A male ladder-backed woodpecker clings to a dead tree on a cloudy morning in the Sonoran Desert, a little tribute to the overcast of the Northwest with a bird of the Southwest from someone lucky enough to have called both home. Not much later he and his mate pulled the ol’ switcheroo, when I wasn’t looking he flew off and she flew in but I didn’t notice the change at first. Taken in March of 2020, turned out to be my first sighting of the female, the male I had seen before.
An old giant provides a plethora of perches for a young Harris’s hawk to choose from as it scans the desert floor at sunset. This time of year the perches are relatively soft courtesy of the large flower buds (and by now, flowers themselves). Apparently Audubon would name the birds for his friend and supporter Edward Harris but when he first drew one for his book Birds of America he called them the Louisiana hawk. The University of Pittsburgh has the entire collection online but be forewarned, it can be a real time sink.
There is a movement to rename birds named after people, something I’d like to see. I’d rather see birds named after their nature (especially for these hawks, their social network since it’s so unusual) rather than an homage to a human, regardless of whether the person should be remembered or forgotten or somewhere in between. Interestingly Wikipedia notes, among other things, Audubon may have stolen the Harris’s hawk specimen he used as a model for his drawing.
We humans are complicated creatures.
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.
Last weekend I stopped at the end of the Rustler Trail for a water break, trying to decide which way to meander on the network of trails, when an oriole flew into the ocotillo in front of me to feed from its flowers. Caught flat-footed holding a water bottle I didn’t want to make any sudden moves towards the camera, we both needed refreshment, but I did get a chance for pictures when he flew off to a distant saguaro and sang to me from the flower buds before disappearing down the trail.
I made a mental note to add Bullock’s oriole to my bird list for the day even though I was surprised his plumage was so yellow. It was only when I got home and looked at the pictures that I had a little laugh at myself when I noticed his head and shoulders were solid black and, while clearly an oriole, he looked nothing like a Bullock’s. In my defense I had gotten up two days in a row for a sunrise hike, the first time this year, so the old gray cells were not in finest form.
I fired up Sibley’s on the iPad and discovered my friend was a Scott’s oriole, a new species for me and thus a new species in my attempt to photograph every animal of the Sonoran Desert atop a saguaro (though I have to say, the mammals aren’t cooperating).
I ended up hiking the Upper Ranch Trail to the Rustler Trail to the Latigo Trail to the Hackamore Trail to the Tarantula Trail to the West Express Trail, returning via the Hackamore Trail to Cone Mountain Trail to Upper Ranch Trail. It was my first time on the West Express, there are formal trails in this part of the preserve now instead of the temporary off-map trails that were there before.
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 …
From last spring in the early morning light, a canyon towhee finds a soft perch atop a saguaro courtesy of its large flower buds. A pleasant reminder that spring is coming and a not-so-pleasant reminder that the already cruel sunrises will only get earlier. I’ve managed zero sunrise hikes so far this year so I’m not off to a promising start.
This is what a female phainopepla looks like on our more typical sunny desert days. I heard her cheerful cheeps from the backside of a tree as the trail wound its way up a small hill but I was headed to a particular spot and wasn’t going to try for a photograph. But as she flitted about she hopped onto this ready-made perch right as I approached so I couldn’t resist a quick picture of one of my favorite birds.
My favorite view of the Elephant is looking west but the best view of the recent damage to her arms is with a telephoto looking east. Everything about her is beautiful, even her scars, they remind me of grizzly carvings in the trees of Yellowstone. I’m not worried she’s going to die, I make all my favorite saguaros sign legally-binding contracts stating they’ll outlive me. I wouldn’t ordinarily, you can find yourself in a real monkey’s paw situation since there’s an obvious way for them to guarantee it, but a saguaro is one of those rare creatures you can trust unconditionally. If a day comes when she can’t keep her promise, if a day comes when she breaks my heart, I’ll be thankful for the times our paths crossed and how far I carried her in my heart when we parted.
Clouds were predicted the morning of Christmas Eve so I dithered when my alarm rang out as I wanted to sleep in if the sun was going to be snuffed out, but I also didn’t want to miss out on colorful skies if it wasn’t. My vacillation wasn’t helped by a certain orange tabby who repeatedly woke me in the wee hours as he had a grand old time snuggling up under my chin, I love when he does it as it’s where Scout slept every night, but his timing could have been better. Fortunately I dragged myself out of bed, even if a few minutes later than intended, as when my wife dropped me off at the preserve the most glorious color was already spreading across the eastern sky.
I hurried down the trail towards my favorite saguaro, the Green Elephant, kicking myself for being a little behind but still careful with my footing as faceplanting into the unforgiving desert floor was not on my list of Christmas wishes. In the cool morning air I regretted not putting on my gloves in the car but I didn’t want to stop now. I took a few shots of the eastern sky on the way but the shot I most hoped for was of the Elephant looking west, so I was tickled to arrive and find the entire desert bathed in pink light with pink skies behind. The light was beginning to fade even as I started taking pictures so I was thankful I got off a shot from my favorite view of her, with a more traditional saguaro visible in the gap behind her, before the light faded to it’s normal pre-sunrise blue.
The pink skies behind her remained a little while longer and I expect I’ll like those subtler shots too. The sun rose fifteen minutes later and cleared the mountains soon thereafter but the clouds held sway and the remainder of the hike stayed cool and windy. Even in the dim light the desert was lovely as always, with phainopepla cheering my steps along the path.
This shot makes me a little sad, I noticed in the fall she has extensive damage along the arm on the lower left and also on another not visible from this angle. She looked fine when I saw her in full bloom at the end of May, but perhaps so did I, it hasn’t been the easiest year. We’re still standing though and every sunrise I spend with her is a treat, no matter the light.
In my mind’s eye I saw the picture I wanted to take, the cholla next to the prickly pear, almost hugging. The cacti were a ways off the trail and even with my longest telephoto I knew I’d have to crop the image a bit, which was fine, I grabbed a quick shot before heading off as I had a little hike yet to reach the exit by closing. It’s not quite the shot I wanted, a better angle was a few steps down, literally down, as the trail descended a small hill. At that spot though too many plants obscured the view, I would have needed to be 50 feet tall to get the camera high enough. It’s a frequent issue but at this stage I doubt I’ll develop Late Onset Extraordinary Gigantism. I haven’t given up hope, I bet Godzilla wasn’t expecting it either.