Of Wax & Wood

A close-up of the base of an old ocotillo, including an exposed root, on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on December 31, 2021. Originals: _ZFC6317.NEF to _ZFC6343.NEF

The tendrils at the base of this old ocotillo reminded me of ornate candles with wax dripping down the side, with the exposed root more like a bleached and broken branch from a fallen tree than a life-giving support to a spiraling giant. If I ever learn to draw or paint this kind of scene is one I’d like to do over and over in different ways, I love the colors and textures and the way beauty seems to have burst out of a shell no longer able to contain it.

Windmills

A close-up of the spines and areoles of a prickly pear on the Latigo Trail at McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on January 2, 2022. Originals: _ZFC6697.NEF to ZFC6706.NEF

To celebrate my first hike of 2022 I took to some beloved trails I’ve hiked many times the past few years, ending with a visit to my favorite saguaro, not to photograph her but just to say hello. On the way out as I wandered west this prickly pear caught my eye so I stopped for a quick shot in the fading light. I took a picture like this not long after we moved here but the new camera is better suited for it.

Our roof is getting replaced soon, after that it will be time to think about new plants around the yard both to replace some non-natives we’ve already had removed and to fill in some things earlier owners took out. We have a little prickly pear volunteer that started growing near the saguaro out front, I gave it some water occasionally when it first peeked out and it now has several paddles on it. I want to add a bigger patch as they seem like nice hangouts for some of the smaller creatures I love to watch and when they fruit provide food for birds as well.

The javelina will be welcome to come in for a munch, we had a family in the yard the other night that walked beneath my office window as they rooted for mesquite seeds, two of the youngsters were nursing from their mom in addition to snacking on seeds.

Where Sharpness Grows

A close-up of spines growing from areoles at the tip of a saguaro arm on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on December 31, 2021. Originals: _ZFC6005.NEF to ZFC6028.NEF

A network of spines grow in a spiral galaxy of areoles in the depression at the tip of a saguaro arm. This is a focus stack of 24 images taken with the Nikon Z fc and the Nikon Z 105mm macro lens, my main motivation for getting the camera was for taking close-ups and I’m happy to say I’m loving it and have done little else on my hikes the past month.

I picked up the camera and a couple of lenses early during my time off at Christmas so I could start to learn the Nikon system, I hoped to get the macro lens as well but was resigned to wait as my local stores and usual mail order stores were out of stock. But then Steve Mattheis mentioned on his video channel he got his Nikon Z9 from Pictureline up in Salt Lake. They were new to me but seemed like good folks and had the lens in stock, so with a few clicks the lens was on its way and I had a handful of days to play with it before my break ended and I returned to a busy month at work. Very easy process, they took Apple Pay and kept me up-to-date throughout to the point the email saying the lens was delivered arrived before the UPS truck had pulled away from the driveway!

I resisted watching Steve’s channel at first when Youtube started recommending it as some photographers view wildlife photography as a non-lethal form of trophy hunting but Steve shows both knowledge of and concern for the animals he photographs up in Wyoming, with a philosophy that the animal is more important than the picture of the animal. Highly recommended, watching his videos is a respite from a hectic world.

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.

Pink Light, Blue Light

A view of a stand of saguaros far in front of Brown's Mountain under pink skies of sunset. Taken near the Brown's Ranch Entrance to McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on October 24, 2021. Original: _CAM3874.arw

A couple of quick snapshots after sunset, taken a week apart in October, as I hiked out of the local preserve. I like the blue light of the second picture the best, the park closed a bit after sunset so I had enough time to wait for the soft light of dusk before leaving (I’m steps away from the park entrance where my wife was picking me up).

