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A juvenile Harris's hawk calls out while an adult is perched higher in the tree, set against the backdrop of a variety of plants of the Sonoran Desert with saguaros rising up behind, taken on the 118th Street Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in October 2019

One of my favorite pictures this year, taken early in the morning in October looking west from a frequently-hiked trail near our house. It speaks to the misconceptions I used to have about this area and how surprised I was to learn there is so much diverse life here. There are the twisting trees, the yuccas with their flower stalks reaching towards the sky, the green-barked palo verdes, the yearning ocotillos, and above all the saguaros. Topping it off are two members of the Harris’s hawk family that so charmed me this year, an adult perched in the bare branches of the tree in the upper left and a juvenile down below, calling out to the rest of the family who must have been on the other side of the hill. The adult eventually flew off in that direction and the juvenile took its spot high in the tree before following the adult out of sight. How lucky I am to be in their, and my, home.

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!

Feeling at Home

A view of the crested saguaro I call Witch Hazel with Brown's Mountain in the background, taken from the Vaquero Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in November 2019

When we arrived in Arizona the desert was both exciting and bewildering, like I had been plunked down into a new earth that only hinted at the shapes and forms I had known all my life. Brown’s Ranch helped orient me in two ways, both on display in this view of the crested saguaro on the Vaquero Trail. First were the saguaros themselves, they tower above the desert floor and while initially most seemed similar there were some with features so memorable that just by seeing them I could orient myself without consulting the map. But towering even above the saguaros are the hills, such as Brown’s Mountain in the background, and the three I saw readily from the trail each had a distinctive shape that made them easy to distinguish from one another. The trails are well-marked (and maps readily available at the trailhead) so I wasn’t in danger of getting lost, rather it was a way for me to relax by developing an instinctive feel for where I was, and where I was going.

Witch Hazel, Patron Saint of Woodpeckers

A close-up of the crested saguaro (also known as cristate saguaro) I call 'Witch Hazel' on the Vaquero Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in October 2019

I’ve seen a few crested (or cristate) saguaros, where instead of their iconic arms they grow these unusual shapes, and love them all but this one is my favorite. I named her Witch Hazel as she reminds me of the green witch from the Bugs Bunny cartoons I watched as a kid. I always had a fondness for her but I’m not sure why as I usually didn’t feel any affection for his pursuers, but perhaps she was written rather sympathetically. My witch looks over a woodpecker nest in an adjacent arm and I like to think serves as its protector, and not just for this nest but for all the woodpeckers in the area that I so dearly love. Long may you live, long may you serve.

Omnipotence

A curve-billed thrasher looks down as it perches atop a chain fruit cholla on the Rock Knob Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizon in November 2019

On Sunday a heavy cloud bank in the east snuffed out the sunrise but as I made my way back up the trail I was delighted when the sun poked through with such soft, diffuse light that it revealed every detail in the feathers of the birds and the spines of the cholla. I turned around and commanded the sun and clouds to hold their position for the next hour, just in case I had been granted the power of omnipotence without my knowing. Sadly I had not, though there’s always tomorrow. I was able to watch as the thrashers chased each other through the cholla, the black-throated sparrows chittered about, three cottontails poked in and out of the desert scrub, and sight unseen Gambel’s quail and Gila woodpeckers sang the Sonoran song. Just another magical morning in the desert.