Since we moved to Arizona I’ve been fascinated by the moment when light first sweeps across the desert or, as in this case, the light suddenly falls away. There was a particular cactus I wanted to photograph at last light but I was delayed watching a sparrow and a family of hawks. I had to laugh as I hurried down the wide trail, seeing something I wanted to photograph and the light disappearing before I could get the camera to my eye. I was able to get this environmental portrait of a phainopepla before the light disappeared from all but the mountains, a shot that pokes gentle fun at my misunderstanding of what the desert here was like, thinking it was just sand and an occasional cactus. But also a show of gratitude that I researched the area when an opportunity appeared here at the last minute, and for a park dense with vegetation and wildlife that drew me in and didn’t let go.
Phainopepla have been back for a while now and are one of the birds I see most on the trails I’ve been hiking recently. The charming flycatchers are a delight and take some of the sting out of the arrival of cooler temperatures and the disappearance of reptiles. I liked the flow of the dead tree branches as this male preened on a warm November morning but was even happier when I realized I could sidle down the trail a few steps and put the tall arms of a saguaro in the background to give the scene more context.
A female Gila woodpecker brings food to the nest while the waiting male is about to pop out and make room for her. This is zoomed in less than the previous pictures to show more of the saguaro, I was kicking myself later for forgetting to take a much wider shot with my regular lens of the full saguaro and the surrounding desert. I forgot partially because of the excitement of watching woodpeckers and partially because it was 5:30am. At that hour I’m just happy if I dress myself properly because that isn’t guaranteed.
Do Gila woodpeckers eat honeybees? With the sun starting to rise this honeybee hovered over the saguaro blossom for so long that this male craned his neck out and started watching it. If he was thinking about jumping out and snaring it he never did, he stayed at the nest entrance until his mate returned. Which didn’t take long, the pair was pretty amazing to watch, even before sunup they were constantly bringing food back to the nest. I don’t know if they eat honeybees or not but there is an ample supply nearby when the saguaros are blooming.
Nighthawks were a new species for me when we moved to Arizona. I see them relatively often near the break of day, zooming about low to the ground in erratic flight like massive swallows. When sitting still they can be pretty hard to spot and usually I only manage it if see them land, as in this case when a dead cholla lended its support on a spring morning.
One of my favorite pictures this year, taken early in the morning in October looking west from a frequently-hiked trail near our house. It speaks to the misconceptions I used to have about this area and how surprised I was to learn there is so much diverse life here. There are the twisting trees, the yuccas with their flower stalks reaching towards the sky, the green-barked palo verdes, the yearning ocotillos, and above all the saguaros. Topping it off are two members of the Harris’s hawk family that so charmed me this year, an adult perched in the bare branches of the tree in the upper left and a juvenile down below, calling out to the rest of the family who must have been on the other side of the hill. The adult eventually flew off in that direction and the juvenile took its spot high in the tree before following the adult out of sight. How lucky I am to be in their, and my, home.
I’m still early in my learning what plants grow in the Sonoran Desert, even after having lived here a year I’m mostly in the “I think that’s a tree” stage of identification. Keep that in mind when I say I think this lovely if prickly plant is a Southwestern prickly poppy. I appreciated how it so thoughtfully bloomed that I could show both the beauty in its flower and the abundance of prickles everywhere else. I recently picked up a guide to the wildflowers of McDowell Sonoran Preserve by Marianne Skov Jensen (@ezpixels on Instagram), they sell it (and the overall field guide which I also bought) at some of the trailheads on the weekends. It will greatly speed up my learning process, it’s extensively photographed and was clearly a labor of love.
The second shot below is similar but with shallower depth of field, it emphasizes the flower more but it doesn’t show as well how the plant is covered in prickles.