A Morning Behind

A Harris's hawk perches on a saguaro before the pink skies of dawn on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in October 2019

A few weeks ago I had in mind to photograph a particular saguaro, arriving before sunrise so I could be ready to go when the sun crested the hills. WIth my gear in place I took in the sights around me, I so love this moment in the morning when the sun arrives in the desert. Fortunately I looked behind me as well as a familiar face decided to share the moment with me. Since I’m only shooting with one camera right now I had to decide whether it was worth switching lenses and camera settings and the tripod location and risk missing the shot I came for. Because it was a Harris’s hawk I couldn’t resist the opportunity and took a quick picture, set up my original shot again, then waited with my beautiful friend until the sun arrived.

Two Years

A Harris's hawk perches in a dead tree in front of a blooming palo verde along the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2019

It was two years ago today that my team got laid off, setting in motion the events that brought us from Oregon to Arizona. To me it feels like we left Portland much longer ago but that we’ve been here much shorter. I haven’t ventured further afield than my local trails, that will change with time but for now I’m content to enjoy the pictures people post as they travel the state. While Ellie was with us I didn’t want to be away from her more than I had to be, then with the new house and a lot to learn at work it’s left me a bit thin at times. Thankfully I am blessed with an abundance of local trails, to the point that some mornings I have difficulty choosing where I want to go. And there is so much wonder to behold in the Sonoran Desert, such as this Harris’s hawk I met in June with the blossoms fading and the sun rising, one of the adults that helped raise the two young hawks in the saguaro nest further up the trail.

Home in the Heights

A Harris's hawk nestling spreads its wings as it practices for flight by moving from one arm of the saguaro holding its nest to another, taken at sunrise on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2019

When I hiked to this Harris’s hawk nest back in June I noticed one of the chicks had fledged and this one was getting close, practicing by hopping from one arm of the saguaro to another, already at it when I arrived before the sun was even up, with the adults occasionally bringing in something to eat. I nicknamed it Trixie as it would eat just a few bites before returning to flight practice, then go back for a few bites, much like our youngest cat who likes to nibble at her food then play play play, repeat repeat repeat.

In the low light before sunrise, knowing it would be hard to freeze the motion of the young bird constantly on the move, I did what I had been meaning to do on several previous visits, zoom out to give a view of the saguaro holding the nest. The cactus doesn’t have the classic look of the tall central spire but does have an ample space to hold the nest. If you look at the teddy bear cholla in front of the saguaro (the light colored cholla in between the darker buckhorn cholla) there’s a nest of a smaller bird.

An environmental portrait of a Harris's hawk nestling practicing for flight by moving from one arm of the saguaro holding its nest to another, taken before sunrise on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2019

I was rather surprised when we moved here to see so many birds nesting in the various types of cactus as it seemed a rather inhospitable place to build a home. But it must give them a fair amount of protection from ground predators that can climb trees but can’t deal with the cactus spines, but if a fledgling falls from the nest it doesn’t have far to fall. Contrast that with the red-tailed hawk’s nest I saw up on the canyon walls, where a slip off the narrow ledge would result in a deadly fall, or the bald eagle’s nest in Washington that was high up in a massive tree.

I had intended to hike past this nest on the Chuckwagon Trail and then take a familiar loop back to the car, but after spending the first part of the morning watching this young bird building its agility and its confidence, I got distracted by a handful of lizards in a rock formation just up the trail, so with the morning wearing on I just took the Chuckwagon back to the trailhead. Although I didn’t get as much exercise as intended it was a positive result, Ellie had died two months earlier and it was a sign of how much I had healed that I could sit still for so long, an impossibility in the weeks after she died.

Sometimes It’s Good To Be Wrong

A Harris's hawk perches on a large rock and looks down over the desert with the mountains in the background from the Gooseneck Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in July 2019

I had always imagined the desert here was a vast expanse of sand and an occasional cactus. I’ve never been so happy to be wrong as beauty abounds in the Sonoran Desert in forms large and small. Early on a sunny July morning this Harris’s hawk and I surveyed our desert home from the Gooseneck Trail.

Learning to Fly

An adult Harris's hawk perches on a saguaro arm with its wings partially spread while two nestlings watch from the nest below along the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2019

Early on a June morning I was watching the two Harris’s hawk nestlings when an adult flew in with a twig clutched in its talons. It landed on one of the tallest arms of the saguaro and I expected it to drop down and spruce up the nest but instead it stayed on the arm with its wings partially spread. I couldn’t figure out what it was doing, if it was trying to maintain its balance in the breeze it would have spread them out fully and used its tail, instead it sat there with wings half-extended as it looked back and forth between the two nestlings (one is looking up between the saguaro arms on the right, the other is doing the same deep in shadow on the left).

And then, taking encouragement as the adult looked on, one of the nestlings flapped its wings and landed, if awkwardly, on a lower arm. The saguaro flowers and fruits give a little extra purchase away from the sharp spines, although they also attract bees. The other nestling flapped its wings at times but made no attempts to leave the nest. The next week the one nestling had fully fledged and was now exploring the desert near the nest while the second one was actively flying from arm to arm, soon I suspect to join its sibling below. It might have been slightly younger as its feathers seemed to come in slightly behind the other.

An adult Harris's hawk perches on a saguaro arm with its wings partially spread while looking down at a nestling that is landing on a saguaro arm as it learns to fly along the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2019