Red Eyed Lady of the Lowlands

A female phainopepla perches on a curved branch on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on November 28, 2020. Original: _RAC9951.arw

This is what a female phainopepla looks like on our more typical sunny desert days. I heard her cheerful cheeps from the backside of a tree as the trail wound its way up a small hill but I was headed to a particular spot and wasn’t going to try for a photograph. But as she flitted about she hopped onto this ready-made perch right as I approached so I couldn’t resist a quick picture of one of my favorite birds.

More Than Skin Deep

A close-up view of the damage to one of the arms of a saguaro I call the Green Elephant on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on October 17, 2020. Originals: _RAC6567.arw to _RAC6570.arw

My favorite view of the Elephant is looking west but the best view of the recent damage to her arms is with a telephoto looking east. Everything about her is beautiful, even her scars, they remind me of grizzly carvings in the trees of Yellowstone. I’m not worried she’s going to die, I make all my favorite saguaros sign legally-binding contracts stating they’ll outlive me. I wouldn’t ordinarily, you can find yourself in a real monkey’s paw situation since there’s an obvious way for them to guarantee it, but a saguaro is one of those rare creatures you can trust unconditionally. If a day comes when she can’t keep her promise, if a day comes when she breaks my heart, I’ll be thankful for the times our paths crossed and how far I carried her in my heart when we parted.

The Pink Green Elephant

A saguaro I call the Elephant is bathed in the diffuse light before sunrise with pink skies behind on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on December 24, 2020. Original: _CAM8025.arw

Clouds were predicted the morning of Christmas Eve so I dithered when my alarm rang out as I wanted to sleep in if the sun was going to be snuffed out, but I also didn’t want to miss out on colorful skies if it wasn’t. My vacillation wasn’t helped by a certain orange tabby who repeatedly woke me in the wee hours as he had a grand old time snuggling up under my chin, I love when he does it as it’s where Scout slept every night, but his timing could have been better. Fortunately I dragged myself out of bed, even if a few minutes later than intended, as when my wife dropped me off at the preserve the most glorious color was already spreading across the eastern sky.

I hurried down the trail towards my favorite saguaro, the Green Elephant, kicking myself for being a little behind but still careful with my footing as faceplanting into the unforgiving desert floor was not on my list of Christmas wishes. In the cool morning air I regretted not putting on my gloves in the car but I didn’t want to stop now. I took a few shots of the eastern sky on the way but the shot I most hoped for was of the Elephant looking west, so I was tickled to arrive and find the entire desert bathed in pink light with pink skies behind. The light was beginning to fade even as I started taking pictures so I was thankful I got off a shot from my favorite view of her, with a more traditional saguaro visible in the gap behind her, before the light faded to it’s normal pre-sunrise blue.

The pink skies behind her remained a little while longer and I expect I’ll like those subtler shots too. The sun rose fifteen minutes later and cleared the mountains soon thereafter but the clouds held sway and the remainder of the hike stayed cool and windy. Even in the dim light the desert was lovely as always, with phainopepla cheering my steps along the path.

This shot makes me a little sad, I noticed in the fall she has extensive damage along the arm on the lower left and also on another not visible from this angle. She looked fine when I saw her in full bloom at the end of May, but perhaps so did I, it hasn’t been the easiest year. We’re still standing though and every sunrise I spend with her is a treat, no matter the light.

Not So Serene

A female American kestrel perches atop an ocotillo right after sunset on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on November 26, 2020. Original: _RAC8875.arw

I timed my hike on Thanksgiving afternoon so I’d arrive right at closing at the neighborhood entrance where my wife was picking me up. The sun set a handful of minutes before closing, the trailhead a handful of minutes away, when I spotted a kestrel in a large ocotillo next to the trail. I first thought to photograph her in silhouette but the northern sky was already dark enough that I could brighten the exposure and leave the picture a little dark and blue, a nod to the quiet moment when the day begins to yield. I fired off four quick shots with the self timer and hoped for the best as the scene was not so serene for her, her head swiveling around to keep an eye on the two Gila woodpeckers below who were absolutely giving her the business. I’ve seen her and her mate around before, and I suspect the woodpeckers may be the pair who were nesting in an adjacent saguaro this spring, so this neighborhood squabble may not be the first of its kind. I had to continue on to make my target but thankfully one of the pictures of the lovely little falcon turned out as I hoped.

Desert Flora

A view at sunset of some of the larger plants of the Sonoran Desert, looking towards Granite Mountain from the Latigo Trail on October 17, 2020. Original: _CAM5616.arw

A view at sunset of some of the larger plants of the Sonoran Desert, looking towards Granite Mountain. I assumed the trails would be packed in the evenings but went since I haven’t been able to get out much in the mornings and to my surprise saw almost no one. Perhaps it’s a quirk of timing where it was still hot in the evenings but not dangerously so, maybe now that it is cooling off it will be more crowded.

OCCUPIED! OCCUPIED!

A white-winged dove looks up from feeding from a saguaro blossom as another is about to land, taken on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2020

A white-winged dove looks up from feeding from a saguaro blossom as another is about to land. The incoming bird landed on the leftmost blossom so they were able share the perch for a while. I haven’t seen so many white-wings this year, to be fair I haven’t hiked as much this spring and summer and when I do it’s often on different trails, but we also aren’t seeing so many in the yard as last year. Which works out well for the mourning doves as in numbers the larger white-wings can push the smaller doves around but this year the white-wings are fairly subdued and it’s only the quail parents with babies whose wrath the doves have to avoid.

Welcome, Welcome

A saguaro I call the Green Elephant blooms at sunrise with a bouquet of flowers at the ends of each of its sprawling arms, taken on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2020

I see her often, the Green Elephant, usually just a quick hello as we pass on the trails. Sometimes though I head out just to see her, as I had the week before, when I promised I’d try to be back the next week. Though getting up was hard the reward was worth the effort as she greeted me with so many bouquets of flowers she could scarce hold them all betwixt arms and trunk and ears and tail. “Welcome, welcome, stay and wonder,” she whispered for in the east the sun began to rise.

In the Fading Dark

A near-silhouette of an adult Harris's hawk perched on an old saguaro that was starting to bloom shortly before sunrise on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2020

Taken the day before the previous picture of a juvenile Harris’s hawk, this adult perched atop an old saguaro is part of the family group raising up the youngsters. Like most of the saguaros in the area, the tips of the arms were covered in flower buds with some starting to bloom. I was playing around with near-silhouettes of the family in the moments before the sun rose, it always took a few tries as I don’t have a remote shutter for this camera so I relied on the self-timer given the really slow shutter speed, but since the birds were turning their heads to watch the desert below I never knew which direction they’d be looking when the shutter tripped.