The Little Antelope

A side view of a Harris's antelope squirrel standing on a granite boulder with its tail curved along its back

Most of the time I see Harris’s antelope squirrels at a distance as they scurry about their desert home. Sometimes I get lucky and get to watch one up close for a while, it’s always a treat to earn their trust. This little fellow had just finished eating a cactus fruit, you can see some of the green rind he discarded at his feet. The antelopes are smaller than the other ground squirrels in our neck of the desert, the rock squirrel, and different in appearance as well.

I didn’t do any hiking on any of my three days off this weekend as my chronic bowel issues have been bothering me a bit of late and its too risky to take to the trails since I don’t have much warning when trouble is brewing. And while we don’t have any ground squirrels in our neighborhood I nevertheless did see an antelope yesterday as my wife and I attended a few open houses. One house literally had my favorite part of my favorite park behind its backyard and as we pulled up an antelope squirrel (not this one, but he was at the same preserve) ran out of the rocks of the house across the street.

We’re not ready to buy yet, just trying to get a feel for the neighborhoods, and I’m not sure I’d want that long of a commute to work even if it meant I could literally walk out the door to a nearby trail, or a trivial drive to the trailhead I visit most often. But it has me thinking.

Rock Climbing

A Harris's antelope squirrel stands up as it looks out from a rock in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

I love this little spot on the Vaquero Trail. I first started stopping here to look for the Harris’s antelope squirrels that use the rocks as a lookout, replete with a surrounding network of holes leading underground. It’s a nice spot for a water break and a little breakfast and in that quiet I’ve seen a variety of other desert wildlife, from birds to mammals to reptiles. Including a remarkably beautiful creature I didn’t know existed and which I hope didn’t eat my beloved little squirrels.

Comings and Goings

Two Harris's antelope squirrels look out from their rocky perch along the Vaquero Trail in the Brown's Ranch section of McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

I first learned of the Harris’s antelope squirrel from a sign on the Bajada Nature Trail a couple of weeks after we moved here, and funnily enough got my first brief look at one just a few minutes later. After seeing one of the little ground squirrels up close on the Vaquero Trail I did a little research to learn if their home range was small (it is) and if they liked to look out from higher vantage points like the one I had observed (they do).

Knowing that, I decided to hike the Vaquero Trail again and kept my eyes peeled when I approached the area of my previous sighting. And there it was up on the rocks! Up on a small hill it had a complete view of its surroundings and would have seen me before I saw it. Unfortunately I had forgotten my 100-400mm lens at home but I returned the next morning and there it was again! I had settled on using my Canon 100-400mm lens with a 1.4X teleconverter as my wildlife hiking setup, which presented a problem, as on my Canon body I could only use the center focus point, and the autofocus wasn’t that reliable in low light. Attached to my Sony body the autofocus was sometimes quick but not reliably, but I could also use it for video and for manual focus.

I shot the squirrel with both setups, starting with the Canon before switching to the Sony. Fortunately the AF was working well when a second squirrel popped up behind the first! The experience cinched a decision I had been mulling for a while now and that afternoon my wife and I went down to Tempe Camera and purchased the Sony 100-400mm lens and Sony 1.4X teleconverter. The new lens proved its mettle as soon as I arrived at the preserve the next morning, and on multiple hikes since, but those are stories for another day.

Almost Ended in Tears

A Harris's antelope squirrel in a bush looks out over the Sonoran Desert along the Vaquero Trail in the Brown's Ranch section of McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

Moving to Arizona has required a number of minor adjustments to my clothing and gear. I dress up a bit more for work here so I had to get all new work clothes. Our rental house has a pool which meant ordering swimsuits, swim shirts, goggles, and towels. The desert meant meant a new hat designed to shed heat (and a second one I just ordered to stay in the car for days like today when I forget mine), new hiking shoes, new socks, and an extra pair of hiking pants. More water bottles. Shorts to wear around the house.

I think it’s about to force one more change, a more major one, at least in terms of expense. On the auto tour at Ridgefield I mostly used my big 500mm telephoto lens, but that’s way too heavy for hiking for hours in the desert. I’ve been using a lens I adore, my Canon 100-400mm zoom, and the Canon 1.4x teleconverter. The weak link is the camera I have to attach to, my Canon 7D II, a camera which in general I like apart from it being an SLR instead of mirrorless, the lack of an articulating touch screen, the weight, and the poor video (I do like it, it has many good points). But now there’s this: the autofocus works great with the 100-400 by itself but not with the teleconverter attached.

It’s not useless, and I’d put up with it if I had no choice, but a while back Sony introduced a similar 100-400 lens. The autofocus on my Sony camera would work well with the lens even with their teleconverter attached, plus I’d avoid the problem that almost cost me this shot: the optical viewfinder. I had been shooting this Harris’s antelope squirrel in the shade when it bounded across the trail and climbed this bush to survey the landscape. I was shooting in manual to deal with the difficult exposure but forget to change the settings for the sunlight the squirrel was now in. This would have been obvious in a mirrorless camera, fortunately I eventually realized my mistake and got a picture before it climbed back down.

It would mean switching to the Canon for wider angles until I have a second Sony body (I’d wait until they bring out an upgraded version of what I have now), which will mean more weight in the short term, but in the long term both less weight and a better fit for how I hike in the desert.