Big Saguaro, Little Falcon

A female American kestrel perches atop flower buds and blossoms on a saguaro on the Granite Mountain Loop Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2018

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.

Growing

A juvenile red-tailed hawk balances atop the flower buds of a saguaro beside an off-map trail in the Pima Dynamite area of McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2019

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.

The Tipping Point

A Harris's hawk calls out from atop a saguaro, lit by the soft light of the rising sun as it partially cleared the mountains, taken on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2019

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 Harris's hawk perches atop a saguaro, fully lit by the rising sun after it cleared the mountains, taken on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2019

I Have the High Ground

Two male brown-headed cowbirds arch their heads towards the sky as they stand on flower buds atop a saguaro along the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2019

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.

Rage, Rage Against the Rising of the Light

A Harris's hawk calls out from atop a blooming saguaro in the moments before the sun rises above the distant peaks along the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

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!