Two Favorites

An environmental portrait of a common side-blotched lizard perched on a granite boulder in front of a tall saguaro, taken on an offshoot of the Latigo Trail in the Brown's Ranch area of McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on April 4, 2021. Original: _RAC6033.arw

I’ve been in the mood for environmental portraits so I was delighted to take one of two of my favorite desert inhabitants, the saguaro and the common side-blotched lizard, one of the largest residents and one of the smallest (at least one of the smallest on four legs). As much grief as I give my pattern-matching self for spotting marmots in the rocky hills when he knows there are no marmots here (he’s mostly stopped with the occasional relapse) and for spotting lizards that turn out to be protuberances in the rocks, he nailed this one from afar. The little fellow was a ways off and wasn’t worried about me so I had time to find a spot on the trail both where I could see the saguaro behind him and place him in a gap between the giant arms so he’d be easy to see against the blue sky.

I quietly wondered if he’d be willing to stick around for an hour-and-a-half for the last light of day but I knew he wouldn’t stay that long and neither would I, I wanted to get some hiking in and I had only just begun. In any event I finished the day further east, taking environmental portraits of another favorite resident, but no spoilers …

Until We Meet Again, My Friend

A male common side-blotched lizard perches atop a rock on an Off-map Trail in the Pima Dynamite section of McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2019

I met this lovely little fellow back in June on some of the nice new trails at the Pima Dynamite Trailhead in McDowell Sonoran Preserve. While I can’t quite say I love the summer heat, I love how it warms the pool for an after-hike swim, and more than anything I love how it draws out my friends from their hiding places in the rocks. Until we meet again little ones, stay safe, stay warm.

Hiding in Plain Sight

A male common side-blotched lizard basks in the morning sun on a dead tree along the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in July 2018

A common side-blotched lizard basks in the morning sun on a dead tree along the Latigo Trail in July of 2018. One of the notes in my hiking journal says “Such an *amazing* morning!” and indeed it was, mostly I was photographing birds but this little jewel was icing on the cake. Hiding pretty well for being out in the open, I can’t remember now if I spotted him when I stopped for a water break or if I stopped for a water break because I spotted him. I’m always a little disappointed we’ve not met there since, even though I always look when I walk by. Maybe I should leave a note?

Little Lovely

A common side-blotched lizard warms itself in the sun on a rock along the Coyote Canyon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve

I hope there are little things in your life that bring you as much joy as these tiny lizards bring to me. The common side-blotched lizard is the lizard I see most although they can be difficult to photograph because of their small size. Most of the time I just watch them sunning themselves or scurrying about and am thankful they are there, and I with them.

A Little Beauty

A close-up view of a common side-blotched lizard showing the dark blotch behind his front legs as he perches on a granite rock along the Bootlegger Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

One of the difficulties I had when learning to identify lizards after we moved here was getting a feel for the size of lizards based on pictures. Guide books have typical measurements but that isn’t as helpful until you can narrow down the search. I wish there was an app that would let you sort them first by geography and then by size. Over time I’ve gotten much better at identifying most of the common lizards including the one I see most often, the common side-blotched lizard.

I met this one in July on the Bootlegger Trail near Granite Mountain, he’s nicely showing off the dark blotch behind his front legs for which he is named as he perches on his own granite mountain. I’ve been getting a bit worn down the past few weeks and have only gone out hiking once each weekend so I’m going to take a couple of days off this week to hopefully recharge a bit. I saw a handful of these little lizards on the trail this morning but didn’t see any opportunities for pictures so I enjoyed my time with them instead.

As for their size, it can be hard to tell from a telephoto shot like this but thy are tiny, typically 1.5″ to 2.5″ SV (snout-to-vent, which goes from the tip of the nose to the vent near the base of the tail). They mostly eat insects and the like but lots of things eat them, including larger lizards. They are active throughout the year at my elevation (at least on warm winter days) so I’m happy they’ll keep me company when the other reptiles are hibernating.

Green and Blue in the Desert

A common side-blotched lizards perches on a rock in front of the green of an out-of-focus saguaro

I was sitting below this little common side-blotched lizard, shooting up at it against a blue sky (below), when I realized if I moved the camera slightly I could shift the background to green courtesy of a massive saguaro standing behind it. There is green in the desert, not the ubiquitous saturated greens of the forests of the Northwest but a soft, muted green, always in the saguaros and palo verdes but on many more plants now that the summer monsoons have arrived.

Blue is easy to find in the skies of the desert but some lizards, especially the males, may have blue throats or sides or blue speckled throughout their scales. Blue too is the skin around the eyes of adult white-winged and mourning doves. All of these blues can be seen where I photographed this lizard at The Amphitheater in McDowell Sonoran Preserve, a rock formation on the Cholla Mountain Loop Trail that is one of my favorite places to hike.

A common side-blotched lizards perches on a rock in front of blue skies

The Valley of the Sun

A common side-blotched lizard all in shadow save for its head along the Rustler Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

In the Valley of the Sun, when you get the first rays of light depends on when the rising sun clears any mountains to the east. This scene played out in miniature early one morning when I found this common side-blotched lizard completely in shadow until it turned its head into a shaft of light that had just cleared the rock behind it.

Joy at My Feet

A common side-blotched lizard perches on a rock beside the Sidewinder Trail in Phoenix Sonoran Preserve in Phoenix, Arizona

If I could tell myself at 10 years old that in 40 years I’d be working on things in space and hiking with lizards at my feet, I suspect he’d wonder what took me so long to get here. I’ll tell him about a place called Oregon and I think he’ll understand, and if not he soon will. I don’t think I would have been ready for the desert without spending so long in the Pacific Northwest first and will always be grateful for my time there. I’ve been hiking as much as I can since arriving in Arizona, I love seeing lizards in the desert even though usually they’re scurrying out of sight as I walk past. Sometimes I get a longer look such as this past weekend with this common side-blotched lizard on the Sidewinder Trail in Phoenix Sonoran Preserve, my first hike outside of Scottsdale.