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DADDY-BILL AND THE FLOATING BLUEBIRDS

By Nic.Korte

It's July. I have seen rufous hummingbirds. That means summer is over. Birds are already migrating southward. (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/here-come-the-orange-hummingbirds-good-news-and-bad-news)

(RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRDS--AMONG THE FIRST BIRDS TO MIGRATE SOUTHWARD EACH FALL)

My first encounter with rufous hummingbirds was on the Bluebird Ranch in Northern Arizona. It was an unforgettable sight--dozens of orange hummingbirds zipping about in a large patch of pink bee plant.

When I met my wife-to-be, I had no idea she had close ties to a pioneer ranching family. A small town in south Texas was named after an ancestor—an early banker and judge. Mary's Great Aunt Gertrude (known as Missy) and Great Uncle Bill owned 36,000 acres in Northern Arizona. You read that right...their ranch encompassed more than 65 square miles.

We were fortunate enough to visit them annually for about a decade before old age led to retirement...and I mean old age. Bill was still working in the branding pen well into his 80s. In those latter years, a cow stepped on him and he didn't obtain medical treatment. He was badly hobbled, but he kept on working his cattle. It was poor  land...with all of that acreage they ran fewer than 100 head most years.

(GREAT UNCLE BILL)

They were frugal. Losing money most years. I remember a visit from a neighbor who had a new truck, a large collection of Navajo Jewelry, and a swimming pool. Some years later that ranch was auctioned from the courthouse steps. Bill and Missy's land eventually sold for millions.

Bill's daughter in law always called him Daddy-Bill, and that still brings to mind the old cowboy sitting at the end of their big oak table chewing slowly on his dinner---inevitably beef. Taciturn hardly describes his slow speech and the difficulty that it required to get a story started. I knew at the time, that I should be recording those rare stories...that I should take a leave of absence from my job and stay on the ranch for six months and write them all down. I will always regret not doing so.

For Bill, it required many years of working as a hired hand to earn enough to buy his own ranch, and by then he was nearly 50, but his own ranch was his dream and he accomplished it, and he lived on that ranch for 40+ years. If you can find a copy of the 1971 USGS topographic map for the Tolapai Spring quadrangle. You will see it... there on the map--The Roberts Ranch, along with the Bluebird Well.

Missy always reminded us she was a city girl and that ranch life wasn't for her. And yet, here she was, nearly 60 miles from anything but a small village. They didn't have a telephone, relying on a radio for outside communication.

Missy had been city-bred, but even in her family, there were frontier stories. One of her earliest memories was living along the border and having to sleep on the roof of the local general store for a time. Her family and the rest of the townspeople climbed up with guns and pulled their ladders up after them. The reason? There were rumors Pancho Villa was in the area and might raid their town. It is easy to understand why I was so enthralled with "the ranch," as we referred to it.

Having grown up in the Midwest, all I knew about ranching was from old TV shows. On my first visit, I noticed a bunch of planks floating in a stock tank. I asked Bill about them. "So the birds can get a drink," he said. Sure enough, I often saw mountain bluebirds alight on the planks and drink their fill while floating about in the breeze.

(MOUNTAIN BLUEBIRD)

And now I wonder, Bill was a cattleman. I never saw him so excited as when “Old Jethro,” an old bull he thought had died, suddenly emerged from the brush and walked by the ranch house. Did Bill put those planks in the tanks to help out the birds, or to keep birds that might have drowned from fouling the water for his cattle? I will believe the former because this was after all, "The Bluebird Ranch" given the name by Missy, for the flocks of bluebirds flying about during the early winter when they moved in.

This was high desert pinyon and juniper...not that great for birding but I did retain a few memories besides floating bluebirds. I've already recounted the mystery of the bullbats (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/fewer-visitors-at-juco-this-year). But, as noted above, here is where I saw my first rufous hummingbirds. That vision of dozens flitting about on a sunny morning in a field of pink remains one of my most unforgettable sights in lifetime of nature watching.

Rufous hummingbird populations have dropped drastically since then. I can't guess if such sights are still possible. Bill and Missy are gone. The ranch is gone. It became part of the Navajo/Hopi resettlement if you recall that controversy. I heard the ranch house and buildings were dismantled. I hope someone still fills the stock tanks with water...and planks.

This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to audubongv@gmail.com. To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, please see audubongv.org and “like” us on Facebook!]
 
 
 

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