Safe in the Arms of the Cholla

A desert cottontail nibbles grasses at sunrise near a buckhorn cholla along the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

The rising sun, so easily blocked by hills and saguaros and even myself, does what I cannot, slip through the outstretched arms of a buckhorn cholla to embrace a cottontail as it feeds beside the Chuckwagon Trail. It is mine but to observe, to record, to be grateful.

Spirits

A black-tailed jackrabbit is visible through the desert scrub at the trailhead to Brown's Ranch in McDowell Sonoran Preserve

I am amazed how effortlessly and silently mammals move through their home while I stumble down the trail. The jackrabbits seem like spirits floating through the desert, I often first notice the black tips of their tall ears moving while the rabbit itself is blocked from sight by the many plants of the scrubland. This lovely creature I found not on the trails but at the trailhead of Brown’s Ranch, we shared a quiet moment before sunup.

The rabbit you are most likely to see at the trailhead, and on the trail, is the desert cottontail (below). They too move silently through the desert but are so much smaller than the jackrabbits that you see them when you see them, there are no tall black tips dancing in the early light to catch your eye. Like all the mammals your best bet to see them is to arrive early, here also at the trailhead but just as the sun began peeking through to send one of us onto the trails and one to bed.

Walking in the Sonoran Desert at sunrise, seeing the desert both wake up and go to sleep, is a joy and a treasure even to this lifelong night owl.

A desert cottontail is partially lit by the rising sun at the trailhead to Brown's Ranch in McDowell Sonoran Preserve

Soft Browns

A desert cottontail eats dried grasses in the soft light before the sun was up on a warm spring morning in the Brown's Ranch section of McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

A desert cottontail eats dried grasses in the soft light before the sun was up on a warm spring morning. I was back on the trails this morning after taking a couple of weeks off to let a sore left knee heal and didn’t see a single cottontail (or jackrabbit), most of the time I see at least one if not a handful so either today I was unlucky or perhaps they are not as visible in the summer. I meant to go hiking yesterday but forgot to set my alarm so I walked the pup instead, Ellie and I saw four cottontails on a short walk in the neighborhood.

Under Tom’s Thumb

An environmental portrait of a rock squirrel between two massive granite rocks at Tom's Thumb in McDowell Sonoran Preserve

I met this rock squirrel back in April a few weeks after we moved here. One of the reasons I love a telephoto zoom like the 100-400mm lens so much (this is the Canon, I only got the Sony recently) is that you can zoom in and take a traditional portrait of a small animal far away, like the shot below, but you can zoom out and take an environmental portrait as well like the picture above (when the scenery allows it). In this case I vastly prefer the environmental portrait as you get a feel for the massive rock this squirrel is perching under. Given more time I would have preferred an ever wider perspective with a different lens to show that it was perched high off the ground between much more massive granite boulders above and below than you can see here, but the squirrel only paused for a moment as it ran up the rocks at the approach of a dog on the trail.

I was struck by how at ease this rock squirrel was in the rocks as it moved about the narrow passages and great heights as easily and gracefully as a tree squirrel in the trees. I was delighted to find both rock squirrels and Harris’s antelope squirrels in the desert as I had mistakenly surmised I was leaving squirrels behind when we left Oregon. I fell in love with chipmunks and squirrels at an early age, we had a forest behind our house as a child in Michigan, I can’t remember ever not loving them. They’re a rarer treat now than then, but a treasured treat always.

A rock squirrel between two massive granite rocks at Tom's Thumb in McDowell Sonoran Preserve

Sniffing the Saguaro

A desert cottontail sniffs the base of an old saguaro in McDowell Sonoran Preserve

This cottontail kept sniffing the base of the old saguaro and hopping up where there were no spines, hopping down, and sniffing some more. Cottontails are the mammal I see most frequently both in the desert and in our neighborhood. Fortunately our dog Ellie pays them no mind, she’s never cared about wildlife even in her younger years. Although we still see them on our walks it’s been a week or two since one has been in our backyard, is there a number I can call to complain about this?