The Disappearing Act

A great horned owl sleeps in a palo verde with saguaros behind it on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on April 17, 2022. Original: _CAM5131.ARW

Early on a spring morning before my hiking came to a screeching halt, I saw a great horned owl sleeping in a palo verde on my favorite trail. I knew I’d have a better look a little further up but as the trail undulated up the hill my view of the owl was blocked and when I popped out in the spot where I expected to see it again, I could find no owl.

They fly silently but I thought it unlikely it left its perch given its sleepy mood, so I backtracked down to where I first spotted it and immediately relocated it. Back I went up the hill and once more the owl disappeared. This repeated a few times until I was finally able to not only relocate the owl but place it as I had hoped, with saguaros in the background. Thankfully only the owl was witness to my ineptitude and if it noticed it didn’t feel the need to rub it in.

The Desert Bear

Our dog Bear sits near desert plants at the end of the street in Scottsdale, Arizona on August 27, 2022. Original: _Z724553.NEF

I haven’t been up for a sunrise hike lately but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been up, just a bit too knackered for a short drive to the trails. I have kept up my usual wanderings around the yard at night, yielding sightings of Sonoran Desert toads each of the past two nights, and two tarantulas in the previous weeks. Our sprawling cactus out front has gone nuts this year with a dazzling display of flowers, but since they only bloom at night I have to try and grab a few shots in the morning if the bees aren’t too active, which is why I’ve been getting up early.

That’s meant I’ve been up a few times when my wife took Bear on his sunrise walk and I was able to join them for the first time in months. While he still needs improvement with people and dogs he feels like a different dog compared to when we adopted him, the training has helped tremendously. I had him pose at the end of the cul-de-sac as the sun rose with Troon Mountain in the background.

Christmas and Easter Combined

A house finch perches on the fruit of a compass barrel cactus on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on August 7, 2022. Original: _CAM5207.ARW

Though house finches have been backyard birds for me everywhere I’ve lived, I love seeing them out in the desert proper as it boggles my mind that they thrive here. I’ve only been out for a few hikes since the early spring and before that was mostly doing macro shots, so my bird photography has gotten rather rusty and I didn’t set up the camera properly so I was delighted some of the pictures came out.

It’s perched on a compass barrel cactus, surrounded by fruit, though because it isn’t juicy and pulpy it doesn’t invite the feeding frenzy that saguaros do. We have a couple of barrels in our yard and I’ve noticed birds like woodpeckers and thrashers poking holes in the fruit to get at the seeds inside. I wondered if some of the other birds would like a crack at them so I took some of the ripened fruit and broke it open by hand and laid it in the backyard.

The next morning a huge family of quail came in and it was like Christmas and Easter combined, a little group would find one of the fruits and they’d dance around and fervently gobble up the seeds, then they’d walk around the yard and find another until within minutes all of the seeds had been consumed. I repeated the experiment last night and by this morning all of the seeds were gone.

800 Pounds, At Least

A Sonoran Desert toad sits on the sidewalk in front of our door in Scottsdale, Arizona on July 29, 2022. Original: _Z723703.NEF

A couple of weeks ago my wife mentioned our dog Bear was interested in something outside and even our cat Trixie was pawing at the door. She hadn’t seen anything outside so I grabbed a small flashlight to have a look, mostly worried a neighborhood dog or cat had gotten loose but also hoping for a glimpse of a bobcat or coyote. I could hear something moving in the yard but my brain couldn’t place the sound with anything familiar and the sweep of my flashlight revealed no clues.

I turned the corner of our garage and couldn’t process what I was seeing. There at my feet was something with the look of a toad but the size of a bullfrog. Despite clearly being alive my brain kept thinking it was a ceramic toad someone left on our doorstep, as though that was a more likely alternative than a living, breathing giant toad in our yard.

I went inside to grab my camera and came out moving gingerly to avoid disturbing it, though it didn’t seem too bothered by me. I put the flashlight on the ground to illuminate it and took a quick shot before leaving it be. After giving it room to hop into the yard I noticed a visibly smaller toad a few feet away that would still have been the largest toad I had ever seen were it not for the behemoth I had just photographed.

I turned out the light and just listened for a while to the sound of an 800 pound toad (an estimate, I didn’t weigh it) hopping across the stones in the dark. I went inside and got out “A Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles in Arizona” by Thomas Brennan and Andrew Holycross and without even looking at the pictures just scanned the words, skipping past the toad descriptions that began “A small” or “A medium” and stopping as soon as I read “The largest toad in the United States”. Their picture matched mine and knew my first amphibian in the desert was a Sonoran Desert toad.

At first I was disappointed it wasn’t a more scenic shot but I came to love that our door is visible behind it as this is the same spot last year where I saw my first black witch, a previously unknown-to-me species that like this toad is not only the biggest in our land but is so big my eyes couldn’t see what they were seeing. I also saw my first kingsnake in the bushes to my left and have seen our native gecko here (my first sighting of one was in our backyard though). I’ve not tried identifying the bats that sometimes hang out here. Nor the giant crab-like spider I saw walking upside down, I didn’t look long as I already have enough trouble sleeping at night. Javelina and bobcat come through here too.

