New Heights

A Harris's hawk perches on a saguaro with the moon just above it on the Jane Rau Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on April 2, 2023. Original: _Z724449.NEF

People often wonder how tall saguaros can grow as it can be hard to grasp from pictures. The rule of thumb is the old giants can grow so tall as to almost touch the moon. So, pretty tall. You do have to be careful though as some saguaros use a technique known as heightening, where they convince a desert denizen to perch up top to make them look taller.

It’s a Good Thing He’s a Bear and Not a Rabbit

Our dog Bear sits on the trail near sunset as a Harris's hawk perches on a saguaro behind him in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on February 18, 2023. Original: _Z723685.NEF

Last weekend I took Bear up to some favorite trails, we were going to visit the Amphitheater again but he started down a different trail and since he hadn’t been down it yet I decided to go with it. He soon started snuffling real hard and, like with the coyote pack, I eventually had to physically turn his head so he could see what he was smelling. Not too far away were a pack of mule deer, two does and their fawns. He sat still, quiet and transfixed, and since the deer weren’t showing any of their various signs of alarm, I let him watch for a while before we continued down the trail and left them to their grazing.

On the way out of the park as sunset approached I stopped him for a quick picture in the warm light. I always try to sneak in a little wildlife in my non-wildlife shots, in this case behind him is a Harris’s hawk on a saguaro. We met several members of the family a few moments prior, one of whom was relentlessly dive-bombed by an angry kestrel.

The Sunset Watch

A pair of Harris's hawks look out from a large boulder as the setting sun colors the rocks red near the Jane Rau Trail at McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on October 30, 2022. Original: _CAM6306.ARW

A pair of Harris’s hawks look out from a large boulder as the setting sun colors the rocks red. Earlier in the evening I saw a family of five on one of the big electrical towers but I’ve not seen the birds on these rocks before. From a distance I could see three forms on the boulders and couldn’t imagine what else they could be, by the time I got close the third had flown off but these two stayed to watch the sun set with me.

A Plethora of Perches

A young Harris's hawk looks out from atop an old saguaro at sunset on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on May 9, 2021. Original: _RAC8897.arw

An old giant provides a plethora of perches for a young Harris’s hawk to choose from as it scans the desert floor at sunset. This time of year the perches are relatively soft courtesy of the large flower buds (and by now, flowers themselves). Apparently Audubon would name the birds for his friend and supporter Edward Harris but when he first drew one for his book Birds of America he called them the Louisiana hawk. The University of Pittsburgh has the entire collection online but be forewarned, it can be a real time sink.

There is a movement to rename birds named after people, something I’d like to see. I’d rather see birds named after their nature (especially for these hawks, their social network since it’s so unusual) rather than an homage to a human, regardless of whether the person should be remembered or forgotten or somewhere in between. Interestingly Wikipedia notes, among other things, Audubon may have stolen the Harris’s hawk specimen he used as a model for his drawing.

We humans are complicated creatures.


An environmental portrait of a young Harris's hawk atop an old saguaro as it looks out over an expanse of desert, Cholla Mountain visible in the distance, as the sun sets on the Latigo Trail at McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on May 9, 2021. Original: _CAM1682.arw

Most of the desert falls into shadow as the setting sun clings to the saguaros and mountains; a young Harris’s hawk looks out over its home from atop one of the old giants. Looking north towards Cholla Mountain there aren’t a lot of saguaros but there are around me, a short walk to my right leads to my favorite. Walking left leads to an area chock-a-block full of them and all the wildlife they support. Nearby too is the neighborhood entrance I’m heading towards with the park about to close, it’s not my neighborhood but we live close by and my wife was picking me up, having dropped me off earlier for an evening hike before the encroaching summer heat puts an end to those.

Rewards for the Early Bird

A Harris's hakw perches on a large broken saguaro along Powerline Road No. 2 in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on August 2, 2020. Original: _RAC5128.arw

One of my fears when moving here was that it would be too hot in the summers for hiking so I was pleased to find that with a few tweaks to my hiking clothes (and several more water bottles) I could hike in the early mornings, if not without breaking a sweat, at least with relative ease. The hard part is not the heat but the early rising required to avoid the worst of it, as it is no easier to get up before sunrise here than in Oregon.

