My Stomping Grounds

An environmental portrait of a cactus wren singing from the flower stalk of a soaptree yucca with mountains in the background in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2020

As the first light of day spills across the desert, a cactus wren sings from the flower stalk of a soaptree yucca as it makes the rounds of the high places. In between this patch of McDowell Sonoran Preserve and the mountains on the horizon are a host of subdivisions, including ours, I see the mountains on the left from the back porch. There are 5 (!) preserve trailheads near us and this is where I do most of my hiking, either in the massive northern area like this or down by the mountains. The preserve continues quite a ways to the south, those trails are great fun too (our second favorite house was at the southern end) but the northern part is my favorite.

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.

Wrens

A cactus wren perches on a flower bud of a blooming saguaro on the Chuckwagon Trail early in the morning in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2020

I met this cactus wren in the early light last Sunday after having just missed a picture the day before. If memory serves they were the first bird I saw on the trails after we moved here, they remind me so much of the boisterous little wren of the sloughs of the Pacific Northwest that I watched for many years, the marsh wren. More so in personality than appearance as they would dwarf my former friends if seen side-by-side, a bit unlikely as there is an even larger difference in the places they call home. The smile they always bring is the same though.

The Neighborhood

A cactus wren sings from a blooming and leafing ocotillo in the Troon neighborhood of Scottsdale, Arizona in March 2020

The sun was rising, the ocotillo blooming, the cactus wrens singing, on a morning walk in the neighborhood last weekend. On my afternoon walk I saw a bobcat working its way down the hill. At night I heard a noise and for a second assumed it was one of the cats except they were all sleeping on me. I looked out the window to see a javelina rooting around in the yard. Lovely neighbors abound.

Sprouting

A cactus wren sings while perched on the branches of a palo verde and its tiny leaves, taken on the Jasper Trail at Cave Creek Regional Park in Cave Creek, Arizona in January 2020

This palo verde sprouted its tiny little leaves, I suppose their small size minimizes water loss while allowing more photosynthesis than from just their green bark. It also sprouted a cactus wren, as have seemingly all the tall plants on my hikes lately, as I’ve seen (and heard) these boisterous birds frequently the past few weeks. Perhaps it is time to establish territory and seek out mates, or perhaps they are practicing for an upcoming all-wren revue. Either way, can’t wait!

Class Picture Day

A cactus wren perches on a dead tree branch recently vacated by a house finch beside the Marcus Landslide Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in January 2020

Shortly after the house finch left his perch a cactus wren flew in and posed in the same spot. Was it class picture day? Would a canyon towhee fly in, a little oatmeal spilled on its shirt? A black-throated sparrow with an unruly cowlick? A white-crowned sparrow with a bright smile and a mouthful of braces? Sadly no, the mixed flock of birds continued to move across the desert so I continued up the trail.

It’s Starting To Look a Lot Like Christmas

A cactus wren perches atop a saguaro with its beak stuffed full of the soft white material that grows on new growth at the base of the spines, particles of the white material streaming behind it, on the Cholla Mountain Loop Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in November 2019

I don’t normally associate the word ‘soft’ with saguaros but they do have this soft white material on new growth where the spines develop. A few weeks ago this cactus wren gleefully ripped out as much as it could carry in its beak before flying off, only to return for more. Normally I would assume it was looking for soft material to line its nest but at this time of year it must be that the male cardinals dress up as Santa Claus for Christmas and the wrens do their part by gathering material for the long white beards. This desert does know how to put on a show!

Spring Sing

A cactus wren sings atop a saguaro with its mouth wide open near the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in April 2018

A cactus wren sings atop a saguaro at the end of April in 2018. It was also the end of our first month in Arizona and my second trip to Brown’s Ranch, having visited the day before as well. The cactus wren was the first bird I saw on my first hike after we moved here, at nearby Pinnacle Peak, also singing from a saguaro but before the sun had risen. They were nesting at the Brown’s Ranch trailhead and I assumed would always be so easy to see so close but I’ve had less luck this year.

At least on the trails, at home one was beside me a few minutes ago as it worked the porch for food. A couple of weeks ago two wren parents were also close by on the porch, feeding their hungry and boisterous chick as it fluttered its wings to draw attention the way so many young birds do. As one parent fed the little thing I heard a thud at a nearby window and my heart sank thinking the other adult had flown into it. But then I laughed when I realized the sound came from the other side of the window and the source was our youngest cat Trixie who could no longer hold back her desire to be introduced to the young family.

Beauty All Around

A cactus wren perches on a saguaro fruit along the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

It has been a sad day but not a day without beauty. In between talking to the vet in the morning and taking Ellie in to be euthanized, I walked into my office and saw Boo and Trixie transfixed in the window. I walked over assuming they were looking at a bird and was delighted to instead see a western whiptail in the bushes next to the window, a favorite lizard on the trails but a new yard species for me. When we got home with heavy hearts after saying goodbye to Ellie, I saw a cactus wren in the backyard, a first for the new house although I had seem them at the rental house and of course on the trails. This one was perching on a saguaro fruit last summer in McDowell Sonoran Preserve.