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.

Woodpeckers Without Woods

A tail feather of a Gila woodpecker, taken in our backyard in Scottsale, Arizona on March 12, 2022. Originals: _ZFC2221.NEF to _ZFC2247.NEF

As a child in Michigan we had woods behind the house where I fell in love with chipmunks and squirrels and woodpeckers. In memory the woodies were downies and redheads but the memories are blurry at best. I was in graduate school when I got my first camera and binoculars and fell in love with woodpeckers all over again. Now in Virginia, the memories are sharper, flickers and downies and hairies.

In Oregon where I spent most of my adult life we had flickers in our urban backyard, I was always alerted to their presence since they were also a favorite of Emma’s and she would chirp at me from atop the cat tree on their arrival. On the trails in addition to downies and hairies I saw pileated woodpeckers and red-breasted sapsuckers too.

Before the move to Arizona I was intrigued when looking at real estate listings to see what looked like bird holes in the saguaros of some yards, and upon learning they were made by woodpeckers wanted to see them more than anything. So imagine my delight at arriving and finding them ubiquitous, I can sit on my porch and regularly see Gila woodpeckers and commonly gilded flickers and on rare occasion ladder-backed woodpeckers, so much more often than I saw their cousins in Oregon.

Who knew to see woodpeckers I had to leave the woods!

This is (I think) a tail feather from a Gila woodpecker, having served its duty helping its owner navigate the desert, now fallen to ground in our backyard.

Fast Friends

A female American kestrel perches on a dead tree on the 118th Street Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on February 5, 2022. Original: _CAM4289.ARW

I was up before sunrise, though not as early as I would have liked, I blame the orange tabby who when he heard me stirring curled up under my chin and started purring. As I finally rolled out of bed and left for my hike I brought my macro lens for a shot I hoped to take, overly optimistic given the predicted winds, and as soon as I stepped out of the car I realized my folly. Changing plans I instead visited trails that by now feel like old friends, just happy to be out in the desert as the sun rose. Halfway in I met if not an old friend then a fast one, perched on a dead tree in the early light.

Meeting her took some of the sting out of later walking past my favorite saguaro and seeing fresh damage on some of her arms, and near the end of the hike passing a dead tree I had photographed before that had broken and fallen over.

Eyes in the Sky

A female American kestrel perches atop a saguaro in front of Granite Mountain on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on December 23, 2021. Original: _ZFC0845.NEF

Kestrels are one of the birds that live both in our old home in the rainy Northwest and our current home in the arid Southwest. In Washington I’d often see them hovering above a large meadow, looking for Townsend’s voles sneaking through the grasses below. One day I watched one hunting earthworms in the soggy soil like a robin in falcon’s clothing. I’ve seen them a number of times here but have yet to witness the hovering behavior, I’m guessing since they have natural perches that let them sit up high and watch for small creatures without a dense canopy of leaves or needles obscuring the view below.

Taken with the Nikon Z 24-200mm, after buying the Nikon Z fc I liked it enough to immediately buy this lens, partially for environmental portraits like this one of a female kestrel as the clouds rolled in on a December afternoon.

The Karate Kid

A female American kestrel preens while perched atop a saguaro on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on December 23, 2021. Original: _RAC2849.ARW

I don’t know who her opponent is but I feel for them, I’ve seen the movie and know what comes next. I suspect this is the same kestrel as the previous post, I’ve seen a female a few times this month in the same general area of the park. Taken two days ago in the late afternoon as heavy clouds rolled into the desert, the next day they brought a steady rain.

Favorites

A female American kestrel perches on a saguaro on the 118th Street Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on December 5, 2021. Original: _RAC1934.arw

Judging by the white streaks running down the saguaro I’m guessing this kestrel likes this perch. I met her before sunset as I was heading out of the park and couldn’t resist stopping briefly for a picture, I so adore these little falcons. Unlike my time in the Northwest I’ve not gotten to see their hovering pose here in the desert. I think I too would enjoy a nice sit-down given the many high perches nature has graciously provided.