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.

On Pins & Needles

A curve-billed thrasher perches on a chain fruit cholla on the Marcus Landslide Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in December 2018

No matter how many times I witness it I can’t quite wrap my head around how birds can fly in at full speed and land on a cactus with densely packed spines, such as this curve-billed thrasher on a chain fruit cholla. I adore this cholla (and the similar teddy bear cholla) but they are best appreciated at arm’s length, they are even more fearsome than they look.

Big Saguaro, Little Falcon

A female American kestrel perches atop flower buds and blossoms on a saguaro on the Granite Mountain Loop Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2018

In the spring every square inch of the tops of old saguaros might be covered in flower buds and blossoms, thick as thieves, such as these providing a softer-than-normal perch for an American kestrel. I saw our smallest falcon frequently in the Northwest but only a couple of times here so it was a pleasure to see her as she towered over me on the Granite Mountain Loop Trail.