Large Mercies

A cuve-billed thrasher swallows after feeding from a saguaro blossom on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2020

Even with a relatively long beak, come springtime curve-billed thrashers end up with faces covered in pollen courtesy of the massive flowers of the saguaro. Saguaros are many things, subtle is not one of them. I’m thankful for the mercy of these large flowers, because if they were carnivorous they could easily eat their fill of desert birds who thrust their entire heads into the blossoms (and later, fruit) to feed.

A cuve-billed thrasher sticks its head into a saguaro blossom on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2020

OCCUPIED! OCCUPIED!

A white-winged dove looks up from feeding from a saguaro blossom as another is about to land, taken on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2020

A white-winged dove looks up from feeding from a saguaro blossom as another is about to land. The incoming bird landed on the leftmost blossom so they were able share the perch for a while. I haven’t seen so many white-wings this year, to be fair I haven’t hiked as much this spring and summer and when I do it’s often on different trails, but we also aren’t seeing so many in the yard as last year. Which works out well for the mourning doves as in numbers the larger white-wings can push the smaller doves around but this year the white-wings are fairly subdued and it’s only the quail parents with babies whose wrath the doves have to avoid.

A Nest Surprise

A Harris's hawk sits in a nest in a saguaro in front of pink skies on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2020

After the hawk I had been watching flew off and sat beside another member of its family on a transmission tower to the north, I wandered up to the saguaro where it had been sitting. Wanting to extend the tranquility of the morning and with the sun about to rise, rather than hoof it up the trail to find the saguaros I originally intended to photograph, I stopped for a water break and to enjoy that moment when the light sweeps over the mountains. I lazily pointed my long lens at the old hawk’s nest I saw last year, I didn’t think it was being used so I was rather shocked to see one of the adults atop it. I put the camera on the tripod and got off a shot before the pink skies disappeared. When the sun rose, the hawk’s face was in shadow, as it was last year. A deliberate choice? I’d certainly do the same, the sun here is something else altogether.

A Moment of Peace

A near silhouette of an adult Harris's hawk perched on the tallest arm of a fruiting saguaro on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2020

My hiking has fallen off dramatically the last six weeks as most days I’ve been too worn out to get up early. I managed it a couple weeks back and decided to photograph a pair of saguaros in the light of dawn and sunrise. Before I got that far up the trail I ran across a Harris’s hawk from the family I watched last year, so I stopped and played around with some near-silhouettes as it sat atop the fruiting arms. I decided not to press on to my original target as this saguaro is literally next to the trail and I wouldn’t be able to pass without spooking the bird. It felt like a form of sacrilege to disturb the tranquility of the desert dawn, so I whispered “Take as long as you like,” then laughed and added “only let’s not make it hours.” I stayed back but knew I could really only buy it minutes as I’m not the only one who loves this trail. Only no one else came by, leaving the two of us in the quiet, relative quiet, as we were joined by flycatchers and thrashers and woodpeckers and wrens, with small flocks of white-winged doves flying overhead and mourning doves cooing in the distance.

I didn’t get the picture I came for but what joy I received in return!

At Home

A male harlequin duck swims in the crashing surf at Yaquina Head on the Oregon coast, taken at Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area in Newport, Oregon in October 2017

A male harlequin duck swims in the crashing surf at Yaquina Head on the Oregon coast, he was not caught unaware in this chaotic environment as this is where he likes to live. It was a delight to watch the ducks thrive in the surging seas alongside the harbor seals, two species so completely different and yet living side-by-side peacefully.

Three Predators: Ash-Throated Flycatcher Edition

An ash-throated flycatcher turns about in mid-air as it realizes there are two fuzzy Harris's hawk chicks in the their nest in a saugaro on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2020

An ash-throated flycatcher was about to land in the arms of this saguaro when it noticed the two fuzzy heads in the nest and did a mid-air about face and returned to the trees below. Flycatchers are built to snare insects on the wing so aerial acrobatics are second nature to them. Through it all the saguaro has fruit bursting open up top, offering up both its red pulp and its many seeds to all willing to risk flying above the hawk’s nest. Death comes in many forms in the desert, but so too does life.

Three Predators: Loggerhead Shrike Edition

A loggerhead shrike jumps from the top arm of a saguaro to try to catch some small prey moving about in the desert below, as two fuzzy Harris's hawk chicks sit oblivious in the nest, on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2020

A loggerhead shrike jumps from the top arm of a saguaro to try to catch some small prey moving about in the desert below. Oblivious to it all, inside the big nest of sticks are two fuzzy heads barely able to hold themselves up, young Harris’s hawks who can’t much move about the nest much less the desert. The shrike is no threat to the youngsters or it wouldn’t have been allowed this close, as unseen in the picture are three other predators, an adult hawk not visible from my vantage point but sitting atop a saguaro nearby, and two more high up on a transmission tower a ways behind me with an expansive view of the desert and any threats that might approach. An adult had been on the nest at sunrise but had left presumably to hunt while the rest of the family kept an eye on their newest arrivals.

There Are Yardbirds, and There Are Yardbirds

A juvenile Harris's hawk perches on a rooftop in the Troon area of Scottsdale, Arizona in Apri 2020

A young Harris’s hawk perches atop a house in our neighborhood in April. Last year I noticed all the yardbirds scatter in an instant when an adult landed on our back fence. Hopefully enough green space will remain that the hawks can stay as more and more of the area gets turned into subdivisions, as our neighborhood must have a couple of decades ago (we were settling into our lives in Oregon back then).

Hallelujah Arms

A battered old saguaro on the Morning Vista Trail has fruit atop its many remaining arms, while some of the other arms have been snapped in half or broken off altogether, taken in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2020

The rising sun illuminates a battered old saguaro, some of its arms shattered in half and some broken off altogether. But it still has a host of hallelujah arms raised towards heaven, all now fruiting and not just hopefully starting new life from its seeds but sustaining the lives of others with its fruit, a prized treat for many birds. In the picture below, taken just before the sun rose, a curve-billed thrasher feeds atop one of the taller arms.

A curve-billed thrasher feeds on fruit atop a battered old saguaro on the Morning Vista Trail, taken in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2020

In Death, Supporting Life

A lesser nighthawk perches on a dead buckhorn cholla on the 118th Street Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2020

Nighthawks were a new species for me when we moved to Arizona. I see them relatively often near the break of day, zooming about low to the ground in erratic flight like massive swallows. When sitting still they can be pretty hard to spot and usually I only manage it if see them land, as in this case when a dead cholla lended its support on a spring morning.