

Wide medians–even on the side streets.

Que es esta?

This business is just reopening after siesta. We toured Naco around 3 p.m.

We navigated the streets via the medians.

Two universals: water and politics.

The Catholic church was locked up tight.

CAFO burgers? Who knows.

One of several buildings that spoke of better days in Naco, Sonora.

Another universal: video rentals and sales.

Another residence. No sign of life inside. Siesta?

still another universal

Three p.m. on a Wednesday in May; the school was deserted.

An old building that has stood the test of time: adobe walls and a tin roof.

yet another universal….

…and another…

Feliz Navidad en Mayo. And yes, this is the other thriving business: dental offices. Three on the few blocks we walked.

a typical street corner

Behind a serious chain link fence…

This tile piece tells the history of Naco.

The tile timeline spans from B.C. to contemporary times.

Adios, Naco!

From there we went through the labyrinth of turnstiles and fences, back to the border. Three U.S. border patrol greeted us with serious intensity, reminding me for the tenth time that day of Abbey’s Good News. “You didn’t take pictures of us, did you?” one of them asked without smiling. We shook our heads and made our way back to the van.


Filed under Abbey Country, photographs, politics

New Frontiers: Kartchner Caverns

Cochise County, Arizona

Whenever I visit my mother in Abbey Country, I try to take her to someplace she’s never been before. My mom is over 90 now, a world traveler who still lives alone with relative autonomy. She’s buried a husband, son, and grandson. She is as wise as her years. There isn’t a lot she hasn’t seen. When my dad was alive, they traveled to many places near their southern Arizona home, so finding something new can be a challenge. Amazingly, she’d never been to Kartchner Caverns, a state park about 20 minutes from her house. I went there a few years ago with my husband and sons, so I already knew how indescribably special it is. Not even photographs can express the cavern’s intricacy and majesty. I figured the walk would be too much for her, half a mile in dim light, so we borrowed a wheel chair at the front desk, hopped on the tram, and I wheeled her into the side of a very ordinary looking little mountain.

Cavers Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts discovered the caves in 1974 and kept them a secret so they wouldn’t get trashed by idiotic people, and thank goodness they did. Ranger Dave, who led our tour, said that men walked on the moon before setting foot in this natural cathedral. Dave, who seems to be a reincarnation of Mark Twain (who himself was a big fan of stalactites and stalagmites) was quite solicitous toward my mom, making sure she could see clearly from her perch in the chair. Her enthusiasm got the better of her several times, and she practically leapt from her seat, holding the rail and staring at the unique and bizarre formations that always look more to me like beeswax than millennia of rock, water, and nature’s chemistry. Wheeling her up and down the ramps, looking down at her soft grey curls and delicate shoulders, I felt a different kind of love for her than I’ve ever felt for anyone. It is not exactly a direct inversion, when the child begins to care for the parent. It is a sort of poetic payback, a retributive act that is in its own way romantic and warm. Pete, Ranger Dave’s assistant, kept a special eye on us, locking the chair for me when we stopped on inclines, offering his own brand of humor in his deep baritone. “What’s the difference between a cave and a cavern? A cavern has a gift shop.” Mom didn’t miss one joke, one soda straw formation or trippy “bacon strip”, or the deeply spiritual tone of the hidden world of Kartchner.

When Tenen and Tufts set out to keep their secret, they gave the caves the code name Xanadu. The most magnifcent formation in the Throne Room they named Kubla Kahn. There are benches in front of this formation, and the tour ends here with a light show, complete with music. I sat next to her, she in the chair, I on the bench, in perfect silence. I thought of all the Masses she’d taken me to, then later dragged me to, all the Hail Marys and Memorares I recited with her throughout my childhood. Now, here we were in my church, and she got it.

Witnessing her enthusiasm for this gorgeous place filled me with pride. Once again I’d succeeded in showing her something new in her own back yard. She came into my room to tuck me in that night, and put her hand over her heart, holding it there, pressing gently. “Thank you so much,” she said, “for showing me those caverns. We will always have that now.” Our identical green eyes danced with each other a moment. All around us, we felt peace.

[This link offers a map of the Caverns, and clicking on the map offers you several photographs. Visitors are not allowed to take photographs inside the caves. Extensive information about the Caverns is available onllne.)


Filed under Abbey Country, Back Yard Days, Essays

The Back Road to Casey’s Place

It was May Day, the day before I left for Abbey Country, and from there back to Nevada City. I won’t return to the farm for a month. So much to do, of course, but a perfect day to do none of it. A perfect Back Yard Day, as we call it. We were not born farmers; it does not come naturally for us. We are adventurers, travelers, passionate lovers of roads rarely traveled. Since Lightcap Farm is an alpine farm, it is too soon to do much anyway. It hasn’t snowed on the blooming dogwoods up our way yet. We decided to take Foote’s Crossing to Casey’s Place in Alleghany, a restaurant and bar we’ve visited several years running.

Casey’s Place endured a hard winter in 10-11. Several feet of snow damaged the roof and foundation. We’d recently heard from a waitress at Peterson’s Corner that Caree was opening the place up again–so we and Elvis the dog hopped in the truck to go investigate.

