Morning Ablutions

A canyon towhee pauses while preening at sunrise on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on September 18, 2022. Original: _CAM5336.ARW

Another in my series exploring light as it arrives or departs the desert. If it looks like the towhee puffed out its feathers to protect against the cold, it hadn’t, this was mid-September when cool hasn’t yet entered the desert’s vocabulary, much less cold. I was watching it preen before sunrise and luckily it was still at it as the light peeked over the mountains, the hills behind it still in shadow.


A canyon towhee perches on saguaro flower buds on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on May 15, 2020. Original: _RAC3218.arw

From last spring in the early morning light, a canyon towhee finds a soft perch atop a saguaro courtesy of its large flower buds. A pleasant reminder that spring is coming and a not-so-pleasant reminder that the already cruel sunrises will only get earlier. I’ve managed zero sunrise hikes so far this year so I’m not off to a promising start.


A white-winged dove and a canyon towhee bookend a fruiting saguaro before sunrise on the Latigo Trail in the Brown's Ranch section of McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in July 2019

A white-winged dove and a canyon towhee bookend a fruiting saguaro before sunrise on the Latigo Trail. The morning lows are in the 80’s now, even I am wearing short sleeves on the trails. Normally I prefer long sleeves to physically keep the sun off my skin but for the next couple of months I’ll rely on sunscreen and being off the trails early before the sun gets too bright. Still wearing long pants though, too many things in the desert want to poke you when you get down low to photograph lizards.

One of Three

A canyon towhee looks directly at me as it perches atop a saguaro along Brown's Ranch Road in McDowell Sonoran Preserve

We see a lot of overlap between the birds of our backyard and the birds of the desert but not with towhees. I’ve seen three species of towhees in Arizona, Abert’s towhees all summer in our yard and just recently a spotted towhee, but the canyon towhee shown here I only see on the trails.

I Will Sing

A canyon towhee sings atop a saguaro before the sun crests above the distant hills on the Upper Ranch Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

The sun had not yet crested the distant hills as this canyon towhee serenaded me atop a saguaro, a lovely reward for getting out of bed so early on the weekend. It was the only picture I took that day but it was a lovely day on the trails nevertheless. This morning I deliberately slept in as I knew I would be too tired to feel safe driving if I got up at 4 a.m. so I chose a good night’s sleep instead. I see many of the same birds in our backyard as on the trails (we even had a couple of Harris’s hawks perching in the palm trees recently) but with the towhees it’s a bit different, a pair of Abert’s towhees are regular visitors to our feeders but I’ve never seen them in the desert, while canyon towhees have never graced our yard but I’ve seen them many places around the preserve.

The One-eyed Towhee

A canyon towhee is missing one of its eyes at Balanced Rock in McDowell Sonoran Preserve

In May I arrived at Balanced Rock on my first visit to this lovely rock formation in the Granite Mountain section of McDowell Sonoran Preserve. After taking some pictures of Balanced Rock itself, I sat down on a large granite slab for some water and cereal bars before heading back. I put my camera away but brought it back out when a pair of canyon towhees flew in. I could tell something was wrong with one of the eyes of one of the pair but couldn’t tell what as it flitted about until I looked at the pictures: one of its eyes was missing. To me it looks like a congenital defect, as though the eye and the surrounding feathers never formed.

I felt a great deal of sympathy for the little bird as life in the desert is hard enough. But even more I felt admiration as it flew about the rocks and perched in trees with all the grace and alacrity typical of birds despite the limited depth perception. Obviously it had survived into adulthood and apparently found a mate (canyon towhees are typically monogamous and often mate for life). I couldn’t say if its mate helps it find food, or if it supplements its diet with crumbs left behind by hikers like me who stop to eat, or if it feeds just fine on its own, but it seemed healthy.

May you have a long happy life, little one.

A side view of a canyon towhee at Balanced Rock in McDowell Sonoran Preserve