Black and White in Blue, No Red

A female ladder-backed woodpecker clings to a dead tree in the blue light before sunrise on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in March 2020

I was off on Friday but woke with such a severe headache I didn’t even get out of bed for a neighborhood walk. Saturday morning I was mostly feeling better and ventured out for a gentle hike on a favorite loop. Awaiting me in the blue light, the sun still thinking of rising, was not only a male ladder-backed woodpecker but this female, perched a few feet below. I saw her briefly the previous week though I didn’t know it at first, while photographing the male I stooped down to get a drink and returned to photograph him, only realizing later while reviewing the pictures that his red crown disappeared in the second set. The old switcheroo! May you raise a lovely family, little ones.

Backlit

A northern mockingbird is backlit by the sun as it perches atop an old saguaro on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in February 2020

One of the problems with hiking early in the morning, apart from it being early in the morning, is that several of my favorite trails go east from the trailhead straight into the rising sun. While I liked how it backlit this mockingbird high atop an old saguaro, maybe the sun could sometimes rise in the west? The south? The north? I’m willing to be flexible.

The Cactus Driver

A male gilded flicker perches atop a lop-sided saguaro on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in February 2020

I wouldn’t describe flickers as quiet birds though it seemed so relative to the pairs of wrens and thrashers and Gila woodpeckers that were making a ruckus around him on a winter’s morning. As I watched him watch the others he reminded me of a driver atop a massive vehicle and I wished the saguaros could slowly shuffle across the desert, so that where you found the old giants would depend on where the birds last parked them.

The Headache Cure

A male ladder-backed woodpecker looks back at the rising sun from atop a dead tree on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in February 2020

I woke Saturday morning with a massive headache, initially hoping to fall back asleep but eventually getting up for a gentle hike. On the short drive to the trail the western sky hung on to its pink and purple hues as sunrise approached. Seeking ladder-backed woodpeckers, I arrived at the dead tree where I saw a male last week seconds after the sun cleared the mountains (I would have beat the sun but I got distracted by a mockingbird). He was already in the tree so to put the sun at my back I walked past quickly and quietly, too nervous to even look up to see if he remained. Remained he had, perched at the top before sidling down and hammering into the branches.

My hike was gentle but much longer than planned, my headache fading perhaps from post-woodpecker euphoria or perhaps the Ibuprofen. All the while serenaded by wrens and thrashers and flickers and sparrows as we shared the morning glory.

Ring of Fire

A ray of light illuminates the red crest of the silhouetted form of a ladder-backed woodpecker perched in a tree on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in February 2020

There is a species of woodpecker in the desert I’ve glimpsed so briefly that it wasn’t until two months ago I could put a name to its face. After seeing them a few times recently I decided Sunday morning to try for a picture in the early light, heading to the one section of the one trail where I’ve seen them. The sun was just cresting the mountains, not yet illuminating the desert floor, when I stopped in my tracks as a ring of fire flashed atop the silhouetted form before me, a ray of light illuminating the red crest of a ladder-backed woodpecker.

How It All Began

A Harris's hawk hatchling sits up and looks out from its nest in a saguaro on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2019

Though taken in December yesterday’s picture began in May, when I first saw one of the Harris’s hawk hatchlings poke up from the nest. I’m not sure if its sibling had hatched yet, one of the parents (not visible) is laying down behind it with several more adults nearby. I wrote in my journal “There was no acrimony among the hawks given how close they were to each other & the nest, was a little surprised”, understated confusion solved later when I learned they raise the young in family groups. Also wrote “Soaptree yucca are blooming, got too distracted by the hawks for pictures”. That’ll happen!