Safe in the Arms of the Cholla

A desert cottontail nibbles grasses at sunrise near a buckhorn cholla along the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

The rising sun, so easily blocked by hills and saguaros and even myself, does what I cannot, slip through the outstretched arms of a buckhorn cholla to embrace a cottontail as it feeds beside the Chuckwagon Trail. It is mine but to observe, to record, to be grateful.

Soft Browns

A desert cottontail eats dried grasses in the soft light before the sun was up on a warm spring morning in the Brown's Ranch section of McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

A desert cottontail eats dried grasses in the soft light before the sun was up on a warm spring morning. I was back on the trails this morning after taking a couple of weeks off to let a sore left knee heal and didn’t see a single cottontail (or jackrabbit), most of the time I see at least one if not a handful so either today I was unlucky or perhaps they are not as visible in the summer. I meant to go hiking yesterday but forgot to set my alarm so I walked the pup instead, Ellie and I saw four cottontails on a short walk in the neighborhood.

The Desert Giraffe

The Desert Giraffe

The sun hadn’t yet risen above the mountains when I met this hungry black-tailed jackrabbit. They share their habitat with the more numerous desert cottontail but the larger jackrabbit with its long legs can get to food that the cottontail cannot, reminding me of a giraffe using its long neck to eat leaves high in the trees. I hadn’t seen a rabbit spend so much time up on its hind legs before, this desert is full of surprises.

Long Legs

Both the black-tailed jackrabbit and the desert cottontail are named for their tails. The cottontail has a round white tail like a giant cotton ball, while the black-tailed jackrabbit has a tail that is black on top, as you can see as it sits up off the ground as it eats leaves it has pulled from the tree. It’s hard to tell from these pictures but the tops of their ears have black tips as well. Apparently they can run quite fast and jump in long leaps but the three times I’ve seen them they’ve casually hopped through the desert.

The Black Tail

Face Full of Flowers

A white-winged dove sticks its entire face into a saguaro blossom as it feeds in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

A white-winged dove sticks its entire face into a saguaro blossom as it feeds. It’s face was covered in pollen, as were many of the birds in my pictures from this time, such as the Gambel’s quail below. The birds and bats and bees took full advantage of the suddenly plentiful blooms, dining quickly as they flew from one flower to the next, pollination in action. The blooms are mostly gone now, this morning I saw only two flowers during several hours of hiking, and one of those was pretty wilted.

The face of a male Gambel's quail is covered in pollen from saguaro blossoms in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

Calling Me Home

A male Gambel's quail sits atop spent saguaro blossoms in the Brown's Ranch section of McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

One of the birds I most wanted to photograph when we arrived in Arizona was the Gambel’s quail. Not because they are rare – we saw them in the neighborhood when we were looking at our rental house – but because they called me home. It was our vacation in New Mexico a decade ago that got me excited about living in the Southwest, and my encounter with Gambel’s quail there was one of the highlights of the trip, their serenade at sunrise. So it was a special delight to photograph this male and female up on the saguaros as the sun rose, dining on the cactus blossoms, in our shared desert home. Home in a larger sense, though I see them every day in my backyard these quail were at Brown’s Ranch in McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

A female Gambel's quail eats from saguaro blossoms in the Brown's Ranch section of McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona