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.
In the spring every square inch of the tops of old saguaros might be covered in flower buds and blossoms, thick as thieves, such as these providing a softer-than-normal perch for an American kestrel. I saw our smallest falcon frequently in the Northwest but only a couple of times here so it was a pleasure to see her as she towered over me on the Granite Mountain Loop Trail.
In May I met this young red-tailed hawk on one of the off-map trails in the Pima Dynamite area, it was still growing in confidence if not in size. Its movements were still a little unsure, here flaring out its wings slightly to maintain its balance atop the flower buds of the saguaro. It kept its head on a swivel, looking at not just its nearby sibling but listening further off for the parents that were keeping in touch vocally (and perhaps visually, they had a taller vantage point than I). The yellow in its legs and beak was quite pale but it had already accomplished much by growing to this size, as babies even the top predators are vulnerable to other predators such as the great horned owls I saw on the previous hike and heard hooting that morning.
By now it will be an old hand at flying about the desert even if still wearing its juvenile plumage. I turned around at this point as its sibling was on a saguaro right next to the trail and I didn’t want to disturb them, they had enough on their minds, enough to learn about their desert home. I can sympathize.
A Harris’s hawk calls out as the rising sun begins to tip over the distant mountains, partially illuminating the desert with its soft light. From this angle and in this light you can barely see the distinctive chestnut patches on its shoulders and legs, but you can get a glimpse of the large white patch at the base of the tail and the white band at the tip.
After it flew off I continued up the trail, and when I rounded a corner five minutes later the hawk and I met again (I assume it’s the same one, it would be easier if they wore name tags). The rising sun having fully cleared the mountains and the hawk completely lit in the morning light, you can better see the distinctive chestnut patches. This is the same saguaro (and maybe the same hawk) I photographed shortly before sunrise a week prior.
A male brown-headed cowbird was singing atop an old saguaro when it flared out its wings and then arched its back and pointed its head into the air. The reason soon became clear as another beak came into view, followed by the rest of the head. A second male had flown onto the opposite side and was inching its way up from below. It flew off pretty quickly and the original male gave chase.
A Harris’s hawk calls out from atop a blooming saguaro in the moments before the sun rises above the distant peaks. I’m guessing it did rise, a heavy cloud cover blanketed the desert so the sun hid its face most of the morning. Perhaps the hawk was staying in touch with another hawk on a nearby saguaro, or perhaps like me it was protesting the earlier and earlier rising of the sun. My alarm went off at 4:15am that morning!
Thankfully I managed to get up at 4:30am on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and was on the trails before sunrise, as that is how I met this Gila woodpecker shortly before the sun crested the hills behind me. Most of the saguaros old enough to bloom don’t have flowers yet but are putting out buds that make handy perches. Some of those buds have bloomed, however, as evidenced by the pollen covering the front half of his head.
In my short time here there are a handful of birds I’ve gotten used to seeing on the saguaros: Gila woodpeckers, gilded flickers, house finches, cactus wrens, and curve-billed thrashers. But I sometimes see more than the usual suspects, such as this splash of color that momentarily swooped into view early Saturday morning. He’s a young Bullock’s oriole, he’ll be even more colorful and vibrant in a year. I’ve only see this species a couple of times before, both during my years in Portland, so here’s hoping we meet more often in Arizona.