The winter is past. The rain is over and gone. Amen.
It's been full-on spring, by my count, for about 10 days. The mockingbirds and thrashers have been winding up for a while; the globe mallows have been blooming in the sunniest spots; and the fairy duster's gone all pink, but it wasn't definite that winter was over until I heard a Gila woodpecker hammering on the metal skin of a street light. Just as the high, strange whirr of cicadas means that summer has absolutely arrived, the sound of a woodpecker whanging on aluminum sheeting is incontrovertible evidence of the Sonoran spring.
Contrary to popular belief, woodpeckers do not make this racket looking for food—no bird is naïve enough to think that succulent insects lurk inside your swamp cooler or downspout. The woodpecker, in particular, is no fool—he's not scavenging, but announcing his lordship over the widest possible territory. He's simply taking advantage of the amplification that certain human artifacts provide.
Gila woodpeckers are all-around great birds—sleek, handsome, shrewd and strong, with a bouncy way of flying and an arrogant habit of command. Short of the hawks and ravens, they're the avian kings of the desert. The mob of smaller birds around my feeders disperses immediately when the woodpeckers show up, and if some spaced-out member of the sparrow/finch/warbler crowd—or, more likely, an insubordinate cactus wren—fails to leave fast enough, all it takes is a quick woodpecker head fake to clear him off. That heavy, shiny black bill, propelled by those neck and shoulder muscles, is nothing you'd want to see coming at you.
So it's a testament to matrimony when two woodpeckers dine together at the suet cage, attacking the cake from opposite sides with jackhammer ferocity and never a slip-up. You see the same thing with thrashers—there's nothing like a pair of crazy-eyed curve-billed thrashers stabbing and scrabbling their way through a pile of leaf litter, flinging trash furiously through the air, their bills flashing just inches apart. No one else would dare come within three feet.
In other news of the season, the colony of round-tailed ground squirrels outside the building is up and doing. Winter hibernators, they started appearing a couple of weeks ago, thin and blinking and wreathed in ratty halos of white fuzz. Those of us who follow the colony's fortunes were pleased to see that several recognizable individuals—the one with the truncated tail, and the little lame one for whom we had no hope—made it through the dark months. At first, they all seemed still to be half asleep—they'd sit unmoving, staring into space outside the entrances to their burrows and possibly rethinking the whole getting-up impulse. Lately, though, they've shaken off the hangover and thrown themselves into their agenda for the next six months: fattening up, fighting, mating, raising the kids, keeping watch for hawks and snakes, hiding from the hawks and trying to drive the snakes away by waving their tails and drumming their feet (it never works), fighting and fattening up some more. Then, right at Labor Day, within about a week, they'll all disappear again underground, as if everyone got the same memo.
For now, everyone's cranking up for the busy season—the land-grabbing, nest- and baby-making fat time of the year. Last summer's decent monsoon and the good fall rains have given us a verdant if not spectacular spring—the trees will bloom and leaf and bear fruit; the bugs will appear; all will be well.
The dark and cold of winter—a relatively mild season, maybe, but hard enough for those who live out in it—is over, and the rising energy infuses the scene outside my window not just with sound and motion, but with flashes of color as well. The leggy little yellow-rumped warblers, down from Mount Lemmon for the season, are coloring up, their yellow patches brighter and their gray streaks darker all the time. True snowbirds, they'll soon be clearing out and heading back to their warming pine woods. A young broad-billed hummingbird male that's frequented my feeder for months has more blue and green feathers every day—the gorgeous malachite coloring started coming in on his head and is now down to mid-breast, with patches on his abdomen and sides, as his mature plumage clothes him like a suit of chain mail.
He looks terrific. He's dressed for spring.