Headed down Foote’s Crossing to the Middle Fork, water seeps out of the rock wall along the road. On the other side of the road, a sheer cliff, hundreds of feet down.

The Middle Fork of the Yuba near Foote’s Crossing.

Along the way, we stopped at a mining claim we know along Kanaka Creek. (The creek is another friend of ours.) Since it’s not a patented claim, we are allowed to visit. She was in her spring glory, but a bit cold for swimming.

Foote’s Crossing Road ends in Alleghany, or begins there, depending on how you look at. Once in town, we wind through several side streets (the burbs) to get to down town and Casey’s Place.

Downtown Alleghany and Casey’s Place

I still have a lot to learn about the history of Casey’s Place. I know the Caseys lived in Alleghany and ran the bar for many years. For the last 20 years, it has been in Caree’s loving hands.

We were glad to see Caree and impressed with all she’d accomplished in a year. The foundation and kitchen have been repaired, and she’s about to begin serving food again. She also had exciting news: she’s purchased the Casey’s old home, within walking distance, and will open it up this summer as a bed and breakfast.

We chatted about many things. Would it snow again? “It hasn’t snowed on the dogwoods yet,” Caree said, and we nodded. The phone rang a few times, and she answered a variety of questions about the goings-on in Alleghany. “This is the only business in town,” she said, “so I get a lot of calls about the [Sixteen to One] mine and other things.” She addresses each question cheerfully and thoroughly, the unofficial Chamber of Commerce for the town she loves.

In addition to the repairs, Caree has made some improvements. She’s added this wall, separating the pool table from the fire place room, which boasts cozy Victorian furniture and a big round table. She also has free wi-fi now. My face lit up when she said this, and Mr. Lightcap smiled and said to me: “This place is beginning to sound like a writer’s retreat.”

Chef, tavern owner, entrepreneur, artist: In her “spare time”, Caree has been finishing this mosaic.

Since the kitchen at Casey’s Place was not quite open when were there, we reluctantly said good-bye. I’ll be back this summer to take photos of the new bed and breakfast, learn some more history, and taste some of Caree’s incredible food. We headed back on Highway 49, stopping at our favorite roadhouse, Peterson’s Corner, for Taco Tuesday. Filled to the brim with my beautiful back yard, I was ready to head to the high desert I love: Abbey Country.

Peterson’s Corner: view from the dining room looking out to the bar.


Filed under Back Yard Days, photographs

Three Crossings: Bloody Run Creek

late April in the Sierra:

Recently three of the four Friends of Bloody Run Creek drove to a few of the crossings we knew to check on the creek. The Wilderness Wino was out of town, but Mr. Lightcap and I and our dog Elvis were ready for action.

Elvis loves the snow, and he soaks up the last bit as snowmelt continues to feed Bloody Run Creek near Moore’s Flat. This crossing is the furthest upstream of the three we visited.

Bloody Run is only several feet wide here, and with snowmelt and run off, it looked like we might be close to the headwaters. But since then, I read in Hank Meals’ The River that a stream by the same name exits Sterling Lake.

Snowmelt destined for the Middle Fork of the Yuba River.

So close to Moore’s Flat, we took a detour down one of our favorite kind of roads.

Moore’s Flat is known for its rocks, leftover from the hydraulic mining in the 19th and early 20th Century.

Moore’s Flat was a sizable town back in the day.

We left Moore’s Flat and traveled toward Backbone Road, to a crossing we visit often on our walks. Sitting in the sun on the wooden bridge, we had only to look fifty feet upstream to see three hearty tributaries dumping water in the Creek. No wonder it had tripled in size from the first crossing we visited.

At the crossing at Bear Trap Springs Road, the creek is wide, high, and fast. This appears to be about a mile from the confluence.

A mysterious chunk of concrete on this rapid. I want to find out who built the dam, and when, and specifically why. I assume it was for mining, but I assumed the headwaters were near that upper crossing. All bets are off.

Wide, fast, confident, Bloody Run Creek near Bear Trap Springs Road.

Farewell, Bloody Run. So glad we’re friends.

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Filed under Back Yard Days, Friends of Bloody Run Creek, photographs

Sister Mercy

This poem was published in the Sonoma Mandala in 1987.

I would watch
Sister Mercy’s
weathered hands
work the soil
in the convent garden

I would hide half
behind the bird bath
till the stark white
of my anklet
among green weeds
my presence

Hello child was all she’d say

the smile in her eyes never faltered

as I watched
weathered hands
make halos
for flowers
out of dirt

children were not allowed
in the convent garden

Sister Mercy
the old retired nun
pruned the convent roses
and fed the seven
hungry goldfish
swimming in the concrete pond

I would watch
the light
hit them

as Sister Mercy’s hum
echoed like the chapel bells

and weathered hands
made rows of halos ’round
the flowers in the dirt

Sister Mercy let me linger there
though she knew

children were not allowed
in the convent garden

then: out from God’s bowels
like a hawk from the sky
I would see

Sister Francetta’s glare
emanating from her blacks
as she swooped
the chapel stairs

to retrieve me

from Sister Mercy’s sacristy

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Filed under Community, poetry