The Eastern Bias Writing Project
We were standing by an abandoned house in the middle of a desert. A shotgun shell fell out of my hand. Ten miles away, I could hear a gun firing. In the rafters, there was the sound of a flurried wings of a dove. The sounds of the previous inhabitants echoed through the house; a toilet seat, half-a-sink, half a chimney. I wanted answers, but in the radiance of the desert sun, there were none. The walls were peppered with holes from people who had walked a mile out into the hot desert to shoot bullets into the pathetic one-story one-room house, floorboards and walls fracturing and foundation crumbling, chimney split in two. I had no gun with me, and we were not here to revel in destruction. We were here to see birds. Five hundred feet northeast of the house and a hop over a barbed-wire fence away, two thrashers perched upon a palo verde plant, and three hundred feet away, a male Lawrence’s Goldfinch began singing on top of a salt-cedar. A Gambel's Quail bellowed from on top of a black shrub. We paused momentarily to celebrate our success, then stepped back over the fence and carved “2017, CRTH” (“CRTH” short for the Crissal Thrashers we had seen) into the side of the house, below the “2k15” and above the “2011,” wondering what the person who had discovered birds here had been doing in such a foresaken place. The sun was hot and the birds faded away. Still, we lingered around the house, circling it, observing the mark we had inflicted on it proudly.
Then, reluctantly, I began tracing our path back. Three hundred feet to the right, imprinted softly in the sand, lay the tracks of an ATV, a human, a jackrabbit, and several whiptail lizards. I could see the track of the birder. What was he doing, when he discovered the thrashers here? Was he a researcher, a wandering hiker, a teenager who came to shoot holes into the side of the house? There were three hundred spots more in the desert here where Crissal Thrashers sung from the top of palo verde trees. But no one had discovered them yet.
89 degrees Fahrenheit. Wind: 16MPH, East. Cloud cover, 0. Today, I’m chasing a Le Conte’s Thrasher, but it looks like he’s escaped me. All that’s left is little footprints in the sand. Then the sound of more wind, and a few grains of sand being blown nilly-willy, and sun, and nothing, the desert left gaping wide open with a wide hole, with trails between mesquite strands streaming out where the thrasher could have run on indefinitely. What an appealing image, the one of a thrasher running forever - like the mouse on Tom and Jerry - with a soft pattering of feet, always out of the birder’s reach, occasionally peering over a sandy dune with a soft black eye, a tail cocked up, flashing an attractive cinnamon butt to any females who may be watching him run by.
It’s a puzzle, where exactly a thrasher could run to, here in this desolate land. This is what we call driveby county in Southern California. Ask the average Californian what you can find here, and the answer will involve either of two options: rattlesnakes and scorpions; maybe, if you’re lucky, a desert tortoise. But this is no place for birds or mammals. Anything that is not prickly or dry is sure to wither up and die in the desert.
And so it is with great puzzlement that I find the desert is always calling my name. I have no birds, no thoughts of birds at all on my mind -- all the same, thoughts of wide open sands and the tumbling sun are stuck on my mind. There is no delicate walk in the woods, appreciating the greening buds and sweet perfumes; walking too long in the desert is a death spell. There is only a grueling two hours long drive.
In the desert, there are no California Towhees prancing on lush sprinkled lawns .It is with this thought that I manage to feel a tinge of sadness as I am about to pass the Mountains of the East.
The sadness is always replaced with excitement. Throughout my childhood, the Mountains in the East of the county have been a magical barrier. Pass those mountains, and clamoring suburbia is turned two-hundred years back, into broke-down and rustic towns, with lovely names like 29 Palms and Mecca, a version of One Hundred Years of Solitude in reality. The mountains themselves are, among an earthquake of houses, a last reservoir of the great wilderness of the West. On a clear day, I like to climb the ridge above my house and name off the peaks. Today, I’m driving through them. The rain has turned them from their usual shade of brown to a dainty green, then the green again turns to a burnt brown as the highway rolls down the hills into the dry basin of the East itself. The color changes are a sign that the destination is near.
If the landscape doesn't give away your location, the heat soon will; it is unavoidable, seeks your attention, arouses your persistent discomfort, impossible to temper, deathly to an unprepared individual . Even in the cool confines of an air-conditioned car, the desert is dangerous. Getting lost while driving in the desert is an impossible feat: for a hundred miles, a single highway will stretch across the landscape. But gazing out the window, at the rat-tat-tat repeat of the mesquite plants and Joshua trees, it's easy to lose yourself. One plant, two plants, three plants, one hundred plants, the steady rolling of car tires. Stopping to get gas. Then more mesquite plants. For those who manage not to zone out, the plant life shifts ever so slightly with a few hills on the road. Then, the small thud of car tires as they screech to a halt. You've arrived. Your brain may be only half-awake now, the steady thumping of the desert highway having brought it to a lull.
Something about the desert emanates lethargy. It’s an animal sense, that tells you, in the heat and absence of water, spending too much energy is unwise. Humans come armed with their waterbottles and cans of sunscreen, but our senses our dulled nonetheless; to hike on a desert afternoon is to walk in a silent film, a dream. Out here, it’s important to arrive early to properly appreciate the sanguine beauty of a desert sunrise, when your eyes are still clear and your ears sharp. The birds, too, are hidden by the heat of the afternoon. To look for them you must keep your efforts before the sun hits the midpoint of the sky.
And early it is: 7:00 AM sharp, the temperature not yet rising to the nineties. I have the impulse to look for thrashers today. The shy Crissal Thrasher, with its mellow brown body and pale eyes, is only rarely encountered this far West. Instead, I'll be looking for the expected species, the pale Le Conte's Thrasher.
With its gentle countenance , oversized head, and softly drooping bill, the Le Conte's Thrasher is the closest to cute as a large bird can get. When running with its tail cocked and legs working in a flurry, it makes a comical picture -- the stereotypical image of a thrasher. Yet, it's a scene few birders ever get to witness: in the stretches of the barren desert the thrasher calls home, only those with luck and persistence cross paths with a thrasher.
I wish I could say I had a strategy to look for thrashers. Instead, I walk slowly among the shrubs, focusing my eyes between them, hoping to catch a glance of a tail here, or a foot there. Maybe an ill-uttered call will give away a hiding bird. But in the desert, sounds are hard to hold on to. Before you can sharply tune in on them, they have dissapeared, dissipated in the wind the sand.
Perhaps the thrashers have the same impulse as I. To run, to move with the wind and sun, along the roads of the desert.
The truth is, regardless of what I would like to believe, thrashers are not so mobile. They tend to keep the same mates, in the same territory, year-after-year. And herein lies the secret to finding a thrasher. Once an area with thrashers is found, there is a good chance to anyone who seeks to find one that they will still be there; through years of drought, rain, heat, cold, a thrasher will persist. It has no need to drink: water from insects suffice enough for its desert-adapted metabolism. The Le Conte's Thrasher is the survivor of the bird world.
Few expected to find it thriving in a world so alien to humans and other birds, and so, for years after its discovery, it was coveted as a rare bird. Now it is desired by birders as a so called "specialty bird." Between then and now, it has become no less prized. The desert remains unconquerable as ever, and so the thrasher remains unconquerable too, most running their entire lives without so much as a peek from a human, as most humans run their entire lives without so much as a peek at a thrasher.
And so it is with a sense of respect for the desert that I give up today's thrasher chase. The Le Conte's Thrasher has eluded me today. It is time to run along on our own different lives, the thrasher along the mesquite tracks, me, down the I-5 freeway. Another day, we may cross paths.