Red Eyed Lady of the Lowlands

A female phainopepla perches on a curved branch on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on November 28, 2020. Original: _RAC9951.arw

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.

More Than Skin Deep

A close-up view of the damage to one of the arms of a saguaro I call the Green Elephant on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on October 17, 2020. Originals: _RAC6567.arw to _RAC6570.arw

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.

The Pink Green Elephant

A saguaro I call the Elephant is bathed in the diffuse light before sunrise with pink skies behind on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on December 24, 2020. Original: _CAM8025.arw

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.

How Do You Hug a Cactus?

Buckhorn cholla grows next to prickly pear on the Vaquero Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on November 26, 2020. Original: _RAC8826.arw

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.

Little Tempters

A black-throated sparrow perches on a dead teddy bear cholla on the Jane Rau Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on November 29, 2020. Original: _RAC0301.arw

While waiting for sunset to photograph a particular saguaro I scouted some other trails and found a yucca I wanted to shoot, timing how long it would take to move between the two locations so I’d be ready when the light got low. In the meantime I headed up to the Jane Rau Trail to look for some antelope squirrels but got taken in by a phainopepla, then a mockingbird, then this black-throated sparrow. I gave up on the yucca entirely and had to pull myself away to arrive in time to photograph the saguaro, as I adore it but have never photographed it and didn’t want to risk something happening to it before I got the chance. Easier said than done when little tempters abound.

Two Dancers

Two (or one?) trees appear to be dancing on Powerline Road No. 2 in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on August 2, 2020. Original: _CAM4158.arw

Two dancers in the morning light, not yet ready to yield the night. A high thin band of smoke from wildfires in California blanketed the sky and the light had an unusual look to it, in person I preferred the trees when directly lit but in pictures I have a slight preference to this subtler version when the light dimmed. If they were closer to one of the trailheads I’d have photographed these trees (tree? trees? not sure) dozens of times by now but to get to them I have to walk past my favorite saguaro and a phalanx of woodpeckers, hawks, wrens, thrashers, and flycatchers. To solve this problem I’m thinking of getting a big catapult to chuck me directly into the middle of the preserve, I haven’t worked out how to survive the landing but no plan is perfect.

Rewards for the Early Bird

A Harris's hakw perches on a large broken saguaro along Powerline Road No. 2 in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on August 2, 2020. Original: _RAC5128.arw

One of my fears when moving here was that it would be too hot in the summers for hiking so I was pleased to find that with a few tweaks to my hiking clothes (and several more water bottles) I could hike in the early mornings, if not without breaking a sweat, at least with relative ease. The hard part is not the heat but the early rising required to avoid the worst of it, as it is no easier to get up before sunrise here than in Oregon.

On this morning in early August I hiked a trail very close to one of my favorites that I had only partially hiked before, knowing it was much wider and allowed more physical separation in these pandemic times, and was rewarded with my first badger sighting. The sun wasn’t up yet and I hadn’t gotten my telephoto lens out so I watched from afar as it ran its hands through its fur, grooming itself like the muskrats and beavers and nutria I had watched so many times before. Grooming completed it waddled, and I mean waddled, off into the brush.

Further on this young Harris’s hawk came flying up, a mammal clutched in its talons, landing amidst a battered old beauty as the first hint of light fell upon the saguaro. Knowing it was offering to share its breakfast, I said thanks just the same but I had breakfast bars in my pack in case I felt peckish. Somewhere nearby, out of sight but not of earshot, its family was raising up two fledglings from the summer batch. Successfully so, I got to spend a few minutes this Thanksgiving with them all.

Oh this desert! Every sunrise, every sunset, every step along the path is a treasure.

Fleeting

An environmental portrait of a phainopepla perched in a tree at sunset on the 118th Street Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on November 26, 2020. Original: _RAC8869.arw

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.

Look Who’s Back!

A male phainopepla perches on a dead tree with the arms of a saguaro visible in the background on the 118th Street Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on November 22, 2020. Original: _RAC8600.arw

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.