Singing Soaptree Stalks

A curve-billed thrasher sings from a soaptree yucca flower stalk on a sunny winter morning on the Brown's Ranch Road trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in January 2020

When I think of flower stalks I think of the delicate stems of the wildflowers I’d see on hikes through most of my life, like daisies or columbine or fairly slippers. The soaptree yucca, on the other hand, has a towering stalk that’s thick at the base like a tree limb before tapering into thin branches at the top. Even so it is a testament to how impossibly light birds are that this bedraggled thrasher only slightly depressed its perch as it sang on a sunny winter morning.

My How You’ve Grown

A close view of a Harris's hawk juvenile looking to my right while perched in a tree, taken from Brown's Ranch Road in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in December 2019

A week ago as I neared the end of my loop hike, walking down a popular trail, I was stunned to see both Harris’s hawk juveniles close by. This one especially so, the other a bit further back in a palo verde. A couple of the adults were a ways behind me on a transmission tower where the two youngsters eventually joined them. Such a treat to see them so close after watching them so long! Of course they got so big by eating some of my favorite creatures of the desert, such is life in our world. The young fliers are much more confident in their movements now although they have much to learn as they enter their first winter.

Windmills

The spines of an Engelmann prickly pear cactus cast shadows, looking like little windmills, along Brown's Ranch Road in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

I’ve been fascinated by the plants of the desert and have enjoyed taking pictures of their various shapes and textures. I’ve held off a little bit though since I didn’t know what would be growing in our yard when we bought a house, where it would be much more convenient to take pictures. I took this picture of Engelmann prickly pear back in April during the first month after we moved here. We have some cactus growing in the yard of the new house but not this lovely species.

A Lovely Beginning at the End

The sun begins to fall on a foothill palo verde tree in front of Brown's Mountain on Brown's Ranch Road in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

The forecast for New Year’s Eve called for clouds in the morning and rain in the afternoon. The night before I debated about where I wanted to go in case there was a colorful sunrise, trying to choose between one location at Brown’s Ranch and another at Marcus Landslide, waiting until morning to make my choice. I fell in love with Brown’s Ranch on my first visit after we moved here and have wanted to photograph this palo verde in front of Brown’s Mountain for some time, so that was where I decided to end the year.

I arrived in plenty of time to hike to the tree before sunrise and as I waited in the cold I saw the most amazing sunrise taking place behind me, high clouds in the eastern sky lit the most intense pink. I wasn’t in a place to photograph the sunrise itself so I drank in the moment and hoped for the best for the scene I had in mind. I have long enjoyed photographing morning arriving at my favorite locations and like to leave part of the scene still in shadow, for this picture I hoped to catch the mountains and palo verde in the early light with the surrounding desert scrub still in shadow.

Low clouds soon began blocking the rising sun as it started to illuminate different parts of the park, one minute there’d be dynamic light and the next none at all, my hopes rising and falling with the light. Dark clouds rolled in behind the mountain, not the clouds that would soon bring much needed rain to the desert but perhaps a portent of what was to come. Suddenly the light broke through, for a moment, and I had my picture before clouds blocked the sun once more, the dark clouds before me moved past, and I continued on my way. Up to the Vaquero Trail, to scope out another scene for another morning.

A lovely start to the end of the year. I was sick in the afternoon and decided not to risk going out this morning despite being up early, so the new year begins more quietly with my loved ones at home, before I head back to work tomorrow.

Thrash Song

A curve-billed thrasher sings atop a saguaro early on a spring morning along Brown's Ranch Road in McDowell Sonoran Preserve

After a hike up to Inspiration Viewpoint this morning when it was too windy for my liking, the day turned lovely and I’ve spent the rest of the morning and afternoon relaxing on the back porch. At the moment there are house finches and sparrows atop the feeder while below are Gambel’s quail, mourning doves, and Eurasian collared doves. A pair of curve-billed thrashers have been drifting in and out throughout the day, making their presence known with loud whistles. This one I saw singing atop a saguaro six months ago while hiking early one morning on Brown’s Ranch Road in McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

One of Three

A canyon towhee looks directly at me as it perches atop a saguaro along Brown's Ranch Road in McDowell Sonoran Preserve

We see a lot of overlap between the birds of our backyard and the birds of the desert but not with towhees. I’ve seen three species of towhees in Arizona, Abert’s towhees all summer in our yard and just recently a spotted towhee, but the canyon towhee shown here I only see on the trails.

Objects in This Lens May Be Further Than They Appear

A Mojave rattlesnake sticks out its tongue as it crosses Brown's Ranch Road in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

This Mojave rattlesnake appeared large in the viewfinder but was a safe distance away when I began to photograph it. Even so, as it crossed the trail and started moving steadily towards where I was (having given it a wide berth and gone off-trail to let it choose its path), I pulled the camera away from my eye occasionally to get a clear view of how far away it actually was. It was well aware of me and headed over to my right so I sat still until it chose a bush to curl up under, then I continued up the trail.

An Unexpected Dilemma

A Mojave rattlesnake crawls across the desert near Brown's Ranch Road in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

I haven’t hiked as much the past month as I’ve been too tired to get up before sunrise and drive to the trails, usually only hiking once per weekend. I didn’t go at all last weekend because some chronic health issues flared up but after sleeping in yesterday this morning I was back on the trails and met this lovely Mojave rattlesnake, a new species for me. But it presented me with a dilemma I hadn’t expected.

It was at the edge of a wide trail and we saw each other from a distance so I was able to leave the trail and give it a wide berth, but a couple of mountain bikers came around the bend and I didn’t know if I should try to warn them. I didn’t have much time to decide and my hunch was they would be best to pass at speed, I figured the snake would leave them alone and in any event the trail was so wide they could stay out of striking range. I was afraid if I tried to flag them down they’d slam on the brakes and end up near the snake and possibly make the situation worse.

Neither of them saw the snake and passed close by but thankfully the snake hunkered down each time and they continued down the trail unaware. The rattler relaxed and made its way across the trail towards me. It wasn’t being aggressive so I backed up even further and let it choose its path, taking a few pictures as it slithered over to a dense bush and curled up in its shade. I’ll have to ask some riders what they would have wanted me to do, some people really dislike snakes so perhaps ignorance is bliss if the likelihood of an attack is quite low.

Do Not Adjust Your Sets

A wavy pattern in a saguaro cactus along Brown's Ranch Road in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

The early morning light falls on one of my favorite saguaros, I love its wavy pattern and look for it whenever I’m hiking Brown’s Ranch Road. If you’re too young to understand the reference in the title and never experienced adjusting horizontal and vertical hold on a television, consider yourself lucky. In my day …

Soft Browns

A desert cottontail eats dried grasses in the soft light before the sun was up on a warm spring morning in the Brown's Ranch section of McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

A desert cottontail eats dried grasses in the soft light before the sun was up on a warm spring morning. I was back on the trails this morning after taking a couple of weeks off to let a sore left knee heal and didn’t see a single cottontail (or jackrabbit), most of the time I see at least one if not a handful so either today I was unlucky or perhaps they are not as visible in the summer. I meant to go hiking yesterday but forgot to set my alarm so I walked the pup instead, Ellie and I saw four cottontails on a short walk in the neighborhood.