The Sunset Watch

A pair of Harris's hawks look out from a large boulder as the setting sun colors the rocks red near the Jane Rau Trail at McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on October 30, 2022. Original: _CAM6306.ARW

A pair of Harris’s hawks look out from a large boulder as the setting sun colors the rocks red. Earlier in the evening I saw a family of five on one of the big electrical towers but I’ve not seen the birds on these rocks before. From a distance I could see three forms on the boulders and couldn’t imagine what else they could be, by the time I got close the third had flown off but these two stayed to watch the sun set with me.

The Mocking Bird

A northern mockingbird sits in an old ocotillo as the sun sets on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on October 7, 2022. Original: _CAM5716.ARW

I keep track of what animals I see in the parks but I’m not too religious about it, I mostly just pay attention to the animals that are close so a proper wildlife watcher would come away from the same visit with a much larger list. I’ve seen mockers in the local preserve every month except September, so I was hoping to spot one on recent hikes but had no luck. Yet in the first week of October as I headed out of the park, the light a ridiculous red from the setting sun, there sat a patient mocker in this gorgeous old ocotillo, just begging to be photographed.

The Sun Also Departs

A male gilded flicker perches atop a saguaro while a female looks out from a nest hole at George Doc Cavalliere Park in Scottsdale, Arizona on October 16, 2022. Original: _CAM5918.ARW

What’s better than watching a woodpecker on a saguaro? Watching two woodpeckers on a saguaro! I stopped for a while to admire the male when the female surprised me and flew into the nest. I watched this couple raise a family last spring so it was a treat to spend time with them again. I didn’t have much time as right as the female arrived a couple with a dog were approaching and though the dog ignored the birds, the male didn’t stay long. He mostly had his head turned away from me as he watched the dog approach, but turned back around for a moment as the female stuck her head out and then he flew off. In a couple of minutes the sun also departed, and so did I.

Fruiting

A white-winged dove sits on saguaro fruit at George Doc Cavalliere Park in Scottsdale, Arizona on July 4, 2021. Original: _RAC3743.ARW

Taken last year on July 4th with the light fading as the sun slipped below the mountains, a white-winged dove enjoys saguaro fruit before calling it a night. I had planned to focus on saguaro flower and fruit photography this year but life had other plans. I wasn’t able to do much hiking this spring or early summer, and while the saguaro in our front yard blooms it only does so up high and regardless didn’t produce much fruit this year.

Dinner Invitations

An American kestrel grips a rodent in her talons as she perches atop a saguaro on the 118th Street Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on March 6, 2022. Original: _RAC3004.ARW

This American kestrel invited me over for dinner but I had to make my apologies lest I spoil my appetite. The white streaks running down the saguaro are not damage but rather show she’s been painting a favored perch. I suspect the rodents of the desert will be like the Townsend’s voles of the Pacific Northwest, animals I see but only manage to photograph when something else is eating them.

The Disappearing Act

A great horned owl sleeps in a palo verde with saguaros behind it on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on April 17, 2022. Original: _CAM5131.ARW

Early on a spring morning before my hiking came to a screeching halt, I saw a great horned owl sleeping in a palo verde on my favorite trail. I knew I’d have a better look a little further up but as the trail undulated up the hill my view of the owl was blocked and when I popped out in the spot where I expected to see it again, I could find no owl.

They fly silently but I thought it unlikely it left its perch given its sleepy mood, so I backtracked down to where I first spotted it and immediately relocated it. Back I went up the hill and once more the owl disappeared. This repeated a few times until I was finally able to not only relocate the owl but place it as I had hoped, with saguaros in the background. Thankfully only the owl was witness to my ineptitude and if it noticed it didn’t feel the need to rub it in.

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.

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.

Will Get Fooled Again

A male American kestrel perches on a saguaro near the 118th Street Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on March 19, 2022. Original: _RAC3136.ARW

Last weekend in the distance I saw a kestrel perched on a saguaro and since the telephoto lens was still in my shoulder bag, just whispered hello to the female I’ve seen here and continued up the trail. Whereupon I found another kestrel on a favored perch, close enough that even with my naked eyes it was clear this was the female I often see. The other kestrel was still visible in the distance so I knew she hadn’t snuck in while I wasn’t looking, pulling out the longer lens I realized the first kestrel was a male.

I was in a meandering mood and went up and down parts of various trails based on whim and whimsy, when I finally made my way back I saw the male was still perched where we first met. But as I set up to take his picture in the late light I realized it was the female.

The ol’ switcheroo!

After taking her picture I continued on, the blue light descending with the sun mostly faded, when in the distance I saw what looked like a kestrel on a saguaro. But this saguaro has fooled me many times, new growth has started where the top is broken and that little bump always makes me think at first glance that a bird is perching atop the old giant. This time though my pattern-recognition self insisted there really was a kestrel up there so I pulled out the lens and could barely contain my laughter as there sat the male, posing for this picture at the end of the day.

Maybe one day this desert will stop surprising me, but probably not anytime soon.