This spring I went down to a rock formation in the neighborhood to try and photograph a pair of starlings, I have mixed feelings about seeing them since while I enjoy watching them they were introduced in the US and have negatively impacted some native species. Thankfully they don’t seem to be making much of an inroads here, I’ve not seem them in the desert (even on trails near subdivisions) and rarely see them in the neighborhood. I was surprised to find them nesting in a woodpecker hole, possibly built by one of the local architects below, this one poking its head out right as the sun was about to dip below the mountains. One more species added to my list in my attempt to photograph every animal in the desert on a saguaro.
Even after a few years in the desert I don’t know who to call when I see a saguaro in need of a fresh coat of paint. Who maintains them, the city? The county? The state?
I had gone out to photograph a particular saguaro at sunrise but as I feared Brown’s Mountain blocked the light for a good while. I switched over to my telephoto lens, the old saguaros always have interesting beauty spots to photograph and this one was no exception. I like the early diffuse light for shots like these.
Last year after getting some confidence identifying the more common birds and mammals and reptiles of the Sonoran Desert, I decided to start learning the desert plants. I spent an evening reading up on the trees (there aren’t a bunch, this shouldn’t have been hard) but the next morning I couldn’t remember anything I had read the night before. I was a little frustrated with myself but heard a pleading voice that there had been too much that was new and to focus on the things I had to learn, not the things I wanted to learn.
As a creature of habit I knew Arizona would provide beneficial opportunities to experience something different but also that there was so much different both at work and at home that it might be overwhelming (the pandemic hasn’t helped). So I heeded that voice and put aside the guide books and stuck to familiar nearby parks rather than venturing further afield, trying out trails new to me when I felt up to a little challenge.
This summer has brought a mild awakening in being willing to learn new things, spurred on partially by the giant cactus out front that exploded in blooms after the summer monsoons and brought in a host of small creatures to feed on its bounty, and the butterflies that similarly burst into view at the same time either in our yard or on my beloved trails.
Insects have been tricky to learn but I believe this little lovely is a leaf-footed bug of the species Narnia femorata but take that with a grain of salt, I’m not a biologist much less an entomologist, and this is all new to me besides. While they apparently prefer prickly pear (the neighbors have a glorious patch) a group of them have been hanging out on this big cactus in our front yard, feeding either on the buds and blossoms like here on a rainy summer evening, or on the fruit that grew after the pollinators got to work.
Hard as it is to believe we’re in our third summer at our house. Out front in addition to a saguaro and a barrel cactus is some sort of big beautiful sprawling cactus. I was rather startled in July to see large flower buds emerging as it had sat silent during our time here, perhaps finally getting some decent rain this monsoon season woke it from its slumber. Even better? Like me, it blooms at night!
On a cloudy morning in late July the flowers hadn’t closed up yet so the bees were taking advantage of the new and abundant source of pollen. They seemed to struggle a bit gaining purchase on the flowers, such as this one clinging to the petal tops after clumsily climbing out from the center. Usually the flowers have closed up by the time I drag myself out of bed so I’ve developed a nightly ritual where I go out a couple of times to see the blooms and the wildlife feeding in the dark.
There are moths of course, mostly the little brown lovelies we see around but a couple of nights I saw what I think was a white-lined sphinx month, though I didn’t get a good enough look to be sure. Despite the large blossoms when this massive moth tried to land inside one it reminded me of when our dog Ellie would curl up in a cat bed when they took hers.
Best of all, we had a couple of bats coming in and resting in the alcove outside the front door. Have they been there before and I just haven’t noticed? Also best of all I saw a western banded gecko, while it doesn’t care about this cactus I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t been going out to watch the blooms.
There are still a few flowers each night, mostly up high, and a whole bunch of fruit that some leaf-footed cactus bugs (at least I think that’s what they are) have been gorging themselves on, they stick around for more than just the night so I do have some pictures of them. And though I haven’t seen them, around me I can often hear coyotes howling to each other as they move about in the night. What joy this cactus has brought me, my brother in spirit if not in form.
One of my great joys this spring was to go to a local park on weekend evenings and watch a pair of gilded flickers raise their family in a nest near the top of an old saguaro. I’ve shared some of those pictures before and have more I haven’t sorted yet, but one of my favorites is the last one I took. Earlier in the weekend as I scouted for antelope squirrels lower in the park I heard a flicker calling out constantly and worried something had gone wrong and one of the adults was alarmed, but when I made my way to the nest I realized the last remaining youngster had found its full flicker voice and was putting it to good use.
It was as close to fledging as it could be, often hanging out of the nest hole and even leaning down occasionally to shoot out its long tongue (I’m presuming ants were climbing up the cactus as they are a favored food). It was happy enough to take feedings from its parents but after the sun set and I prepared to leave, I wondered if the Germans had a word for the feeling that as much as you had loved watching a flicker grow up, you hoped not to see it again. Not that I wouldn’t technically see it, just that I wouldn’t know I had, as I knew I wouldn’t be able to get back until the next weekend and something would have gone wrong for it not to have left the nest by then.
I took one last photo, though I had taken one just like it after the sun set the day before, and whispered let’s not meet here again. As I arrived the following weekend I was both happy and sad to walk up the trail and not hear the familiar voice, to see the nest hole emptied of a bird on the precipice of leaving the comfortable world it had known to join the fuller world that awaited, and hoped it would have a wonderful life.
A male kestrel arrives at his nest in a saguaro to feed the last of his young that had not yet fledged but was surprised to find him sitting in the entrance hole. Strong winds blew as the sun was about to set but kestrels are agile fliers with a strong grip, so even though he had to fall backwards to avoid crashing into the youngster he was able to flare out his wings while grasping the cactus with his talons and maintain his purchase. He not only recovered with remarkable grace but soon leaned in and fed his hungry charge before flying off to look for the next meal.
I bet next time he calls first to let junior know he’s on his way.
Happy Father’s Day to my father of the year, this gilded flicker nesting near the top of a saguaro. It was my first time watching a flicker raise a family so I was a bit confused when, unlike Gila woodpeckers, the adults arrived at the nest with empty beaks. As the nestlings grew old enough to lean out of the nest I understood why, they were regurgitating food into the always-hungry mouths of the little ones.
The nest was in a nearby park, best visible late in the day, so on weekends I’d stop by to watch this tireless provider feeding his babies before and after the sun set. I brought out my Canon 500mm telephoto for these pictures, the autofocus doesn’t work very well on my Sony cameras but it’s amazing it works at all given it’s a 15 year old Canon lens attached to a Sigma converter attached to a Sony camera, a combo they were not designed for. I often shot with the electronic shutter so I wouldn’t make any noise.
For a while I was concerned something had happened to the mother as I only ever saw this male (a bit of his red mustache is visible in the picture below as he feeds the last nestling) but it turned out to be a coincidence of timing as eventually I would see her too. The top picture is right before the sun set, the bottom two just after (on the following day).