Phil Hardy — A bird’s eye view: Go west, young man
Published 2:53 pm Saturday, March 23, 2019
The end of January and first part of February 2019, found me on yet another adventure. This time my travels took me to the left coast with San Diego being my first stop. My travel companion, Ty Ivey from Macon, and I were keen to see and photograph the western race of Brown Pelican as well as other west coast species. During breeding season their colors are magnificent.
Our guide took us to the nearby town of La Jolla. The area is rich in bird life and the cliffs provide a beautiful setting to not only get close to the birds but the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean provided a nice background. Breeding plumaged Brown Pelicans and the beautiful Heermann’s Gulls were so close that at times I had to retreat to get the entire bird in my camera’s viewfinder.
From San Diego we flew to Gilbert, Arizona, for a duck workshop. Although the ducks weren’t as plentiful and as varied as we had hoped, the drake Cinnamon Teal we saw and photographed was a real trophy. And in one of the municipal parks we visited, Rosy-faced Lovebirds, a member of the parrot family, gave us great looks.
Our final stop was in Amado, Arizona, at a place known among bird watchers as Elephant Head. The name Elephant Head is derived from the outline or profile of a particular mountain that resembles the head of a pachyderm. Our fellow bird photographer and friend, Dano Grayson, offers bird photographers below-grade blinds to photograph the birds of the Sonoran Desert at eye level. This marked our second visit to see Dano and Roadie.
Roadie is not a long-haired, tattooed “dude” that travels with a band to different gigs. Roadie is Dano’s (almost) pet Greater Roadrunner, a member of the cuckoo family. Although completely wild, this bird salivates like Pavlov’s dog when he hears Dano call his name. And then suddenly, like an apparition, Roadie appears from behind a cholla or barrel cactus that dominate the property. Why would a wild bird do this?
Dano’s knowledge of animals, and birds in particular, has lead him to offer food in order to modify the birds’ behavior. In this case, live meal worms do the trick. It’s no different than a trainer offering a fish to a dolphin at a Sea World show or a bird handler giving a snack to a parrot that performs for audiences. I’ve even had wild birds take food from my hand in my own backyard in Americus.
But what stole the show was when Dano enticed Roadie to hop up onto a perch by placing a live meal worm in view. Dano then placed another meal worm on a more distant perch and actually got Roadie to fly from one perch to the other. Not just once or twice either. Roadie performed like this over and over while we took flight shots until we hollered “uncle.”
My mind took me back to the 1950s and the old Atlanta Auditorium when mom took us, as children, to see the circus, and where in 1970, I saw the Allman Brothers Band perform one of their great shows. I could just picture Dano in a tuxedo jacket with tails, a hat, whistle, and a whip giving commands to Roadie. Then my daydream ended and it was back to reality.
Roadie even enjoys newfound fame as a movie star. Because of his relative tameness, a well-known international film crew (whom I am not permitted to divulge at this time) spent six weeks at Elephant Head last year documenting this long-legged, ground-dwelling bird of dry, sunny areas of our southwestern deserts. It’s my understanding the film will air next month in April. The only autograph Roadie signs is his X-shaped footprint because two toes point forward and two toes point backwards. Roadrunner footprints were considered a sacred symbol by Pueblo tribes and believed to confound evil spirits because it left no clue as to which way the bird was going.
Apparently this year Roadie has a girlfriend. I don’t know if Dano has given her a name yet or if it is even possible to tell the male from the female in this species. But the important thing is that the birds know. A call from Dano indicated that the newlyweds are currently incubating two eggs in their stick-built nest.
As I wandered around Dano’s property enjoying the nearby Santa Rita mountains, the xeric habitat, the owl nest boxes. and even the local gila monster, I was somewhat concerned about an opened box with the word Acme on one side and the word TNT on the other. I guess Wile E. Coyote had other plans for Roadie and his new bride/family.
Meanwhile I kept an eye to the sky for hot air balloons and falling anvils. Be careful Mr. and Mrs. Roadie. Meep, meep.
Phil Hardy, a bird watcher and bird photographer, lives in Americus.