When one thinks about the Mojave, a desert is the first thing that comes to mind. From the barren sands of Kelso Dunes to the creosote stretches that greet drivers as they enter the park, Mojave Preserve embodies dry and hot. The visitor center, Kelso Depot, is one of the few wet patches in the park where water is distributed along pipelines to power an aggressively green lawn. Alongside the center’s lawn and palm trees, salt-cedars grow on bare sand the color of eggshells.
My car is one of three in the depot parking lot today. A man sits in his truck, a makeshift eaves erected over his head. He’s selling cool drinks to visitors, an assortment of water and soda, on the hot day of May 27th. Collared-doves scatter like ghosts in a graveyard as I walk by a salt-cedar. The stifling heat stuffs birdsong into a cocoon of silence.
I’ve only entered one side of the Mojave, the Dr. Hyde of heat and sand. The other lies on the other end of noodles of roads. I drive through long sheets of creosote before the ground shoots up and up, car bumping on patches of rough rocks. Here the painter of the desert adds long strokes of green as he layers the landscape. The sky is cut against uneven horizons of trees, smooth above and splotched below as hills emerge like great dusty monsters from the desert.
We stop in a pinyon-juniper canyon that swallows our car whole with clubs of Joshua trees and pines. In the warm morning air, the trill of a Broad-tailed Hummingbird slides over my ears like a flute. Gray and black Phainopeplas pop across the canyon like fleas on a dog. From the South, a big flock of Pinyon Jays emerges. With them comes a cloud of sound and light as hollering dusky-blue bodies barrel to shelter. Small groups plop onto the pines, decked out like ornaments on a Christmas tree. As the jays disperse into the canyon, the sky flatlines into pure blue. I’m hiking off-trail. I’m painfully aware that under my feet, tiny plants are being ground to bits. It’s a sacrifice I, as one person, am willing to make to reach a coveted site. Tragedy of the commons is not a sin a single traveler can impose. The visitors to the Mojave, too, are few and far between.
Finally, the canyon narrows and takes a sharp fork to the left. It ends in a tapered dry waterfall bed. In the wet season the boulders that build up the cliff might be formidably slippy. The heat of late spring, however, allows me to clamber up the dry slope easily. Up the slope I hear the indignant whines of a raptor where, hanging in a cloudless sky, three black dots pierce the blue. One of them is a Turkey Vulture, gliding harmlessly with a pink cranium enclosed in bare wrinkly skin. The other two appear similar to a vulture, but every time they turn their wings towards the sun like a radar dish, it illuminates a body made of pure charcoal. Their sharp eyes spot my presence, and indignant, they wheel in a stuttering radius around my body. I’ve found the pair of nesting Zone-tailed Hawks. The location of the nest, where life is cradled in a haphazard basket of sticks, is less apparent.
Life begins in the Mojave. It begins for a pair of Zone-tailed Hawks, whose presence in the preserve eludes most. Here, bits and pieces of interior species just brush California. Gilded Flickers frequent the reaches of Joshua Trees across Cima Road. Hepatic Tanagers and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds dwell in the East. Juniper Titmice and Woodhouse's’ Scrub-jays inhabit campgrounds and juniper-pinyon forests. And Zone-tailed Hawks breed in the fork of a canyon which they have been returning to, year-after-year, guarding with raucous cries of platitude. My sentimality, however, is wasted on the hawks. Life here is brutal. Like most raptors, the pair will likely rear two chicks. One is simply a spare for the parents; a backup in case the stronger chick dies. From the moment of birth one chick is destined to perish. Millenia of evolution have decided that this is the most efficient way for a Zone-tailed Hawk to rear its young, and evolution functions without sentimentality.
If the remaining chick survives, a small avian victory is won for the Zone-tailed Hawk. In most range maps, the breeding range of the Zone-tailed Hawk ends well before California. Or, their presence here is recorded with dashed-lines that signify the irregularity of the species. Range maps are a difficult depiction; the range of a species is never sharply demarcated, but dissolves into gradual nonexistence. Here, however, the hawks have been returning since 2014. They may be the first of their kind breeding here. In the heat of late May, a rare life begins in the Mojave.
I watch the hawks closely, trying to demarcate where there nest may be. The hawks periodically perch and call, then spin into the air like carelessly-thrown frisbees. As they whirl, another vulture joins the canon of black bodies in the sky. The all-dark hawks welcome the comparison. To hunt, Zone-tailed Hawks rely on their uncanny resemblance to vultures to surprise prey. Turkey Vultures, then, may be one of many limiting factors in the extent of their range. If there are too many hawks, then the advantage of imitating a vulture is lost, because prey will begin to react to any vaguely vulture-like-shape as a danger. Throughout its range, including the vulture-dense pinyon-juniper of the Mojave desert, the Zone-tailed Hawk is never abundant. The imitation game between vulture and hawk is not simply a tenet. It flies directly above me in formationless circles, as I stand on the edge of a teetering canyon.
After a few minutes of observing the hawks, I leave them alone. They have hidden their nest too well for a pair of human eyes to find. That’s a good thing. Humans, as much as any other animal, pose a threat to rare nesting hawks. I am no danger, but the hawks seem to think so, anyway. Each second I spend enticing avian rage is a waste of their time and resources. I slide down the waterfall with the grace of a caterpillar and watch as the hawks glide away from me in arching motions. From where I stand, I see one remaining vulture as it spins around the dimming sky.