Distraction

A silhouetted Gambel's quail sings atop a granite rock before an orane sky at Sunset Vista in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

Trixie has wanted to play endlessly since Ellie died but as we played the other morning she got distracted first by a tiger whiptail then by a Gambel’s quail feeding and calling out just below the windowsill. I can’t say I blame her, a week ago I had my route planned out but spent so much time watching this Gambel’s quail singing as the sun was about to rise that I changed my plans and hiked closer trails to take advantage of the early morning light.

The Morning Surprises

A gambel's quail sings, silhouetted against a blue sky, early on a spring morning near the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

I first visited Brown’s Ranch a month after we moved to Arizona last year and fell in love immediately. One of the things I liked about our new house was its close proximity to some of my favorite local trailheads, Brown’s Ranch included. I haven’t been much since the fall, only visiting on Christmas and New Year’s Eve, at first because I was exploring another area (also near the house) and then because I was concentrating on trails near some of the other houses we were considering.

While I haven’t had much time and/or energy for hiking lately I was up for an easy hike last weekend so I begrudgingly got up before sunrise and made the short drive to Brown’s Ranch. A cardinal serenaded me before I stepped out of the car and I could hear the calls of Gambel’s quail and mourning doves and cactus wrens all around. I thought about how much I had learned in my year here, how much more these sights and sounds are familiar to me now, as I grabbed my camera and headed to the Jane Rau Trail, a short little loop trail near the trailhead and the first trail I hiked at Brown’s Ranch last year.

A gambel's quail sings, silhouetted against an orange sky, early on a spring morning near the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

I then headed down the Latigo Trail, despite my low energy levels I was so happy to be back that I almost felt like running. I didn’t, however, feel much like taking pictures, a feeling I get sometimes where I almost put the camera away. I usually keep the camera out but there is a mental shift where I don’t worry so much about photography. Sometimes though the animals pull me back in, as they did on this morning. It started with a Gambel’s quail in the trees, silhouetted against the morning sky, I took a quick picture against the blue sky before moving further on and taking another against the orange sky.

An ash-throated flycatcher perches at the edge of a tree limb early on a spring morning along the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

A mourning dove shows off the distinctive black spots running down its wings early on a spring morning along the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

As the sun rose I spotted an ash-throated flycatcher and couldn’t help but stop for some pictures. It didn’t stay long as a couple of mourning doves flew into the tree and scared it off, so I photographed one of them instead. They were out in abundance, I imagine the white-winged doves will be back in numbers soon and the smaller mourning doves will get moved a step down the pecking order. Beside the trail the banana yuccas were budding and blooming, a sight I hadn’t seen before, and I thought I could spend a lifetime photographing them in their various stages, each beautiful in its own way, but I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to photograph them on this morning.

A close-up view of a rock squirrel perching in the rocks early one morning along the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

But when I saw a familiar shape in the rocks, bathed in the lovely morning light, I eagerly setup my camera beside the trail to photograph what I initially assumed was an antelope squirrel but which I quickly realized was the larger rock squirrel. I had seen them before but usually from a distance, only once getting a close look up at Tom’s Thumb. This one though posed for me in its rock home and now in more of a photographic mood I photographed it with different focal lengths, including wide and medium shots and this full on close-up.

A great horned owl perches in a palo verde near the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

Further up the trail I stopped when I thought I saw a hawk on a distant saguaro, but when I lifted the telephoto lens to my eye to get a better look I realized it was a great horned owl, my first owl in Arizona. It flew a little closer as an American kestrel hassled it from above and landed in this foothill palo verde. It occasionally cast its eyes over towards where the rock squirrel was but it didn’t seem too interested in hunting.

A mourning dove pauses while preening atop a large rock as the breeze picks up and ruffles its feathers on a spring morning along the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

I continued up the trail a bit but didn’t go too far, I was tired and while there are times it’s good to push yourself, this morning didn’t feel like one of them. As I headed back I did see a couple of genuine hawks on a large saguaro, a pair of Harris’s hawks that I suppose will be nesting soon. A grasshopper accidentally impaled itself on a buckhorn cholla and I thought my hike might end on a sad note but then I saw a mourning dove preening from a rock above as the breeze rustled its feathers.

