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.

Hawkland

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.

Two Favorites

An environmental portrait of a common side-blotched lizard perched on a granite boulder in front of a tall saguaro, taken on an offshoot of the Latigo Trail in the Brown's Ranch area of McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on April 4, 2021. Original: _RAC6033.arw

I’ve been in the mood for environmental portraits so I was delighted to take one of two of my favorite desert inhabitants, the saguaro and the common side-blotched lizard, one of the largest residents and one of the smallest (at least one of the smallest on four legs). As much grief as I give my pattern-matching self for spotting marmots in the rocky hills when he knows there are no marmots here (he’s mostly stopped with the occasional relapse) and for spotting lizards that turn out to be protuberances in the rocks, he nailed this one from afar. The little fellow was a ways off and wasn’t worried about me so I had time to find a spot on the trail both where I could see the saguaro behind him and place him in a gap between the giant arms so he’d be easy to see against the blue sky.

I quietly wondered if he’d be willing to stick around for an hour-and-a-half for the last light of day but I knew he wouldn’t stay that long and neither would I, I wanted to get some hiking in and I had only just begun. In any event I finished the day further east, taking environmental portraits of another favorite resident, but no spoilers …

Right and Almost Right

A male Gila woodpecker brings a moth to his nest in a saguaro on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on May 28, 2019. Original: _DSC5120.arw

Two years ago I watched a pair of Gila woodpeckers, my favorite desert bird, bringing food to their nest in a saguaro. While all of these pictures are of the male, both parents were relentless in caring for their young. Mostly he was doing the sort of things he should, such as bringing a moth (1st picture), a spider (2nd picture), and clearing out debris made by the growing family (3rd picture). But then he brought a small rock, thankfully he realized his mistake before feeding it to the babies and brought it back out. I suspect he must have grabbed for an insect and picked up the rock in the capture, which left enough of a gap for either the insect to get away or fall out in transport.

A male Gila woodpecker brings a spider to his nest in a saguaro on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on May 28, 2019. Original: _DSC5337.arw

A male Gila woodpecker removes debris from his nest in a saguaro on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on May 28, 2019. Original: _DSC5356.arw

A male Gila woodpecker brings a small rock to his nest in a saguaro on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on May 28, 2019. Original: _DSC5391.arw

Reminders

A canyon towhee perches on saguaro flower buds on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on May 15, 2020. Original: _RAC3218.arw

From last spring in the early morning light, a canyon towhee finds a soft perch atop a saguaro courtesy of its large flower buds. A pleasant reminder that spring is coming and a not-so-pleasant reminder that the already cruel sunrises will only get earlier. I’ve managed zero sunrise hikes so far this year so I’m not off to a promising start.

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.