The Less Early Bird Gets the Early Bird

A male Gila woodpecker perches on a dead tree branch near the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in November 2019

Last night I turned off my alarm as I wanted to get as much sleep as I could, naturally waking half an hour later than I would normally get up to hike. However with trails so close by I was able to roll out of bed and grab my hiking gear and still make it to the trailhead right around sunrise. I took an easy trail, one of my favorites, but despite seeing a number of birds couldn’t manage any pictures. Some days are like that, and it’s fine as it’s just nice to be out. But then this gorgeous Gila woodpecker posed for me on a dead tree branch, even hopping up a little into a more photogenic location, and the smile on my face got even wider.

Calling Out

A male Gila woodpecker calls out while perching next to his nest in a saguaro on the Latigo Trail in the Brown's Ranch section of McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2019

Early on a spring morning a male Gila woodpecker calls out near his nest in a saguaro. He often had an insect in his mouth so his calls were usually a bit muffled but in this instance his beak was empty and his voice was strong. He and his mate were vocalizing as they hunted for insects to feed their young, I’m assuming so they could keep in close contact with each other when out of sight, especially when one was inside the nest. After my hike this morning a handful of these wonderful birds were quite active in the backyard as they visited the feeders and pecked at tree branches.

Performance Art

A female Gila woodpecker is in freefall after she has jumped out of her nest but before she spreads her wings to fly, taken on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2019

A female Gila woodpecker is for the briefest of moments in free fall after jumping from her nest in a saguaro. It took me a while to notice this behavior, everything happens so quickly when they enter and leave the nest, and took even longer before I could find the right conditions to photograph it. It looks rather unnatural when frozen in time, one foot still sticking out below her while her wings are tucked up tight, but the nest is high off the ground so even though the fall is brief she has plenty of time to put a little distance between herself and her sharp-spined home before throwing out her wings.

Brace For Impact

A female Gila woodpecker flies to her nest with a moth in her beak, raising her legs and preparing to throw out her wings, on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2019

A female Gila woodpecker, the mate of the male in the previous picture, prepares to land at the nest with a moth in her beak. They fly in at full speed, throwing up their legs and flaring their wings at the last moment, it’s a delight to watch.

Yellow Belly

A male Gila woodpecker carries an insect in his beak as he flies in with his wings spread to his nest in a saguaro along the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2019

A Gila woodpecker lands at his nest in a saguaro, carrying an insect (maybe a grasshopper?) in his beak, about to feed his hungry babies inside. I love their yellow bellies, both males and females have them. There are a handful in our backyard as I write this from the porch but this flying fellow is from the spring, taken on the Latigo Trail.

Morning Makeup

A male Gila woodpecker holds a freshly caught moth in his bill, his face dusted in pollen from saguaro flowers, as he clings to the saguaro where his nest is, taken on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2019

I took a couple of days off work last week but it wasn’t to do anything fun, I was laid low by a cold and didn’t feel much like getting off the couch. I was watching some Gila woodpeckers in the backyard with my binoculars and something felt off, I couldn’t figure out what at first until I realized their faces were the same color as their heads. I had been editing pictures from the spring, like this male holding a freshly caught moth, and was used to seeing them with their faces dusted yellow from the pollen of saguaro flowers.