Many years ago in Oregon I was reading about someone who visited one of the American deserts and so fell in love they moved there and never left, and I thought “How do you fall in love with sand?” I wonder how much of my photography in the desert is a love letter to that past self, gently poking fun at his complete and utter ignorance of the desert but also deeply thankful that when it became apparent he was going to have to leave the place he never wanted to leave, he kept an open mind and found not just a new home but a new love.
This trail is in not just my favorite part of the preserve but one of my favorite places anywhere. In December 2021 I was taking environmental portraits of phainopepla and as sometimes happens, took my favorite late in the day while hiking out. I saw the male atop a crucifixion thorn in front of the Four Peaks, the late light starting to cloak them in their purple mountains majesty, near an old saguaro replete with woodpecker holes, and couldn’t resist a quick shot before continuing towards my exit.
I dubbed this mushroom The Artists’ Studio when I realized a prolific pair of artists was painting the rock face. Bear and I had seen both owls on our walk earlier in the afternoon but I came back out with my biggest telephoto hoping for a close-up near sunset and only saw the one. I got those pictures but my favorites were the environmental portraits I took with the Nikon Z 24-200mm lens, perhaps not surprising since I’ve been craving these types of images for a while now.
This first image is my favorite of the two, the second was taken a few minutes later and further up the trail so I could include the mountains in the background. The lighting is more direct here and the light getting much softer, often a look I prefer, but in this case while I like both I prefer the shadows from the side-lighting of the first picture.
On the last day of the year I was walking Bear in the desert when I noticed some extra color amongst the lichens. “A flicker feather!” I exclaimed to a disinterested pup, and since I had my superzoom got out the camera for a quick snap of one of their lovely primary wing feathers (see the US Fish & Wildlife Service Feather Atlas for more examples). I hesitated because something was off but I couldn’t put my finger on it. There was a beat, and a beat, and a beat, then I realized it was from a red-shafted flicker!
Before we moved here this variety of northern flicker was a backyard bird for us, and when I read that Arizona had both this flicker and a gilded flicker that nested in saguaros, I hoped I’d get to see one of the gildeds, however unlikely it was. Once we arrived I realized it was not unlikely at all as I had it the wrong-way round, the golden birds are the ones I see frequently. I once thought I saw a red-shafted flicker flying across the desert but I later so second-guessed myself that I struck it from my list. There aren’t any saguaros in the section of the park where I found this feather, perhaps I’ve been hiking around too many saguaros to see my once familiar friends.
But how can you not?
While walking Bear I noticed a large mural painted across a boulder in the desert and wondered who the artist was. While I don’t usually bring the telephoto zoom on dog walks, I had it on this occasion and there’s a nice spot on the trail here to stop for a snack break. As Bear lapped up his water I trained the lens on the rocks and was shocked to see the artist-in-residence was in residence! Bear isn’t much of a birder, especially not when they’re this far off, he’s more fond of mammals. There are lots of jackrabbits here, when he sees one his eyes light up as if to say “Giant rabbit!”, which isn’t quite true but I’m not going to split hares with the pup.
Another in my series exploring light as it arrives or departs the desert. If it looks like the towhee puffed out its feathers to protect against the cold, it hadn’t, this was mid-September when cool hasn’t yet entered the desert’s vocabulary, much less cold. I was watching it preen before sunrise and luckily it was still at it as the light peeked over the mountains, the hills behind it still in shadow.
I’ve been in the mood for environmental portraits the past couple of years but I still love a simple portrait, in this case a cactus wren perched on an old ocotillo. The ocotillo is sometimes mistaken for a cactus as the spiraling arms are often covered in spines, but unlike a cactus they grow out of the stem rather than an areole. The cactus wren is our state bird and I was going to say our noisiest bird but the Gila woodpeckers might have a word or two to say about that …
I wasn’t ready for summer to end but a consolation prize was the arrival of one of my favorite winter residents, phainopepla. This female turned the blue skies a little gray, in a happy way, as these cheery red-eyed flycatchers are frequent companions on hikes and dog walks.
A week after watching a pair of Harris’s hawks on a large boulder at sunset, I saw them again on the boulder but this time from a different vantage point. I thought about waiting to see if they would stick around until sunset for a different take on the image, but I was in the mood to hike and decided to hoof it out to my favorite cactus. I never got there as I found this pair of kestrels on a distant saguaro and spent the end of the day with them instead. I’ve long loved photographing the encroaching sun or shadow at the start and end of the day, I forget exactly when the fascination first took hold but it was probably on a visit to the Tetons many years ago.
I haven’t been out hiking since, I’ve been taking Bear on really long walks on weekend mornings and afternoons, I need to find a better balance but it’s hard because I can’t usually walk him during the work week.
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.
A little fall color in the Sonoran Desert.