I Hiked Alone, Surrounded by Friends

A black-throated sparrow perches atop a buckhorn cholla on the new interpretative trail at Fraesfield at McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on January 24, 2021. Original: _RAC3574.arw

I came across this black-throated sparrow in a mixed flock of sparrows on the new hard-packed interpretative trail at Fraesfield on a rainy winter afternoon. It’s a nice trail if you have mobility issues or need to push a stroller or wheelchair or the like, and is also nice on rainy days when they’d prefer you stay off the regular trails. Even after a few years in the desert I can’t get over how naturally birds land on a cactus with spikes half the size of their bodies, they are more at ease in their dangerous world than I will ever be in mine.

A black-throated sparrow perches in a buckhorn cholla on the new interpretative trail at Fraesfield at McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on January 24, 2021. Original: _RAC3614.arw

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.

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.

In Death, Supporting Life

A lesser nighthawk perches on a dead buckhorn cholla on the 118th Street Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2020

Nighthawks were a new species for me when we moved to Arizona. I see them relatively often near the break of day, zooming about low to the ground in erratic flight like massive swallows. When sitting still they can be pretty hard to spot and usually I only manage it if see them land, as in this case when a dead cholla lended its support on a spring morning.

The Cholla Calls

A cactus wren perches in a buckhorn cholla along Powerline Road No. 2 in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2020

Have I wandered too long in the desert heat? The cholla is talking to me. Not in quiet whispers but in bold boisterous calls, raising my spirits and quickening my pace, pulling me closer. So far I have not been drawn into its warm embrace, so far, so far.