I won’t be surprised if next summer I step outside and see a sixty foot rattlesnake or some other behemoth I didn’t know existed. I mean I will be surprised but …

Fear of Flying

A close-up of the jumbled arms of an old saguaro on the Metate Trail in Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area in Cave Creek, Arizona on February 27, 2022. Originals: _ZFC1441.NEF to _ZFC1450.NEF

I’ll do just about anything to avoid getting on a plane but it’s not because I’m afraid of the plane crashing. Rather this jumble of saguaro arms is a visual representation of how I feel when packed into a crowded boarding area or jammed into the ever-shrinking plane seats. Thankfully I rarely have to fly as let’s just say I’m not a fan.

While I was thinking of that when I took this image early in the year, it’s also how I came to feel about much of this year, which got me thinking about bringing my retirement date in as early as we can, to live a quieter and simpler life.

Taken with the Nikon Z fc and 105 mm macro lens, this is a focus stack of 10 images so I could keep even the background arms in focus, to better emphasize the jumbled nature of this gorgeous cactus up in Spur Cross.

As the Raven Flies

A common raven looks out from a flowering saguaro, taken from the Chuckwagon Trail at McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on June 6, 2021. Original: _RAC2888.ARW

A common raven looks out from a flowering saguaro, one of a pair raising their young in an old hawk’s nest in a nearby saguaro. If I could fly as the raven flies I could fly just to the left of the mountain and land at our house. Alas I have to hike as the human hikes and drive as the Lexus drives so my route home is a little more circuitous. One of the reasons I chose this house is that it is surrounded by an embarrassment of trails within a 10 or 15 minute drive, each dense with the plants and animals I love so much. There are trails in other parts of the metro area with better views but I know where my heart lies.

One day I hope to take a single picture that includes each of our types of cactus and while this image doesn’t pull that off, I think it’s as close as I’ve yet come.

Will Get Fooled Again

A male American kestrel perches on a saguaro near the 118th Street Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on March 19, 2022. Original: _RAC3136.ARW

Last weekend in the distance I saw a kestrel perched on a saguaro and since the telephoto lens was still in my shoulder bag, just whispered hello to the female I’ve seen here and continued up the trail. Whereupon I found another kestrel on a favored perch, close enough that even with my naked eyes it was clear this was the female I often see. The other kestrel was still visible in the distance so I knew she hadn’t snuck in while I wasn’t looking, pulling out the longer lens I realized the first kestrel was a male.

I was in a meandering mood and went up and down parts of various trails based on whim and whimsy, when I finally made my way back I saw the male was still perched where we first met. But as I set up to take his picture in the late light I realized it was the female.

The ol’ switcheroo!

After taking her picture I continued on, the blue light descending with the sun mostly faded, when in the distance I saw what looked like a kestrel on a saguaro. But this saguaro has fooled me many times, new growth has started where the top is broken and that little bump always makes me think at first glance that a bird is perching atop the old giant. This time though my pattern-recognition self insisted there really was a kestrel up there so I pulled out the lens and could barely contain my laughter as there sat the male, posing for this picture at the end of the day.

Maybe one day this desert will stop surprising me, but probably not anytime soon.

Woodpeckers Without Woods

A tail feather of a Gila woodpecker, taken in our backyard in Scottsale, Arizona on March 12, 2022. Originals: _ZFC2221.NEF to _ZFC2247.NEF

As a child in Michigan we had woods behind the house where I fell in love with chipmunks and squirrels and woodpeckers. In memory the woodies were downies and redheads but the memories are blurry at best. I was in graduate school when I got my first camera and binoculars and fell in love with woodpeckers all over again. Now in Virginia, the memories are sharper, flickers and downies and hairies.

In Oregon where I spent most of my adult life we had flickers in our urban backyard, I was always alerted to their presence since they were also a favorite of Emma’s and she would chirp at me from atop the cat tree on their arrival. On the trails in addition to downies and hairies I saw pileated woodpeckers and red-breasted sapsuckers too.

Before the move to Arizona I was intrigued when looking at real estate listings to see what looked like bird holes in the saguaros of some yards, and upon learning they were made by woodpeckers wanted to see them more than anything. So imagine my delight at arriving and finding them ubiquitous, I can sit on my porch and regularly see Gila woodpeckers and commonly gilded flickers and on rare occasion ladder-backed woodpeckers, so much more often than I saw their cousins in Oregon.

Who knew to see woodpeckers I had to leave the woods!

This is (I think) a tail feather from a Gila woodpecker, having served its duty helping its owner navigate the desert, now fallen to ground in our backyard.

Broken Beauty

A close-up of the broken portion of a saguaro arm that shows the green skin, the spongy material where water is stored, and the woody skeleton. Taken on the Metate Trail at Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area in Cave Creek, Arizona on February 27, 2022. Originals: _ZFC1543.NEF to _ZFC1547.NEF

It’s always a bit sad to see the old giants breaking down but this fallen arm provides a view into the interior life of the saguaro. On the outside is the familiar waxy skin tinted green by chlorophyll. Light for photosynthesis is ever-abundant in the desert but rainfall is not, so filling most of the interior is a spongy material where water is converted and stored. Storing water is one thing, supporting its weight is another, a burden borne by the wooden skeleton that runs the length of the saguaro, shown here as broken ribs that shattered as the arm fell from the body.

The saguaro itself still looked healthy to my novice eyes, it will seal off the wound and might well outlive me despite having a head start of two or three of my lifetimes.