A fluffed-out thrasher sings in the last light of day from a dead but still prickly perch.
I was at the local park a few days before Christmas when I heard a familiar squawking in an unfamiliar place. I looked over to this saguaro to see a couple of rosy-faced lovebirds had flown in right after the sun set and went into an old woodpecker hole for the night. I had seen them at our rental house but not our new house so it was nice to be reacquainted with lovely if noisy old friends. They are native to Africa but a population has established itself in the Phoenix area, I’ve not seen them in the desert proper so I was surprised to see them here in the natural area of this small park near the city’s edge. I don’t know where I was expecting they might nest but it wasn’t in a saguaro to be sure.
Only a little sliver of red atop this Gila woodpecker’s head is visible but the whole scene is bathed in intense red light as the sun begins to dip below the mountains behind me. Even as I took it I wasn’t sure how it would turn out as I think in isolation the red is a bit too overwhelming, at least until the light softened shortly thereafter (but after the woodpecker left) when the sun was more obscured by the hills. I had been shooting with my other camera but the patient fellow hung around until I went back and got the telephoto one.
After he left I lowered the camera and set the tripod aside as I went back to my camera bag for a drink and to get my other camera. With the woodpecker image still displaying on the back of the telephoto camera I realized I could use my shadow to mimic the saguaros to my right and take a bit of a self-portrait as a reminder of the little trail in the little park a little ways from my home.
While waiting for sunset to photograph a particular saguaro I scouted some other trails and found a yucca I wanted to shoot, timing how long it would take to move between the two locations so I’d be ready when the light got low. In the meantime I headed up to the Jane Rau Trail to look for some antelope squirrels but got taken in by a phainopepla, then a mockingbird, then this black-throated sparrow. I gave up on the yucca entirely and had to pull myself away to arrive in time to photograph the saguaro, as I adore it but have never photographed it and didn’t want to risk something happening to it before I got the chance. Easier said than done when little tempters abound.
One of my fears when moving here was that it would be too hot in the summers for hiking so I was pleased to find that with a few tweaks to my hiking clothes (and several more water bottles) I could hike in the early mornings, if not without breaking a sweat, at least with relative ease. The hard part is not the heat but the early rising required to avoid the worst of it, as it is no easier to get up before sunrise here than in Oregon.
On this morning in early August I hiked a trail very close to one of my favorites that I had only partially hiked before, knowing it was much wider and allowed more physical separation in these pandemic times, and was rewarded with my first badger sighting. The sun wasn’t up yet and I hadn’t gotten my telephoto lens out so I watched from afar as it ran its hands through its fur, grooming itself like the muskrats and beavers and nutria I had watched so many times before. Grooming completed it waddled, and I mean waddled, off into the brush.
Further on this young Harris’s hawk came flying up, a mammal clutched in its talons, landing amidst a battered old beauty as the first hint of light fell upon the saguaro. Knowing it was offering to share its breakfast, I said thanks just the same but I had breakfast bars in my pack in case I felt peckish. Somewhere nearby, out of sight but not of earshot, its family was raising up two fledglings from the summer batch. Successfully so, I got to spend a few minutes this Thanksgiving with them all.
Oh this desert! Every sunrise, every sunset, every step along the path is a treasure.
Since we moved to Arizona I’ve been fascinated by the moment when light first sweeps across the desert or, as in this case, the light suddenly falls away. There was a particular cactus I wanted to photograph at last light but I was delayed watching a sparrow and a family of hawks. I had to laugh as I hurried down the wide trail, seeing something I wanted to photograph and the light disappearing before I could get the camera to my eye. I was able to get this environmental portrait of a phainopepla before the light disappeared from all but the mountains, a shot that pokes gentle fun at my misunderstanding of what the desert here was like, thinking it was just sand and an occasional cactus. But also a show of gratitude that I researched the area when an opportunity appeared here at the last minute, and for a park dense with vegetation and wildlife that drew me in and didn’t let go.
Phainopepla have been back for a while now and are one of the birds I see most on the trails I’ve been hiking recently. The charming flycatchers are a delight and take some of the sting out of the arrival of cooler temperatures and the disappearance of reptiles. I liked the flow of the dead tree branches as this male preened on a warm November morning but was even happier when I realized I could sidle down the trail a few steps and put the tall arms of a saguaro in the background to give the scene more context.
I timed my hike on Thanksgiving afternoon so I’d arrive right at closing at the neighborhood entrance where my wife was picking me up. The sun set a handful of minutes before closing, the trailhead a handful of minutes away, when I spotted a kestrel in a large ocotillo next to the trail. I first thought to photograph her in silhouette but the northern sky was already dark enough that I could brighten the exposure and leave the picture a little dark and blue, a nod to the quiet moment when the day begins to yield. I fired off four quick shots with the self timer and hoped for the best as the scene was not so serene for her, her head swiveling around to keep an eye on the two Gila woodpeckers below who were absolutely giving her the business. I’ve seen her and her mate around before, and I suspect the woodpeckers may be the pair who were nesting in an adjacent saguaro this spring, so this neighborhood squabble may not be the first of its kind. I had to continue on to make my target but thankfully one of the pictures of the lovely little falcon turned out as I hoped.