It’s Starting To Look a Lot Like Christmas

A cactus wren perches atop a saguaro with its beak stuffed full of the soft white material that grows on new growth at the base of the spines, particles of the white material streaming behind it, on the Cholla Mountain Loop Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in November 2019

I don’t normally associate the word ‘soft’ with saguaros but they do have this soft white material on new growth where the spines develop. A few weeks ago this cactus wren gleefully ripped out as much as it could carry in its beak before flying off, only to return for more. Normally I would assume it was looking for soft material to line its nest but at this time of year it must be that the male cardinals dress up as Santa Claus for Christmas and the wrens do their part by gathering material for the long white beards. This desert does know how to put on a show!

Feeling at Home

A view of the crested saguaro I call Witch Hazel with Brown's Mountain in the background, taken from the Vaquero Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in November 2019

When we arrived in Arizona the desert was both exciting and bewildering, like I had been plunked down into a new earth that only hinted at the shapes and forms I had known all my life. Brown’s Ranch helped orient me in two ways, both on display in this view of the crested saguaro on the Vaquero Trail. First were the saguaros themselves, they tower above the desert floor and while initially most seemed similar there were some with features so memorable that just by seeing them I could orient myself without consulting the map. But towering even above the saguaros are the hills, such as Brown’s Mountain in the background, and the three I saw readily from the trail each had a distinctive shape that made them easy to distinguish from one another. The trails are well-marked (and maps readily available at the trailhead) so I wasn’t in danger of getting lost, rather it was a way for me to relax by developing an instinctive feel for where I was, and where I was going.

Witch Hazel, Patron Saint of Woodpeckers

A close-up of the crested saguaro (also known as cristate saguaro) I call 'Witch Hazel' on the Vaquero Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in October 2019

I’ve seen a few crested (or cristate) saguaros, where instead of their iconic arms they grow these unusual shapes, and love them all but this one is my favorite. I named her Witch Hazel as she reminds me of the green witch from the Bugs Bunny cartoons I watched as a kid. I always had a fondness for her but I’m not sure why as I usually didn’t feel any affection for his pursuers, but perhaps she was written rather sympathetically. My witch looks over a woodpecker nest in an adjacent arm and I like to think serves as its protector, and not just for this nest but for all the woodpeckers in the area that I so dearly love. Long may you live, long may you serve.

Soft and Sharp

The needles of a saguaro are damp with rain on the Cholla Mountain Loop Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2018

Last year in one glance on a spring morning I was reminded of my former home of two decades and my new home of two months. The softest of rains fell on the desert, reminding me of the gentle winter rains of the Pacific Northwest. The raindrops collected on the sharp spines of the saguaro, giants in this intoxicating desert that have drawn me out time and time again. I’ve long since grown accustomed to seeing saguaros but may I never tire of them or take them for granted.

Home in the Heights

A Harris's hawk nestling spreads its wings as it practices for flight by moving from one arm of the saguaro holding its nest to another, taken at sunrise on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2019

When I hiked to this Harris’s hawk nest back in June I noticed one of the chicks had fledged and this one was getting close, practicing by hopping from one arm of the saguaro to another, already at it when I arrived before the sun was even up, with the adults occasionally bringing in something to eat. I nicknamed it Trixie as it would eat just a few bites before returning to flight practice, then go back for a few bites, much like our youngest cat who likes to nibble at her food then play play play, repeat repeat repeat.

In the low light before sunrise, knowing it would be hard to freeze the motion of the young bird constantly on the move, I did what I had been meaning to do on several previous visits, zoom out to give a view of the saguaro holding the nest. The cactus doesn’t have the classic look of the tall central spire but does have an ample space to hold the nest. If you look at the teddy bear cholla in front of the saguaro (the light colored cholla in between the darker buckhorn cholla) there’s a nest of a smaller bird.

An environmental portrait of a Harris's hawk nestling practicing for flight by moving from one arm of the saguaro holding its nest to another, taken before sunrise on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2019

I was rather surprised when we moved here to see so many birds nesting in the various types of cactus as it seemed a rather inhospitable place to build a home. But it must give them a fair amount of protection from ground predators that can climb trees but can’t deal with the cactus spines, but if a fledgling falls from the nest it doesn’t have far to fall. Contrast that with the red-tailed hawk’s nest I saw up on the canyon walls, where a slip off the narrow ledge would result in a deadly fall, or the bald eagle’s nest in Washington that was high up in a massive tree.

I had intended to hike past this nest on the Chuckwagon Trail and then take a familiar loop back to the car, but after spending the first part of the morning watching this young bird building its agility and its confidence, I got distracted by a handful of lizards in a rock formation just up the trail, so with the morning wearing on I just took the Chuckwagon back to the trailhead. Although I didn’t get as much exercise as intended it was a positive result, Ellie had died two months earlier and it was a sign of how much I had healed that I could sit still for so long, an impossibility in the weeks after she died.