Christmas and Easter Combined

A house finch perches on the fruit of a compass barrel cactus on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on August 7, 2022. Original: _CAM5207.ARW

Though house finches have been backyard birds for me everywhere I’ve lived, I love seeing them out in the desert proper as it boggles my mind that they thrive here. I’ve only been out for a few hikes since the early spring and before that was mostly doing macro shots, so my bird photography has gotten rather rusty and I didn’t set up the camera properly so I was delighted some of the pictures came out.

It’s perched on a compass barrel cactus, surrounded by fruit, though because it isn’t juicy and pulpy it doesn’t invite the feeding frenzy that saguaros do. We have a couple of barrels in our yard and I’ve noticed birds like woodpeckers and thrashers poking holes in the fruit to get at the seeds inside. I wondered if some of the other birds would like a crack at them so I took some of the ripened fruit and broke it open by hand and laid it in the backyard.

The next morning a huge family of quail came in and it was like Christmas and Easter combined, a little group would find one of the fruits and they’d dance around and fervently gobble up the seeds, then they’d walk around the yard and find another until within minutes all of the seeds had been consumed. I repeated the experiment last night and by this morning all of the seeds were gone.

800 Pounds, At Least

A Sonoran Desert toad sits on the sidewalk in front of our door in Scottsdale, Arizona on July 29, 2022. Original: _Z723703.NEF

A couple of weeks ago my wife mentioned our dog Bear was interested in something outside and even our cat Trixie was pawing at the door. She hadn’t seen anything outside so I grabbed a small flashlight to have a look, mostly worried a neighborhood dog or cat had gotten loose but also hoping for a glimpse of a bobcat or coyote. I could hear something moving in the yard but my brain couldn’t place the sound with anything familiar and the sweep of my flashlight revealed no clues.

I turned the corner of our garage and couldn’t process what I was seeing. There at my feet was something with the look of a toad but the size of a bullfrog. Despite clearly being alive my brain kept thinking it was a ceramic toad someone left on our doorstep, as though that was a more likely alternative than a living, breathing giant toad in our yard.

I went inside to grab my camera and came out moving gingerly to avoid disturbing it, though it didn’t seem too bothered by me. I put the flashlight on the ground to illuminate it and took a quick shot before leaving it be. After giving it room to hop into the yard I noticed a visibly smaller toad a few feet away that would still have been the largest toad I had ever seen were it not for the behemoth I had just photographed.

I turned out the light and just listened for a while to the sound of an 800 pound toad (an estimate, I didn’t weigh it) hopping across the stones in the dark. I went inside and got out “A Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles in Arizona” by Thomas Brennan and Andrew Holycross and without even looking at the pictures just scanned the words, skipping past the toad descriptions that began “A small” or “A medium” and stopping as soon as I read “The largest toad in the United States”. Their picture matched mine and knew my first amphibian in the desert was a Sonoran Desert toad.

At first I was disappointed it wasn’t a more scenic shot but I came to love that our door is visible behind it as this is the same spot last year where I saw my first black witch, a previously unknown-to-me species that like this toad is not only the biggest in our land but is so big my eyes couldn’t see what they were seeing. I also saw my first kingsnake in the bushes to my left and have seen our native gecko here (my first sighting of one was in our backyard though). I’ve not tried identifying the bats that sometimes hang out here. Nor the giant crab-like spider I saw walking upside down, I didn’t look long as I already have enough trouble sleeping at night. Javelina and bobcat come through here too.

I won’t be surprised if next summer I step outside and see a sixty foot rattlesnake or some other behemoth I didn’t know existed. I mean I will be surprised but …

Fear of Flying

A close-up of the jumbled arms of an old saguaro on the Metate Trail in Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area in Cave Creek, Arizona on February 27, 2022. Originals: _ZFC1441.NEF to _ZFC1450.NEF

I’ll do just about anything to avoid getting on a plane but it’s not because I’m afraid of the plane crashing. Rather this jumble of saguaro arms is a visual representation of how I feel when packed into a crowded boarding area or jammed into the ever-shrinking plane seats. Thankfully I rarely have to fly as let’s just say I’m not a fan.

While I was thinking of that when I took this image early in the year, it’s also how I came to feel about much of this year, which got me thinking about bringing my retirement date in as early as we can, to live a quieter and simpler life.

Taken with the Nikon Z fc and 105 mm macro lens, this is a focus stack of 10 images so I could keep even the background arms in focus, to better emphasize the jumbled nature of this gorgeous cactus up in Spur Cross.

As the Raven Flies

A common raven looks out from a flowering saguaro, taken from the Chuckwagon Trail at McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on June 6, 2021. Original: _RAC2888.ARW

A common raven looks out from a flowering saguaro, one of a pair raising their young in an old hawk’s nest in a nearby saguaro. If I could fly as the raven flies I could fly just to the left of the mountain and land at our house. Alas I have to hike as the human hikes and drive as the Lexus drives so my route home is a little more circuitous. One of the reasons I chose this house is that it is surrounded by an embarrassment of trails within a 10 or 15 minute drive, each dense with the plants and animals I love so much. There are trails in other parts of the metro area with better views but I know where my heart lies.

One day I hope to take a single picture that includes each of our types of cactus and while this image doesn’t pull that off, I think it’s as close as I’ve yet come.

Ordinary Days

Our dog Bear sleeps on his dog bed while our cats Boo and Trixie sit on the futon on April 10, 2022. Original: _Z721143.NEF

If this seems like a picture of an ordinary living room, it is, and it’s why I love it. When we first adopted Bear we kept him in our large bedroom as he would sometimes chase the cats. I wasn’t too worried he was going to physically hurt them but he needed to be calm around his furry masters so they wouldn’t live in terror of him. He had lived with cats before but I didn’t see much indication of it and felt if he didn’t get better quickly we wouldn’t be able to keep him.

I took the picture in April on a day off when I brought him into the living room and had him stay on his bed and let the cats come as close as they wanted. The cats grew up with Ellie so were willing to give him a chance but not if he was going to chase them. The first day I had to keep him on a pretty short leash but on this the second day he was much more relaxed. When he fell asleep I got up and sat on the couch and Trixie came in and sat behind me, eventually even Boo worked up the courage to sit beside me. When they were both a little more relaxed I got up to take a picture of the three of them, and while I did Boo stole my spot. Some traditions must be upheld even in the presence of a scary dog.

I’m thankful to say Bear’s cat manners did improve as he got used to the little ones and he eventually earned his freedom to roam the house. With Boo I would feed both he and Bear some of Boo’s favorite treats and Boo would come right up next to Bear for those, which helped them get used to each other. I had to laugh when one day I came home from work and both Boo and Bear came to meet me at the door, with Boo standing underneath Bear, a sign of how far we had come. Trixie was less afraid of him from the get go but I knew she was getting used to him when she was sleeping on my legs and Bear came in and gave her a good sniff and then licked her in the face and she took the indignity in stride.