5:30 a.m. in Cave Creek Canyon is gray: Cathedral Rock and the shoulders of Silver Mountain hold off the day. Thin light leaks through the gaps where the white curtains in the cabin don’t quite meet the frame. I stand up, pull on jeans, zip the hoodie. I want to be there at dawn. Pour boiling water over grounds. Out the door.
The oaks and sycamores around the circular drive at Cave Creek Ranch are quiet but not silent: I’m not the only one starting this April day early. I drive at a crawl to the road, turn east and wind down the canyon into the expanse of desert at its mouth. The sun rises in a blaze above the mountains as I park at the Rodriguez place. A simple gate (“Migrants Welcome”) leads to a twisting path through desert scrub.
“There” is a clearing in the thicket, furnished with bird feeders, a picnic table and some folding chairs. The congregation of migrants is already assembling. A couple from Chicago have arrived and this Phoenix dweller finds a seat. Mr. Rodriguez smiles and nods. If we talk, we whisper.
Not the birds. Finches, sparrows, cardinals, towhees, hummingbirds, thrashers, jays, quail—they wing into the clearing from the bushes and the wash, singing. They rummage in the dirt and rocks, nibble bugs in the branches, jostle for position on feeders. A pear-shaped Gambel’s Quail hen forces her body through the wire mesh intended to reserve the seed within for smaller birds. Fat chance. Green-backed Towhees work the ground, scoring bugs as well as seed. Mixed groups of sparrows and finches perch in a row on the rim of a bird bath, scooping up water then tilting their heads back to swallow.
Suddenly, everyone scatters for cover among branches and leaf clutter, and the chatter abruptly stops. They are responding to a threat—a hawk maybe—that my species hasn’t detected. A few seconds of silence pass, and then the feast resumes.
Mr. Rodriguez has impaled oranges, sliced in half, on thorns and nails all over the feeding area. Cardinals and pyrrhuloxia, their crests silhouetted against the blue dawn sky, hollow the pulp from the fruit. All are welcome to share the sweetness, but the juicy invitation is really intended for just one. Hundreds have flocked to the sumptuous spread, but we wait for her, admiring the rest until she arrives.
Finally, she’s here. She lands next to an orange on a favored yucca spike. She faces away, but we can see the black streaks on her olive-yellow back, the bright white on her wings. When she looks over her shoulder we can see that her front is as orange as the fruit, as yellow as a school bus.
She is a female Streak-backed Oriole who has wintered at the Rodriguez place. This is the farthest northern reach of her range: her tribe is south in Mexico, across the border 60 miles from Portal. We think she was alone all winter—no males, no girlfriends to keep her company. Mr. Rodriguez noticed her in November, and at first mistook her for a juvenile Hooded Oriole. Instead, she turned out to be a celebrity, and we the congregation are rapt: hands gripping binoculars, cameras clicking.
Meanwhile the riot of life continues all around her. We hold our breath while she’s here, and when she leaves, we smile at each other. It’s time to head back to the ranch for eggs and toast.