The Sunset Watch

A pair of Harris's hawks look out from a large boulder as the setting sun colors the rocks red near the Jane Rau Trail at McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on October 30, 2022. Original: _CAM6306.ARW

A pair of Harris’s hawks look out from a large boulder as the setting sun colors the rocks red. Earlier in the evening I saw a family of five on one of the big electrical towers but I’ve not seen the birds on these rocks before. From a distance I could see three forms on the boulders and couldn’t imagine what else they could be, by the time I got close the third had flown off but these two stayed to watch the sun set with me.

Trixie’s Bane

A mix of sand and rain blows towards Tom's Thumb and the McDowell Mountains in Scottsdale, Arizona on July 30, 2022. Original: _Z723715.NEF

In late July a mix of sand and rain blows towards Tom’s Thumb and the McDowell Mountains, meaning there was only one place you’d find Trixie: under the covers of our bed, hiding until the monsoon passes. The second picture was taken at sunset a few days later in more cat-friendly weather. With the arrival of October she’s safe for another year, as the winter rains tend to be a lot more gentle.

The last light of sunset falls on Tom's Thumb and the McDowell Mountainss in Scottsdale, Arizona on August 2, 2022. Original: _Z723751.NEF

Subtle Sunrise

A large boulder and tree light up at sunrise on the Sunset Vista Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on September 25, 2022. Original: _Z726910.NEF

One of my favorite moments is when the rising sun first sweeps its light across the desert. I’ve played around with different ways of photographing it on days off when I manage to get up before sunrise, which is rare these days. I love simple scenes and when we moved here made a mental note to photograph this one next to the trailhead, only to realize the other day I had never done it. I thought I’d prefer the scene when it was more strongly lit but my favorite three images were over a 40 second span when the rising sun just fell upon the boulder and tree and left the foreground in shadow. At the moment this is my favorite of those three.

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

Waterworld

The rising sun sits mostly above the horizon above the Atlantic Ocean at Huntington Beach State Park in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina on July 6, 2005. Original: IMG_0771.cr2

A couple of lifetimes ago, almost 16 years to the day, the sun begins to rise above the Atlantic in South Carolina. If memory serves this was the last time I saw the sun rise over the ocean, a short while later I realized how easily alligators were seen in the freshwater marsh so while I returned to the park a few other times before sunrise, naturally I never made it past the marsh. I visited the ocean in the Pacific Northwest during our many years there but something would have gone very wrong for me to see the sun rise above it.

We may be landlocked here in Arizona but we did get some water the past week, starting with a thunderstorm one night after work. I sat on the back porch listening to the rain pounding down in the dark, breathing in the unique smell of the desert in the rain. Another day a short shower barely wet the ground but yesterday the skies darkened during an afternoon swim so I got out in plenty of time before a thunderstorm blew through, thankfully courtesy of the weekend this one I was home during the day to watch. Trixie was not amused but I stayed out until it grew dark, the odds are against me being able to see the rain so I try to soak it in when I can.

Morning Surprise

A young mule deer looks out from the Sonoran Desert with Troon Mountain in the background in pink light before sunrise on the Marcus Landslide Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on May 1, 2021. Original: _RAC8010.arw

At the start of May I got up early and went to a favorite trail I hadn’t been to in a while. I soon came across mule deer so close to the trail I could have photographed them with a wide angle lens, but it was rather dark yet so rather than risk startling them I continued on towards the scene I planned to photograph at sunrise.

Further on the dim light suddenly intensified and turned pink, not nearly as strongly as the time when I was visiting my favorite saguaro but I couldn’t figure out why it was happening at all. The sun was still below the mountains and there were no clouds I could see to reflect the light, but perhaps the mountains hid more than just the rising sun. I looked around for something to shoot and had to smile when I saw the family of deer were occasionally visible through the desert scrub. I was far enough away now to need a telephoto lens but I was pleased I could include Troon Mountain in the background, as somewhere betwixt us and the mountain sits my home.

I watched from afar as the deer drifted in and out of view until they disappeared for good. The pink light stayed but for a moment before turning yellow, then a sickly white, then dying away until the sun at last cleared the hills. I tarried too long with the deer to have any chance of reaching my original destination so I went a little further down the trail to my favorite rock formation and soaked in the moment when the light suddenly floods across the desert.

It’s a little embarrassing that after a few years in the desert I can still struggle so to predict the sunlight, my excuse that I love rainy days and spent decades in an area with a plethora of them only goes so far, but it’s alright if I never get much better.

Sometimes it’s nice to be surprised.

Hawkland

An environmental portrait of a young Harris's hawk atop an old saguaro as it looks out over an expanse of desert, Cholla Mountain visible in the distance, as the sun sets on the Latigo Trail at McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on May 9, 2021. Original: _CAM1682.arw

Most of the desert falls into shadow as the setting sun clings to the saguaros and mountains; a young Harris’s hawk looks out over its home from atop one of the old giants. Looking north towards Cholla Mountain there aren’t a lot of saguaros but there are around me, a short walk to my right leads to my favorite. Walking left leads to an area chock-a-block full of them and all the wildlife they support. Nearby too is the neighborhood entrance I’m heading towards with the park about to close, it’s not my neighborhood but we live close by and my wife was picking me up, having dropped me off earlier for an evening hike before the encroaching summer heat puts an end to those.

Two Favorites

An environmental portrait of a common side-blotched lizard perched on a granite boulder in front of a tall saguaro, taken on an offshoot of the Latigo Trail in the Brown's Ranch area of McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on April 4, 2021. Original: _RAC6033.arw

I’ve been in the mood for environmental portraits so I was delighted to take one of two of my favorite desert inhabitants, the saguaro and the common side-blotched lizard, one of the largest residents and one of the smallest (at least one of the smallest on four legs). As much grief as I give my pattern-matching self for spotting marmots in the rocky hills when he knows there are no marmots here (he’s mostly stopped with the occasional relapse) and for spotting lizards that turn out to be protuberances in the rocks, he nailed this one from afar. The little fellow was a ways off and wasn’t worried about me so I had time to find a spot on the trail both where I could see the saguaro behind him and place him in a gap between the giant arms so he’d be easy to see against the blue sky.

I quietly wondered if he’d be willing to stick around for an hour-and-a-half for the last light of day but I knew he wouldn’t stay that long and neither would I, I wanted to get some hiking in and I had only just begun. In any event I finished the day further east, taking environmental portraits of another favorite resident, but no spoilers …

A Quiet Morning in December

A view of Granite Mountain from the Fraesfield area of McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in the early light on December 29, 2020. Original: _CAM8536.arw

A quiet morning in December, looking north to Granite Mountain. The large depression was created decades ago when the giant lizard who had been resting beneath the mountain finally woke, shaking off its slumber and heading west to California and the Pacific Ocean. It was seen swimming in the direction of Tokyo but I don’t know what happened to it after that, hope it had a good life.