I couldn't make this little fellow anything other than a blue-gray gnatcatcher, though my memory was whispering, "Maybe it's a black-tailed!" Of course I didn't know at the time to look under the tail for white spots (black-tailed) or a big white outer panel (blue-gray). But it sounded like a blue-gray, so I'm going with that. Happy to be corrected here. This is hardly an unequivocal shot, I know.
One of the totally cool things about birding in an unfamiliar place in August is the preponderance of new fledglings, all vocalizing. I'd hear this random chewp or teryew repeated incessently, and think, "Well, if I were back East, I'd say that was a baby grosbeak." Which is how I identified this baby blue grosbeak, by that and the hard metallic chink! his parents were voicing.
The most vociferous of them all were baby tanagers, which I knew were around from their distinctive nasal teryew call. I thought, "Hmm. That sounds like a baby scarlet. Maybe it's a summer." I'd never been around enough breeding summer tanagers to know their juvenile location call. This is the incessant call they give to tell their parents where to bring the groceries.
So cute, and so awkward, this wing-fluttering summer tanager babe. His bill is stained with blackberries, which were the most easily available things his parents could find with which to stuff him into silence. I'm guessing at his sex from the bright orangey yellow coming in on his breast.
I kept hearing a very chickadee-like ser-dee-dee-dee high in the treetops. I was delighted to find it coming from a bridled titmouse. I wasn't expecting that!
It swung upside down to inspect some insect damage on a rolled, yellowed leaf. That's what titmice and other gleaners do--look for holes and webs and little rolled shelters that caterpillars use for houses.
Then, to my amusement, the leaf it was pecking at came off in its foot, and the bird clung there for a few moments, holding the leaf like a parrot would, while clinging precariously to another.
We talked long enough to realize that we had a lot in common. Finally, keeping in mind the building heat and my new friend's oxygen pack, I said, "You'll never believe where I'm parked." I gestured up over the rimrock and said I'd be climbing it to get to my car. I told them how I'd found my way down into the park. "You'll need this," the first gal said, and reached into her pack to put an ice-cold bottle of water in my hand. I refused it, saying they'd be needing it. "We have more. You need this. Take it!" She literally made me take it. I put it to my lips, intending to take just a sip, and drained the entire bottle in one go. Wow. That was so good. It felt like life itself. I went to the hose tap and filled it, and drained that, too. Only on the third fill was I ready to hike back up to my car. I thanked her again and again and we parted. Guardian angels, they were.
When I got to the top of Slick Rock again, there was someone waiting for me. A turkey vulture swooped silently in, very close.
Again and again it passed by me, legs dangling in the hot air, taking me in as I was drinking it in. "You are such a fine bird," I said. "You're my totem bird. Thank you for coming to see me. Do you think you could fly over by the big rock so I could make a picture that shows where you and I are?"
But of course. The bird turned and took off for Cathedral Rock.
Then it circled back.
I was left with an enduring image of its guardian spirit, watching over me as I fumbled my way through its desert home, heading back to my car.