Beauty All Around

A cactus wren perches on a saguaro fruit along the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

It has been a sad day but not a day without beauty. In between talking to the vet in the morning and taking Ellie in to be euthanized, I walked into my office and saw Boo and Trixie transfixed in the window. I walked over assuming they were looking at a bird and was delighted to instead see a western whiptail in the bushes next to the window, a favorite lizard on the trails but a new yard species for me. When we got home with heavy hearts after saying goodbye to Ellie, I saw a cactus wren in the backyard, a first for the new house although I had seem them at the rental house and of course on the trails. This one was perching on a saguaro fruit last summer in McDowell Sonoran Preserve.

The Morning Surprises

A gambel's quail sings, silhouetted against a blue sky, early on a spring morning near the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

I first visited Brown’s Ranch a month after we moved to Arizona last year and fell in love immediately. One of the things I liked about our new house was its close proximity to some of my favorite local trailheads, Brown’s Ranch included. I haven’t been much since the fall, only visiting on Christmas and New Year’s Eve, at first because I was exploring another area (also near the house) and then because I was concentrating on trails near some of the other houses we were considering.

While I haven’t had much time and/or energy for hiking lately I was up for an easy hike last weekend so I begrudgingly got up before sunrise and made the short drive to Brown’s Ranch. A cardinal serenaded me before I stepped out of the car and I could hear the calls of Gambel’s quail and mourning doves and cactus wrens all around. I thought about how much I had learned in my year here, how much more these sights and sounds are familiar to me now, as I grabbed my camera and headed to the Jane Rau Trail, a short little loop trail near the trailhead and the first trail I hiked at Brown’s Ranch last year.

A gambel's quail sings, silhouetted against an orange sky, early on a spring morning near the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

I then headed down the Latigo Trail, despite my low energy levels I was so happy to be back that I almost felt like running. I didn’t, however, feel much like taking pictures, a feeling I get sometimes where I almost put the camera away. I usually keep the camera out but there is a mental shift where I don’t worry so much about photography. Sometimes though the animals pull me back in, as they did on this morning. It started with a Gambel’s quail in the trees, silhouetted against the morning sky, I took a quick picture against the blue sky before moving further on and taking another against the orange sky.

An ash-throated flycatcher perches at the edge of a tree limb early on a spring morning along the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

A mourning dove shows off the distinctive black spots running down its wings early on a spring morning along the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

As the sun rose I spotted an ash-throated flycatcher and couldn’t help but stop for some pictures. It didn’t stay long as a couple of mourning doves flew into the tree and scared it off, so I photographed one of them instead. They were out in abundance, I imagine the white-winged doves will be back in numbers soon and the smaller mourning doves will get moved a step down the pecking order. Beside the trail the banana yuccas were budding and blooming, a sight I hadn’t seen before, and I thought I could spend a lifetime photographing them in their various stages, each beautiful in its own way, but I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to photograph them on this morning.

A close-up view of a rock squirrel perching in the rocks early one morning along the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

But when I saw a familiar shape in the rocks, bathed in the lovely morning light, I eagerly setup my camera beside the trail to photograph what I initially assumed was an antelope squirrel but which I quickly realized was the larger rock squirrel. I had seen them before but usually from a distance, only once getting a close look up at Tom’s Thumb. This one though posed for me in its rock home and now in more of a photographic mood I photographed it with different focal lengths, including wide and medium shots and this full on close-up.

A great horned owl perches in a palo verde near the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

Further up the trail I stopped when I thought I saw a hawk on a distant saguaro, but when I lifted the telephoto lens to my eye to get a better look I realized it was a great horned owl, my first owl in Arizona. It flew a little closer as an American kestrel hassled it from above and landed in this foothill palo verde. It occasionally cast its eyes over towards where the rock squirrel was but it didn’t seem too interested in hunting.

A mourning dove pauses while preening atop a large rock as the breeze picks up and ruffles its feathers on a spring morning along the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

I continued up the trail a bit but didn’t go too far, I was tired and while there are times it’s good to push yourself, this morning didn’t feel like one of them. As I headed back I did see a couple of genuine hawks on a large saguaro, a pair of Harris’s hawks that I suppose will be nesting soon. A grasshopper accidentally impaled itself on a buckhorn cholla and I thought my hike might end on a sad note but then I saw a mourning dove preening from a rock above as the breeze rustled its feathers.

Despite not seeing any reptiles it was a quick reminder of why I love this place as I saw so much beauty in so short a time. Soon enough I did get to see a reptile as when I got home a spiny lizard was doing pushups in a tree behind the house, it was too bright for pictures but hopefully he and I will meet again. And hopefully so too the rock squirrel, if it survives the owls and the hawks and the snakes and …

Lair of the Rock Squirrel

A rock squirrel peeks out from the rocks it calls home along the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

A rock squirrel peeks out from the rocks it calls home. A great horned owl was nearby, itself being harassed by an American kestrel, perhaps it got too close to her nest. A little later I saw a grasshopper fly off and impale itself on a buckhorn cholla. Life isn’t easy in the desert, even in a lovely spring.

It’s a Good Thing Saguaros Aren’t Carnivorous

A white-winged dove sticks its face into a saguaro fruit to feed along the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

Last spring I was amazed at how many birds fed at saguaros as they bloomed and fruited, such as this white-winged dove sticking its face into fruit at the end of an arm along the Latigo Trail. It’s a good thing saguaros aren’t carnivorous or a lot of birds would lose their heads!

A cactus wren sticks its head into a saguaro blossom to feed in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

Cactus wrens are smaller than the doves but still large for wrens, this one stuck its head deep into a blossom on the saguaro where it was building its nest and raising its young. When it emerges its head will be covered in pollen, some of which will be deposited at the next blossom it visits.

It s a Good Thing Saguaros Aren t Carnivorous Verdin Edition

The tiny verdin had to stick most of its body into the fruit to feed at the back, in this picture it is feeding closer to the front and only its head is hidden. When the fruit ripens it is the white-winged doves that eat the most, but other birds enjoy the short-lived bounty as well.

Home Soon

A white-winged dove, its face matted with fruit juice, sits atop an unripened saguaro fruit with its mouth open as it prepares to preen in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

We close on our house in a couple of days. We have a walkthrough around lunchtime with the owners then take possession on Thursday and move in a couple of weeks. The white-winged doves will be home soon too, at least their summer home, although I’m not exactly sure when they’ll arrive. This one was feeding on saguaro fruit in July, I felt so much sympathy for them as their faces were matted with juice as they stuck their heads into the fruit to feed. As much as they like to be clean, they were going to be migrating soon and had to strike while the iron was hot.