That’s Brown’s Mountain sneaking in in the background, I usually try to include the mountains in this area if I can since they were so fundamental to me getting oriented on the trails when we moved here and life seemed a whirlwind. I’ve been meaning to try some other compositions but to get here I have to make it past a couple of favorite trails that often have good views of wildlife, such as the last picture where a female Gila woodpecker sidles round a saguaro in the last light of the day. Hard to pass up a chance to watch the desert fauna, at which point I have to hurry on down the trail. One day though, one day …

A view of a stand of saguaros far in front of Brown's Mountain in the blue light after sunset. Taken near the Brown's Ranch Entrance to McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on October 31, 2021. Original: _CAM3920.arw

A female Gila woodpecker on a saguaro at sunset near the Jane Rau Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on November 14, 2021. Original: _RAC1617.arw

A Sea of Wings

A Mormon metalmark butterfly perches on the red-winged seedpod of a slender janusia vine at sunrise on the Jane Rau Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on August 24, 2021. Original: _RAC7317.arw

I woke up early one morning in August and couldn’t get back to sleep so I went out for a short hike before work, feeling a rush of euphoria as I got a glimpse of what it must be like to be an early bird in a world designed for them. I met a couple of butterflies as the sun crested the mountains, including this Mormon metalmark set in a sea of wings. The plant was so distinctive I thought it would be easy to identify but it took me a while as at first I was looking at plants with red flowers, but thanks to Marianne Skov Jensen’s excellent field guide of the plants of the preserve I realized the red wings are part of the seed pod and the plant is slender janusia.

After returning home for breakfast and heading into work, I knew I’d pay for my early start and indeed left early that afternoon while my energy levels were still good so I could crash on the couch instead of the road. The night owl has been re-asserting himself the past couple of years so early mornings like this have not been as common as our first year here.

A Fixer Upper

A close-up of worn and hardened skin of a saguaro on the Cone Mountain Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on August 21, 2021. Original: _RAC7182.arw

Even after a few years in the desert I don’t know who to call when I see a saguaro in need of a fresh coat of paint. Who maintains them, the city? The county? The state?

I had gone out to photograph a particular saguaro at sunrise but as I feared Brown’s Mountain blocked the light for a good while. I switched over to my telephoto lens, the old saguaros always have interesting beauty spots to photograph and this one was no exception. I like the early diffuse light for shots like these.

Gardening at Night

A honeybee clings to the top of a large flower of a cactus in our yard in Scottsdale, Arizona on July 24, 2021. Original: _RAC4490.arw

Hard as it is to believe we’re in our third summer at our house. Out front in addition to a saguaro and a barrel cactus is some sort of big beautiful sprawling cactus. I was rather startled in July to see large flower buds emerging as it had sat silent during our time here, perhaps finally getting some decent rain this monsoon season woke it from its slumber. Even better? Like me, it blooms at night!

On a cloudy morning in late July the flowers hadn’t closed up yet so the bees were taking advantage of the new and abundant source of pollen. They seemed to struggle a bit gaining purchase on the flowers, such as this one clinging to the petal tops after clumsily climbing out from the center. Usually the flowers have closed up by the time I drag myself out of bed so I’ve developed a nightly ritual where I go out a couple of times to see the blooms and the wildlife feeding in the dark.

There are moths of course, mostly the little brown lovelies we see around but a couple of nights I saw what I think was a white-lined sphinx month, though I didn’t get a good enough look to be sure. Despite the large blossoms when this massive moth tried to land inside one it reminded me of when our dog Ellie would curl up in a cat bed when they took hers.

Best of all, we had a couple of bats coming in and resting in the alcove outside the front door. Have they been there before and I just haven’t noticed? Also best of all I saw a western banded gecko, while it doesn’t care about this cactus I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t been going out to watch the blooms.

There are still a few flowers each night, mostly up high, and a whole bunch of fruit that some leaf-footed cactus bugs (at least I think that’s what they are) have been gorging themselves on, they stick around for more than just the night so I do have some pictures of them. And though I haven’t seen them, around me I can often hear coyotes howling to each other as they move about in the night. What joy this cactus has brought me, my brother in spirit if not in form.