Double Perched

A pair of American kestrels perch on the tallest saguaro in the area while a Harris's antelope squirrel sits atop the rocks below, taken on the Latigo Trail in the Brown's Ranch area of McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in February 2020

A male and female kestrel share a perch high atop the tallest saguaro on a cold winter’s morning in the Sonoran Desert. I was able to watch kestrels in the Pacific Northwest, on rare occasion at very close distances, but there they tended to hover in place above the meadow while looking for prey below, while here the old giants give them a similar viewpoint from a sitting position. On the rocks below them is a Harris’s antelope squirrel, keeping an eye on the neighborhood. It wasn’t bothered by the kestrels, I suppose it’s too big to be carried off by the little falcons. Scattered around are smaller saguaros of various ages and sizes, with a barrel cactus in the middle.

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.

Sunrise Falcon

An American kestrel perches on a saguaro cactus at sunrise along the Vaquero Trail in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

The alarm went off at 3:41 a.m. this morning, the start of a three day weekend. I’ve been a bit worn out and my stomach has bothered me a couple of days this week but I nevertheless crawled out of bed, if a bit reluctantly, as high clouds were predicted instead of the usual clear skies and I was curious to see what the sunrise might bring. I was on the trails before the sun but it looked like there wouldn’t be much color in the skies as the sun rose, and there wasn’t, save for one small portion of the sky. Unable to get the picture I hoped for I instead took my delight in the serenity of the desert morning.

Heading up the Vaquero Trail to where I had seen antelope squirrels the week before I stopped when I saw an American kestrel perched on a saguaro in the distance, one leg held in the air, silhouetted against the patch of orange sky. The little falcon didn’t stay long nor did the color but I got my sunrise picture after all, just not the one I was expecting, the first of several surprises the desert had in store for me this morning. The little appendages sticking out from the saguaro are spent flowers on top of the fruits developing below, handy perches above the cactus spines.

Not for the Squeamish

A female American kestrel eats a mouse at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Washington

A female American kestrel pulls apart what looks like a mouse at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge on a winter morning in 2006. There are a couple of species of mice at the refuge that I’m aware of, deer mice and Pacific jumping mice, but I have no idea which this is (was). Some predators at the refuge swallow their prey whole, while others like kestrels pull them apart and eat just the parts they want and toss aside the rest.


A female American kestrel perched on a plant at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge

There are a handful of true falcons that typically breed in North America, all belonging to the genus Falco, with the smallest being the American kestrel (falco sparverius). The kestrels at Ridgefield are pretty wary and often won’t stay perched if you pass on the auto tour, and probably for good reason, as there are a number of other birds of prey that share these hunting grounds that dwarf the little falcons in size.

This lovely female was a ways off the road and stayed still for a few pictures before she took to the skies again to resume the hunt.