Present, Future, Past

A zebra-tailed lizard viewed from ground level at The Amphitheater in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

With Nikon and Canon about to announce their first serious attempts at the mirrorless market, I’m curious to see what approach the two industry stalwarts take and how Sony responds. I’m hoping to add a second mirrorless camera, not because I haven’t loved my Sony A6500 but because I want to go back to using it for the purpose I bought it, to be my walk around camera and for non-wildlife use. I’ve switched to using it as my wildlife camera as combined with their 100-400mm lens and 1.4x teleconverter it has proven a much better setup for capturing the denizens of the desert than my Canon, like this zebra-tailed lizard at ground level.

I dislike the weight and size of my Canon so on my last hike I only brought the Sony and switched lenses throughout the morning, it made me so happy to put my beloved 24mm lens on it as I photographed desert scenes, then I switched to the telephoto when I saw a mule deer, a Harris’s hawk, a cottontail, then a black-tailed jackrabbit, and for close-ups of a saguaro, a soaptree yucca, a teddy bear cholla. I just don’t want to have to switch lenses! I don’t mind it on occasion but I’ve always preferred to have one camera for telephotos and one for wider shots, and then switch to other lenses as needed.

A day will come when I can’t manage the weight of heavier lenses as I hike, it isn’t approaching but I can see it in the distance. In the meantime I try to get out as much as I can, photograph what I can, but more than anything delight in the moments as they pass, for they pass ever more quickly. I’m thankful for the handful of cameras I’ve had over the decades for the pictures taken, the memories preserved. I’m amazed at what I can do with today’s gear compared to when I started. Here’s hoping my photographic future is as rewarding as the past.

Lighter than Air

A zebra-tailed lizard raises its body off the ground, showing off his long legs and the coloring on his sides

Most of the lizards I see underfoot scurry across the desert floor at a seemingly impossible speed, as though they were lighter than air, none more so than the zebra-tailed lizard. This one had raised up his body off the ground and showed off his long legs and the coloring along his side although you can’t see the vibrant tail for which he is named. Just once I’d love to run like he runs, to know that effortless speed.

Green and Blue in the Desert

A common side-blotched lizards perches on a rock in front of the green of an out-of-focus saguaro

I was sitting below this little common side-blotched lizard, shooting up at it against a blue sky (below), when I realized if I moved the camera slightly I could shift the background to green courtesy of a massive saguaro standing behind it. There is green in the desert, not the ubiquitous saturated greens of the forests of the Northwest but a soft, muted green, always in the saguaros and palo verdes but on many more plants now that the summer monsoons have arrived.

Blue is easy to find in the skies of the desert but some lizards, especially the males, may have blue throats or sides or blue speckled throughout their scales. Blue too is the skin around the eyes of adult white-winged and mourning doves. All of these blues can be seen where I photographed this lizard at The Amphitheater in McDowell Sonoran Preserve, a rock formation on the Cholla Mountain Loop Trail that is one of my favorite places to hike.

A common side-blotched lizards perches on a rock in front of blue skies

The Valley of the Sun

A common side-blotched lizard all in shadow save for its head along the Rustler Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

In the Valley of the Sun, when you get the first rays of light depends on when the rising sun clears any mountains to the east. This scene played out in miniature early one morning when I found this common side-blotched lizard completely in shadow until it turned its head into a shaft of light that had just cleared the rock behind it.

Turning Rocks Into Lizards

A desert spiny lizard peeks out from behind a rock on the Rustler Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

As I hike the pattern recognition part of my brain is constantly scanning for objects that might be wildlife even though they often turn out not to be. I spent a summer in Florida in the mid-90’s and was delighted by the many alligators there, it took years after we moved to Oregon for that part of my brain to stop trying to identify possible alligators when I hiked in marshland. In Yellowstone on a gravel road there was a large rock in the distance that in the periphery resembled a bear. I loved that road and drove it a number of times and as I approached that spot, I’d tell myself not to be fooled even for an instant by what I came to call Bear Rock. But every time the pattern recognition would kick in for a fraction of a second and say “Hey is that a …” before the rest of my brain would reply “I just told you it wasn’t going to be a bear!”

Here in the Sonoran Desert I am fooled by cholla skeletons that look like rattlesnakes, twigs like small lizards, granite protuberances like large lizards. I try to use my mental powers to turn rocks into lizards but usually I fail, rock stays rock. But sometimes I succeed and the rock comes to life, such as this beautiful desert spiny lizard on the Rustler Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve. One success is worth a thousand misses.

Shields Up! Red Alert!

A coiled western diamondback rattlesnake with its head up underneath a dead tree on the Sidewinder Trail at Phoenix Sonoran Preserve in Phoenix, Arizona

Today was meant to be a test of my knee and turned into a test of my heart when this western diamondback rattlesnake and I scared the living daylights out of each other.

Yesterday I made my triumphant return to the trails after a self-imposed two week absence to allow a sore left knee to heal, choosing a flat hike I know well at McDowell Sonoran Preserve. Since that went well, as well as a morning and evening swim later in the day, this morning I decided to try some new-to-me trails at Phoenix Sonoran Preserve. I did some research and the Ocotillo Trail looked fairly flat, with an easy return on a paved trail if my knee started acting up but also an option for some elevation changes on the Sidewinder and Ridgeback Trails if my knee felt up to it.

As I neared the point where the Ocotillo met the Sidewinder, my knee felt fine so I put my camera into my camera bag and brought out my trekking poles. My goal was to use the poles both for stability and to shorten my steps on any inclines to avoid stretching my legs more than necessary. As the trail immediately started to climb I knew I could turn around at the first hint of trouble and take an easier route back.

And that’s when I heard a noise right in front of me that nearly stopped my heart. The rattler was right beside the trail, coiled with its head up and mouth open, rattle shaking. I backed off immediately and it relaxed, slowly moving a few feet over and hiding under a dead tree. As you can see from the first picture while not in a full striking position its head was still up and prepared to strike if need be, but quickly lowered its head to its body, then even fully relaxed when it realized I wasn’t going to approach.

I was sorry for startling it so but thankful our encounter ended peacefully. With my new camera bag I was able to get the camera out quickly and take a few pictures. I wasn’t expecting to see a rattler so close to the trail since I had passed many mountain bikers who would have come past, with a couple more passing me a few minutes later, but perhaps it had just crossed the trail or maybe it didn’t mind the quickly passing bikes.

Happy to report that after a 7.5 mile hike on a hot and humid summer morning, both the knee and the heart were doing fine. My eyes could use some work though, to better see beneath my feet.

A coiled western diamondback rattlesnake with its head lowered underneath a dead tree on the Sidewinder Trail at Phoenix Sonoran Preserve in Phoenix, Arizona

Joy at My Feet

A common side-blotched lizard perches on a rock beside the Sidewinder Trail in Phoenix Sonoran Preserve in Phoenix, Arizona

If I could tell myself at 10 years old that in 40 years I’d be working on things in space and hiking with lizards at my feet, I suspect he’d wonder what took me so long to get here. I’ll tell him about a place called Oregon and I think he’ll understand, and if not he soon will. I don’t think I would have been ready for the desert without spending so long in the Pacific Northwest first and will always be grateful for my time there. I’ve been hiking as much as I can since arriving in Arizona, I love seeing lizards in the desert even though usually they’re scurrying out of sight as I walk past. Sometimes I get a longer look such as this past weekend with this common side-blotched lizard on the Sidewinder Trail in Phoenix Sonoran Preserve, my first hike outside of Scottsdale.