This Is My Mountain & I Have Climbed It

A male Gambels' quail looks out from atop a xenolith in a granite boulder on the Cholla Mountain Loop Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in December 2019

A xenolith provides a handy perch for a Gambel’s quail to survey the surrounding desert. This xenolith has tricked me many times as at a distance it looks like it could be a spiny lizard sunning on the boulder, and even though I know better I often can’t help from looking through the long lens, just to be sure. It’s not an entirely bad instinct, it’s how one day I went back for a second look and turned a cactus into a bobcat.

At Home With the Curves

A curve-billed thrasher sings while perching in a dead tree with short curved branches that mimic its bill on the Cholla Mountain Loop Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in December 2019

A curve-billed thrasher sings from a perfect hiding spot, the short curving branches mimicking its bill, taken early Friday morning on the Cholla Mountain Loop Trail. I barely slept the night before but thankfully didn’t crash until later as it was a lovely morning to be out in the desert.

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!

Soft and Sharp

The needles of a saguaro are damp with rain on the Cholla Mountain Loop Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2018

Last year in one glance on a spring morning I was reminded of my former home of two decades and my new home of two months. The softest of rains fell on the desert, reminding me of the gentle winter rains of the Pacific Northwest. The raindrops collected on the sharp spines of the saguaro, giants in this intoxicating desert that have drawn me out time and time again. I’ve long since grown accustomed to seeing saguaros but may I never tire of them or take them for granted.

Beauty in the Shadows

A male desert spiny lizard close his eyes as he rests beneath massive boulders at Cathedral Rock in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in July 2018

Cathedral Rock is awash in beauty, with massive boulders and sweeping views of the Sonoran desert, but its greatest beauty sleeps in its shadows, hidden in crevices below the monoliths. Despite its size, the desert spiny lizard is rather shy and often scurries out of sight long before I approach. Thankfully I was not only able to spend some time with this one and watch as he grew sleepy, but ease away and leave him to his slumber.

A Magical Day

A desert spiny lizard perches on a small rock beside Cathedral Rock in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

I don’t use all caps much in any of my writing, online or otherwise, but my journal for July 8th starts “MAGICAL DAY!!!!!”. The five bangs are unusual too.

It was going to be hot, that I knew. It was already in the mid-80’s before sunrise, the coolest part of the day, even at Brown’s Ranch where it is typically cooler than the city. I was still getting used to hiking in the desert so while I planned to be back before the heat got severe I chose trails I had hiked before and where I had cell phone coverage just to be safe. The chance for a lovely sunrise fizzled as the overnight clouds dissipated as I drove out in the dark. I didn’t see many animals in the early morning light and fumbled with my camera even when I tried for pictures. Some days are like that, I learned long ago not to fight it, I was just happy to know that as long as I got out early I could still hike on the hottest summer days.

I reached my turnaround point at Cathedral Rock and stopped for a water break, taking a group photo for some cyclists who were also out enjoying the summer morning. I saw a desert spiny lizard but couldn’t get a picture as it scampered behind a rock. I had started seeing them on the trails on occasion, despite their size they are rather skittish so I wasn’t expecting any pictures. I sat there for a while, enjoying my new desert home, when the spiny lizard came out again. I didn’t move, taking some pictures from where I sat, and the lovely little thing got more comfortable with me. It scampered over underneath the massive rocks that make up Cathedral Rock and as I slowly approached it let me take some more pictures.

Another group of cyclists came up and I thought the lizard would disappear but instead it came closer to me. At one point it ran right in front of me and snagged an insect off the rock wall a few feet to my left, I didn’t risk any pictures but turned my head enough to watch it eat its breakfast. It stayed near me for quite some time and I took so many pictures even I decided it was enough. I put my Canon camera in my backpack but thankfully still had the Sony out with the long lens attached as I turned around and my lizard had suddenly grown larger and more colorful. I quickly realized another lizard had come out (a male? an adult?) and took pictures of it as well, then walked around a bit, before I decided to head back as the heat was rising quickly. I attached my tripod to my backpack when I noticed the first spiny lizard was now perched on a rock right beside me. Having so completely earned its trust I couldn’t resist more pictures, I took this one sitting on the ground with the lens resting on my legs, relying on the flip-out screen to frame the image.

Then it really was time to go, having spent 2 hours and 15 minutes with the two lizards. It felt good to stretch my legs as I headed back to the trailhead, and though it was 101 degrees as I reached the car I didn’t mind. I had plenty of water, I had plenty of energy, and my heart was full of joy.

The Little Antelope

A side view of a Harris's antelope squirrel standing on a granite boulder with its tail curved along its back

Most of the time I see Harris’s antelope squirrels at a distance as they scurry about their desert home. Sometimes I get lucky and get to watch one up close for a while, it’s always a treat to earn their trust. This little fellow had just finished eating a cactus fruit, you can see some of the green rind he discarded at his feet. The antelopes are smaller than the other ground squirrels in our neck of the desert, the rock squirrel, and different in appearance as well.

I didn’t do any hiking on any of my three days off this weekend as my chronic bowel issues have been bothering me a bit of late and its too risky to take to the trails since I don’t have much warning when trouble is brewing. And while we don’t have any ground squirrels in our neighborhood I nevertheless did see an antelope yesterday as my wife and I attended a few open houses. One house literally had my favorite part of my favorite park behind its backyard and as we pulled up an antelope squirrel (not this one, but he was at the same preserve) ran out of the rocks of the house across the street.

We’re not ready to buy yet, just trying to get a feel for the neighborhoods, and I’m not sure I’d want that long of a commute to work even if it meant I could literally walk out the door to a nearby trail, or a trivial drive to the trailhead I visit most often. But it has me thinking.