Despite not seeing any reptiles it was a quick reminder of why I love this place as I saw so much beauty in so short a time. Soon enough I did get to see a reptile as when I got home a spiny lizard was doing pushups in a tree behind the house, it was too bright for pictures but hopefully he and I will meet again. And hopefully so too the rock squirrel, if it survives the owls and the hawks and the snakes and …

A Father’s Day

A Gambel's quail chick in our backyard

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep’.”
Luke 15:3-6

A month ago I thought I saw a mouse running along the fence in our backyard but to my horror realized it was a baby Gambel’s quail. A male and female had been bringing their eight (!!!) tiny chicks to our backyard but somehow this little one had gotten isolated from its family who were nowhere to be seen. Life is hard for wildlife, even in backyards, especially so for the young. I thought this story would end in heartache.

A Gambel's quail male shelters his chick under our bird feeder

I refilled the bird feeder in hopes it would attract the parents and spread out some of the small feed the chick could eat in various places where it could feed away from the larger birds. Eventually it went over to the bird feeder and started following a towhee around, who was rather annoyed with this little chick that wouldn’t leave it alone.

It was hard to watch. Then dad flew in.

He settled in under the feeder and sheltered the little chick with his body. The scared little chick began to relax, sometimes hiding completely under its father and sometimes venturing out to feed, but never out from under his shadow.

A Gambel's quail male stays with his chick after it got separated from the rest of the family

I was relieved until the father led the chick over to the corner of the yard and leapt up onto the little retaining wall and then onto the larger wall behind, trying to get the chick to follow. The chick was far too young not only for flight but even to jump, so all it could do was chirp at its father and frantically run beside the wall. This went on repeatedly until I thought the father would abandon the chick and return to the rest of the family in their nest somewhere in the neighborhood. Instead he settled into the corner of the yard, laying down in the gravel with the chick safely underneath. Eventually the chick got enough courage that it began to playfully run up dad’s back until it finally settled under its father for good and they spent the night in our backyard.

They were gone before I got up for work (the side gate has a gap plenty large enough for the chick to get under, that’s how they were getting in and out of the yard before). The gang of eight (and mom and dad) are regular visitors to our feeder (they’re there now as I type this), the chicks grew impossibly quickly and are now about the size of the adults and can not only hop but fly. In the early days mom and day would chase all the other birds away from the feeder to allow their chicks to feed but the youngsters are bold and old enough now that the parents allow the other birds to stay.

On this Father’s Day, a story of a terrified child saved by his devoted father. But on this day too my government tears children from their parents at our borders. Defends it with Bible quotes, like the Christian slavers before them.

We need not be monsters, America. Let’s save those who are lost, and rejoice in it.

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

Call of The Gambeler

A Gambel's quail calls out at sunrise at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

My alarm clock rang at 4:00am and I was on the road a half hour later, heading south out of Albuquerque and towards Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, best known for the spectacular fly-ins and fly-outs of snow geese and sandhill cranes during the winter months. It was late spring and those birds were long gone, but it was my first visit to New Mexico and I wanted to at least get a feel for the refuge. Even if it wasn’t the prime time to visit, I hoped for a few surprises.

The dark sky lightened as the minutes and miles passed, with the sun threatening to rise as I pulled into the parking lot of the Visitor’s Center. There were no other cars in the lot and I knew the center would be closed, but I hoped to find some trail maps and refuge information. When I opened the car door, I was greeted by a primal call coming from up the hill. Another call came, and then another. I didn’t recognize the call, so I grabbed the camera with the big telephoto lens attached and headed up the steps and towards the calls.

I moved slowly but anxiously until I saw a wooden pole with signs pointing in various directions. In the dim light I could see its top was crowned with a carved bird in the shape of a quail. I was a little disappointed when I guessed the calls were just a recording and no more real than the carving, something to give visitors a taste of the birds of the refuge. I decided to return to the car and head out onto the refuge proper. Before I could take a step the supposedly carved quail raised its head and gave a loud call.

I continued into the little desert arboretum as other quail were calling around me. It was a delightful little moment, to go from not sure if I’d see much of anything that day to being surrounded and serenaded by these birds on their high perches. The sun peeked above the horizon and I found this male in a nice location and angle to the sun, and only had to wait for the sun’s rays to reach him and for him to make his call.

I didn’t have to wait long.

A later look at my bird book showed them to be Gambel’s quail, a species I had never seen before. But names didn’t matter for now. I stood alone and watched and listened, mesmerized by my welcome to Bosque.