A Mild Awakening

A top-down view of a leaf-footed bug (Narnia femorata) on a cactus blossom in our front yard on a rainy summer evening in Scottsdale, Arizona on August 18, 2021. Original: _RAC6564.arw

Last year after getting some confidence identifying the more common birds and mammals and reptiles of the Sonoran Desert, I decided to start learning the desert plants. I spent an evening reading up on the trees (there aren’t a bunch, this shouldn’t have been hard) but the next morning I couldn’t remember anything I had read the night before. I was a little frustrated with myself but heard a pleading voice that there had been too much that was new and to focus on the things I had to learn, not the things I wanted to learn.

As a creature of habit I knew Arizona would provide beneficial opportunities to experience something different but also that there was so much different both at work and at home that it might be overwhelming (the pandemic hasn’t helped). So I heeded that voice and put aside the guide books and stuck to familiar nearby parks rather than venturing further afield, trying out trails new to me when I felt up to a little challenge.

This summer has brought a mild awakening in being willing to learn new things, spurred on partially by the giant cactus out front that exploded in blooms after the summer monsoons and brought in a host of small creatures to feed on its bounty, and the butterflies that similarly burst into view at the same time either in our yard or on my beloved trails.

Insects have been tricky to learn but I believe this little lovely is a leaf-footed bug of the species Narnia femorata but take that with a grain of salt, I’m not a biologist much less an entomologist, and this is all new to me besides. While they apparently prefer prickly pear (the neighbors have a glorious patch) a group of them have been hanging out on this big cactus in our front yard, feeding either on the buds and blossoms like here on a rainy summer evening, or on the fruit that grew after the pollinators got to work.

Red Mustache

A male gilded flicker peers out from the top of a saguaro covered in flower buds at George Doc Cavalliere Park in Scottsdale, Arizona on May 8, 2021. Original: _RAC8820.arw

A few weeks back flower buds dotted the tops of saguaro arms with the occasional early bloomers producing a flower or two. Normally the flowers are white but this one appeared to have a red mustache, perhaps a trick of the light as the sun dipped behind the mountains and only a little direct light fell upon the high points of the desert.

Great Scott’s!

A male Scott's oriole sings from his perch atop the flower buds of a saguaro on the Rustler Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on May 2, 2021. Original: _RAC8508.arw

Last weekend I stopped at the end of the Rustler Trail for a water break, trying to decide which way to meander on the network of trails, when an oriole flew into the ocotillo in front of me to feed from its flowers. Caught flat-footed holding a water bottle I didn’t want to make any sudden moves towards the camera, we both needed refreshment, but I did get a chance for pictures when he flew off to a distant saguaro and sang to me from the flower buds before disappearing down the trail.

I made a mental note to add Bullock’s oriole to my bird list for the day even though I was surprised his plumage was so yellow. It was only when I got home and looked at the pictures that I had a little laugh at myself when I noticed his head and shoulders were solid black and, while clearly an oriole, he looked nothing like a Bullock’s. In my defense I had gotten up two days in a row for a sunrise hike, the first time this year, so the old gray cells were not in finest form.

I fired up Sibley’s on the iPad and discovered my friend was a Scott’s oriole, a new species for me and thus a new species in my attempt to photograph every animal of the Sonoran Desert atop a saguaro (though I have to say, the mammals aren’t cooperating).

I ended up hiking the Upper Ranch Trail to the Rustler Trail to the Latigo Trail to the Hackamore Trail to the Tarantula Trail to the West Express Trail, returning via the Hackamore Trail to Cone Mountain Trail to Upper Ranch Trail. It was my first time on the West Express, there are formal trails in this part of the preserve now instead of the temporary off-map trails that were there before.


A canyon towhee perches on saguaro flower buds on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on May 15, 2020. Original: _RAC3218.arw

From last spring in the early morning light, a canyon towhee finds a soft perch atop a saguaro courtesy of its large flower buds. A pleasant reminder that spring is coming and a not-so-pleasant reminder that the already cruel sunrises will only get earlier. I’ve managed zero sunrise hikes so far this year so I’m not off to a promising start.

