One More for the List

A European starling pokes its head out of its nest in a saguaro in Scottsdale, Arizona on March 21, 2021. Original: _RAC5715.arw

This spring I went down to a rock formation in the neighborhood to try and photograph a pair of starlings, I have mixed feelings about seeing them since while I enjoy watching them they were introduced in the US and have negatively impacted some native species. Thankfully they don’t seem to be making much of an inroads here, I’ve not seem them in the desert (even on trails near subdivisions) and rarely see them in the neighborhood. I was surprised to find them nesting in a woodpecker hole, possibly built by one of the local architects below, this one poking its head out right as the sun was about to dip below the mountains. One more species added to my list in my attempt to photograph every animal in the desert on a saguaro.

A female Gila woodpecker perches on a saguaro near sunset in Scottsdale, Arizona on March 21, 2021. Original: _RAC5482.arw

The Adorable Assassin

A close-up of a common kingsnake (California kingsnake) under the bushes near our front door in Scottsdale, Arizona on September 20, 2021. Originals: _RAC9574.arw and _RAC9585.arw

Speaking of wildlife right outside our door, a couple of weeks after the first black witch appeared my wife was trimming some bushes that had overgrown the water spigot and was startled by this kingsnake. You might not expect it from its adorable little mug but one of the many things these constrictors eat is rattlesnakes. I wish I could keep it on retainer, I’d put up tiny little signs at viper eye level around the yard saying “Beware of Kingsnakes” and I don’t think we’d have to worry about venomous snakes anymore. Not that I don’t love seeing rattlesnakes, just I prefer seeing them in their home rather than mine.

Who Am I?

A macro shot of the pattern in the wing of a male black witch moth in Scottsdale, Arizona on September 5, 2021. Originals: _RAC8911.arw to _RAC8913.arw

I cast no spell but charm
and do not mean you any harm,
for I am not to blame
for my often fearsome names.
I’m the biggest in the land,
almost the size of a hand,
who am I?

Answer is in the tags, I had no idea this creature even existed until my wife woke me one weekend to tell me one was sitting outside our door. This is a male, we’ve since had a female and another male come visiting, though they only stay for a few days. One of the biggest surprises I’ve had since arriving in the desert, just an absolute joy to behold.

This is a macro shot of some of the patterns in his wings, I left it a little dark but it didn’t look quite right if I left it as dark as he was in person as my impression of him as he rested in the shadows was of a void, a hole in our reality. A long exposure (this one is 2.5 seconds) revealed the glory in his details.

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.

Death in the Desert

A dead white-lined sphinx moth with its head bured in the rocks of our backyard on September 5, 2021. Original: _RAC9029.arw

I was working in the yard early this month when I noticed a white-lined sphinx moth flying near one of our plants, I had seen them a few times before but this was my longest look. Sadly it soon landed on the ground, walked around a bit, then stuck its head under the rocks, shivered, and died. Most moths and butterflies have short lives as adults, it wouldn’t have picked up insecticides in our yard though I can’t speak for the neighborhood, but it was still sad to see. I wasn’t going to photograph it but had a change of heart and went out in the dark after sunset and took a picture as a tribute to a beautiful little life.

I hadn’t planned on posting the picture but learned there was a death a week or two ago at my favorite trailhead not far from here, I don’t know the details but given it was one of the last truly hot days of the summer heat stroke would be a possibility. My thoughts go out to her family on what should have been a fun visit to the desert and to the rescue crews who spent hours looking for her. Usually their tireless efforts have happier endings.

The desert is unforgiving in the summer, especially once the air temperature rises above body temperature, please don’t underestimate the heat and low humidity if you’re visiting from out of town. Fitness and hydration are important but only get you so far if you wait to hike in the hotter parts of the day. Especially avoid the trails with elevation changes, there are a number of nice short trails where you won’t get the views of the mountain trails but you can get a good taste of the desert flora, including saguaros you can see up as close you’d like, and you can quickly retreat to safety if one of your party starts to overheat.