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  • Writer's pictureJ. Darris Mitchell

Canyon Towhee

Bird of the Week: 2/21/2023

Canyon Towhee

Craving adventure and knowing that staying home for a 4-day weekend would only end in disaster, I made reservations to go to Enchanted Rock State Park last Monday. If you’ve never been to Enchanted Rock, you should go! It’s a massive hunk of granite that’s over a billion years old. It’s so old that it has endured through not just some of the dinosaurs but all of them. It’s so old that oceans of sea creatures died on top of it and formed into limestone, only to all be eroded to nothing when the oceans receded. Best of all, it’s just about four hundred feet above ground level, so not too bad to get to the tippy top.

I knew it might be a challenge for 3 year old Xander, but I had a strategy. What I did not anticipate was my in-laws coming along for the ride. And I mean that literally. The park’s spots were filled by the time they wanted to join us, so the only option was to leave their car at a historical marker a couple of miles away, cram one grandparent in between the two car seats and stick Raquel in the trunk so the other could ride up front. Properly packed, we entered the park.

We started strong. Leo pushed on ahead, taking his independence as far as he could thanks to the wide-open vistas. Xander tackled each rock in his path enthusiasm. He refused to go around even one, instead going over. But then we hit the real slope of the rock.

Enchanted Rock is a dome, so even though the top is pretty flat, getting up there involves scaling some fairly steep granite faces. Leo was more than willing to keep going, but Xander and the grandparents were not so sure. It was not the ascent, they told me through labored breaths, but the climb back down that would wreck their knees.

Leo and I nodded, then shamelessly took off for the top. We made it. Found the marker. Ate a sandwich. Came back down.

The grandparents, Raquel and Xander hadn’t really moved.

So we went back down, making for another trail that would be more accessible to all of us.

I was birding all the while, of course, but there weren’t a lot of birds to be seen. That didn’t really surprise me, though. There were a lot of people climbing the rock, and most were chattering away as people are prone to do. And then there’s the features of the rock itself. Not a lot of cover on the massive piece of granite. There’s patches of prickly pear here and there, and stands of grasses growing at the top, but if I were a bird, I’d prefer to stick to the scrubby forest that grows down on the ground that surrounds the rock, rather than going up there where hawks would have a better chance at spotting me.

And then there’s the fact that we were in a dry, scrubby habitat. Not desert, not quite, but a place where cactus are plentiful and the species of trees are best described as ‘survivors.’ Birds in these places are more cautious than they are in forests or wetlands. When I finally heard one singing, it was not at the top of an oak, but from somewhere from the middle of its branches.

Still, I endeavored to get my glass on it.

I stood there, staring at this singing tree, and listening.

Loudest of all were my children. They had taken refuge under a scrubby oak and had entered a world of pretend. I could also hear Raquel talking to her parents about this and that while they caught their breath and sat on a granite boulder that had likely chipped off of Enchanted Rock millions of years ago. But I could also hear a bird. And then, with a flash of movement, I had it.

I knew it was a canyon towhee pretty quickly. It was about the size of a mockingbird, but with a shorter bill and just a bit of a crest. It had a long tail, and its feathers had a rusty wash around its legs and vent. It was laying claim to the patch of ground between Enchanted Rock and another nameless sister stone that was nearly as large and almost assuredly as old. I watched it sing, partially hidden by branches, and wondered how many plants and animals tried to make this canyon their home over the millennia. Ancient fish could have swum between these two mighty rocks. Tyrannosaurs could have chased prey down into the gap. If Enchanted Rock could keep a list of all the different creatures that have strode upon it, I wonder if that list would be in the tens of thousands or the millions. I wonder if the dozens of people climbing it would register any more than most of the hikers registered this dusty bird singing from its hiding place.

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