Welcome, Welcome

A saguaro I call the Green Elephant blooms at sunrise with a bouquet of flowers at the ends of each of its sprawling arms, taken on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2020

I see her often, the Green Elephant, usually just a quick hello as we pass on the trails. Sometimes though I head out just to see her, as I had the week before, when I promised I’d try to be back the next week. Though getting up was hard the reward was worth the effort as she greeted me with so many bouquets of flowers she could scarce hold them all betwixt arms and trunk and ears and tail. “Welcome, welcome, stay and wonder,” she whispered for in the east the sun began to rise.

In the Fading Dark

A near-silhouette of an adult Harris's hawk perched on an old saguaro that was starting to bloom shortly before sunrise on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2020

Taken the day before the previous picture of a juvenile Harris’s hawk, this adult perched atop an old saguaro is part of the family group raising up the youngsters. Like most of the saguaros in the area, the tips of the arms were covered in flower buds with some starting to bloom. I was playing around with near-silhouettes of the family in the moments before the sun rose, it always took a few tries as I don’t have a remote shutter for this camera so I relied on the self-timer given the really slow shutter speed, but since the birds were turning their heads to watch the desert below I never knew which direction they’d be looking when the shutter tripped.

Sunrise Mask

Rick Cameron stands beside a saguaro with arms growing in all directions, with flowers blooming on each arm, beside the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2020

I stood at sunrise beside one of my favorite saguaros, here with the top of the sun just tipping over the mountains and starting to bathe the desert in its red light. I don’t often remember to take self-portraits, especially not during such beautiful light that lasts literal seconds, but the composition was so close to what I was taking anyway that I couldn’t resist a quick one as a celebration of being back in this amazing place. Since I’ve had to go into work throughout the pandemic I stayed off the trails at first until the process of transmission was better understood, and now try to avoid the popular trails and wear a mask if it gets crowded (it wasn’t at this early hour, I slipped it on for the picture). This mask is from Tom Bihn, they are easy to slip on and off and quite comfortable to boot (plus they donate one for every one you buy). There’s also a free pattern if you want to make them yourself.

The backpack is from Tom Bihn as well (it’s the Guide’s Pack), it’s been on somewhere around 170 hikes with me in the desert the past couple of years, at this time of year mostly just loaded with a safety kit, medicine, trekking poles, snacks, and gobs and gobs and gobs of Gatorade. In late May this early in the morning there is just enough cool air left in the desert for long sleeves but the time is rapidly approaching when even I switch to short sleeves.


A cactus wren perches on a flower bud of a blooming saguaro on the Chuckwagon Trail early in the morning in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2020

I met this cactus wren in the early light last Sunday after having just missed a picture the day before. If memory serves they were the first bird I saw on the trails after we moved here, they remind me so much of the boisterous little wren of the sloughs of the Pacific Northwest that I watched for many years, the marsh wren. More so in personality than appearance as they would dwarf my former friends if seen side-by-side, a bit unlikely as there is an even larger difference in the places they call home. The smile they always bring is the same though.

The Warmest Welcome

A male ladder-backed woodpecker perches atop a saguaro blossom on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2020

After a two month absence I made my return to the trails yesterday morning and the desert gave me a warm welcome in more ways than one as who was waiting to greet me but the ladder-backed woodpecker I photographed my last time out! Only this time instead of his favorite tree he was on a nearby saguaro whose arms were already blooming, dining headfirst from the giant blossoms of the giant cactus. And not just he but also his friends, as that morning and this on that one saguaro I also saw cactus wrens, curve-billed thrashers, a pair of gilded flickers, a male Gila woodpecker, and a pair of house finches.

A male ladder-backed woodpecker eats from a saguaro blossom on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2020