On this morning in early August I hiked a trail very close to one of my favorites that I had only partially hiked before, knowing it was much wider and allowed more physical separation in these pandemic times, and was rewarded with my first badger sighting. The sun wasn’t up yet and I hadn’t gotten my telephoto lens out so I watched from afar as it ran its hands through its fur, grooming itself like the muskrats and beavers and nutria I had watched so many times before. Grooming completed it waddled, and I mean waddled, off into the brush.

Further on this young Harris’s hawk came flying up, a mammal clutched in its talons, landing amidst a battered old beauty as the first hint of light fell upon the saguaro. Knowing it was offering to share its breakfast, I said thanks just the same but I had breakfast bars in my pack in case I felt peckish. Somewhere nearby, out of sight but not of earshot, its family was raising up two fledglings from the summer batch. Successfully so, I got to spend a few minutes this Thanksgiving with them all.

Oh this desert! Every sunrise, every sunset, every step along the path is a treasure.

A Nest Surprise

A Harris's hawk sits in a nest in a saguaro in front of pink skies on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2020

After the hawk I had been watching flew off and sat beside another member of its family on a transmission tower to the north, I wandered up to the saguaro where it had been sitting. Wanting to extend the tranquility of the morning and with the sun about to rise, rather than hoof it up the trail to find the saguaros I originally intended to photograph, I stopped for a water break and to enjoy that moment when the light sweeps over the mountains. I lazily pointed my long lens at the old hawk’s nest I saw last year, I didn’t think it was being used so I was rather shocked to see one of the adults atop it. I put the camera on the tripod and got off a shot before the pink skies disappeared. When the sun rose, the hawk’s face was in shadow, as it was last year. A deliberate choice? I’d certainly do the same, the sun here is something else altogether.

A Moment of Peace

A near silhouette of an adult Harris's hawk perched on the tallest arm of a fruiting saguaro on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2020

My hiking has fallen off dramatically the last six weeks as most days I’ve been too worn out to get up early. I managed it a couple weeks back and decided to photograph a pair of saguaros in the light of dawn and sunrise. Before I got that far up the trail I ran across a Harris’s hawk from the family I watched last year, so I stopped and played around with some near-silhouettes as it sat atop the fruiting arms. I decided not to press on to my original target as this saguaro is literally next to the trail and I wouldn’t be able to pass without spooking the bird. It felt like a form of sacrilege to disturb the tranquility of the desert dawn, so I whispered “Take as long as you like,” then laughed and added “only let’s not make it hours.” I stayed back but knew I could really only buy it minutes as I’m not the only one who loves this trail. Only no one else came by, leaving the two of us in the quiet, relative quiet, as we were joined by flycatchers and thrashers and woodpeckers and wrens, with small flocks of white-winged doves flying overhead and mourning doves cooing in the distance.

I didn’t get the picture I came for but what joy I received in return!

Three Predators: Ash-Throated Flycatcher Edition

An ash-throated flycatcher turns about in mid-air as it realizes there are two fuzzy Harris's hawk chicks in the their nest in a saugaro on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2020

An ash-throated flycatcher was about to land in the arms of this saguaro when it noticed the two fuzzy heads in the nest and did a mid-air about face and returned to the trees below. Flycatchers are built to snare insects on the wing so aerial acrobatics are second nature to them. Through it all the saguaro has fruit bursting open up top, offering up both its red pulp and its many seeds to all willing to risk flying above the hawk’s nest. Death comes in many forms in the desert, but so too does life.

Three Predators: Loggerhead Shrike Edition

A loggerhead shrike jumps from the top arm of a saguaro to try to catch some small prey moving about in the desert below, as two fuzzy Harris's hawk chicks sit oblivious in the nest, on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2020

A loggerhead shrike jumps from the top arm of a saguaro to try to catch some small prey moving about in the desert below. Oblivious to it all, inside the big nest of sticks are two fuzzy heads barely able to hold themselves up, young Harris’s hawks who can’t much move about the nest much less the desert. The shrike is no threat to the youngsters or it wouldn’t have been allowed this close, as unseen in the picture are three other predators, an adult hawk not visible from my vantage point but sitting atop a saguaro nearby, and two more high up on a transmission tower a ways behind me with an expansive view of the desert and any threats that might approach. An adult had been on the nest at sunrise but had left presumably to hunt while the rest of the family kept an eye on their newest arrivals.