A Simple Portrait

A cactus wren perches on an ocotillo branch on the Latigo Trail at McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on October 30, 2022. Original: _CAM6223.ARW

I’ve been in the mood for environmental portraits the past couple of years but I still love a simple portrait, in this case a cactus wren perched on an old ocotillo. The ocotillo is sometimes mistaken for a cactus as the spiraling arms are often covered in spines, but unlike a cactus they grow out of the stem rather than an areole. The cactus wren is our state bird and I was going to say our noisiest bird but the Gila woodpeckers might have a word or two to say about that …

The Sunset Watch, Part II

A pair of American kestrels sit atop a large saguaro in front of Granite Mountain as sunset approaches on November 6, 2022. Original: _CAM6331.ARW

A week after watching a pair of Harris’s hawks on a large boulder at sunset, I saw them again on the boulder but this time from a different vantage point. I thought about waiting to see if they would stick around until sunset for a different take on the image, but I was in the mood to hike and decided to hoof it out to my favorite cactus. I never got there as I found this pair of kestrels on a distant saguaro and spent the end of the day with them instead. I’ve long loved photographing the encroaching sun or shadow at the start and end of the day, I forget exactly when the fascination first took hold but it was probably on a visit to the Tetons many years ago.

I haven’t been out hiking since, I’ve been taking Bear on really long walks on weekend mornings and afternoons, I need to find a better balance but it’s hard because I can’t usually walk him during the work week.

The Lion King

The base of a saguaro is caked in mud, likely from termites, in a pattern that reminds me of the face of a male lion on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on September 25, 2022. Originals: _ZFC0614.NEF to _ZFC0619.NEF

In September I went out specifically to photograph this pattern at the base of a saguaro, the ring of mud reminding me of a lion’s mane. But then I discovered a lizard hiding behind the spines a foot above this spot and spent so much time photographing her that I had to rush these shots before fleeing the park. Last weekend I went back to photograph the lion again, to compose when I was more composed, but my mind was wondering and wandering and I walked right past it. Realizing my mistake much later than I should have, I doubled back and easily located my target.

Except the lion was gone. The saguaro was there thankfully but the pattern was not. I had a little laugh as I remembered the heavy rains from earlier in the week while I was at work, which had probably washed away the work of the little artists who painted this canvas. Termites I suspect, there are a type here that eat the rough bark-like material at the base of old saguaros, which might explain the tan section in the middle.

The Mocking Bird

A northern mockingbird sits in an old ocotillo as the sun sets on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on October 7, 2022. Original: _CAM5716.ARW

I keep track of what animals I see in the parks but I’m not too religious about it, I mostly just pay attention to the animals that are close so a proper wildlife watcher would come away from the same visit with a much larger list. I’ve seen mockers in the local preserve every month except September, so I was hoping to spot one on recent hikes but had no luck. Yet in the first week of October as I headed out of the park, the light a ridiculous red from the setting sun, there sat a patient mocker in this gorgeous old ocotillo, just begging to be photographed.

Perfectly Poised

A female common side-blotched lizard hides behind the spines in the gap between two saguaro trunks on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsale, Arizona on September 25, 2022. Originals: _ZFC0561.NEF to _ZFC0577.NEF

On a September evening I headed to my favorite trail to take pictures of patterns in two saguaros. I never made it past the first as when I stopped a common side-blotched lizard scampered up into the World’s Best Hiding Spot, protected behind large spines in a gap between two trunks. The little lizards are a favorite so I could hardly believe I’d get to add one to my series of animals on saguaros, and so perfectly posed!

Although I took a quick shot with the telephoto lens I had time to switch to my macro setup and shoot a sequence of images for a focus stack, as I wanted everything in the scene to be sharp. Unfortunately the more excited I am, the less likely I am to setup the camera properly, and the exposure was set for the scenes I originally intended to photograph. With the sun getting low and the hill in shade, each picture took 2 seconds, the sequence 34, and it was only later I realized my mistake. When I finally worked up the courage to look at the pictures weeks later, she had stayed still and all the photos were sharp. Perfectly posed and poised!

No matter how long our sojourn in the desert lasts, this will be a favorite moment.

The Disappearing Act

A great horned owl sleeps in a palo verde with saguaros behind it on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on April 17, 2022. Original: _CAM5131.ARW

Early on a spring morning before my hiking came to a screeching halt, I saw a great horned owl sleeping in a palo verde on my favorite trail. I knew I’d have a better look a little further up but as the trail undulated up the hill my view of the owl was blocked and when I popped out in the spot where I expected to see it again, I could find no owl.

They fly silently but I thought it unlikely it left its perch given its sleepy mood, so I backtracked down to where I first spotted it and immediately relocated it. Back I went up the hill and once more the owl disappeared. This repeated a few times until I was finally able to not only relocate the owl but place it as I had hoped, with saguaros in the background. Thankfully only the owl was witness to my ineptitude and if it noticed it didn’t feel the need to rub it in.

Christmas and Easter Combined

A house finch perches on the fruit of a compass barrel cactus on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on August 7, 2022. Original: _CAM5207.ARW

Though house finches have been backyard birds for me everywhere I’ve lived, I love seeing them out in the desert proper as it boggles my mind that they thrive here. I’ve only been out for a few hikes since the early spring and before that was mostly doing macro shots, so my bird photography has gotten rather rusty and I didn’t set up the camera properly so I was delighted some of the pictures came out.

It’s perched on a compass barrel cactus, surrounded by fruit, though because it isn’t juicy and pulpy it doesn’t invite the feeding frenzy that saguaros do. We have a couple of barrels in our yard and I’ve noticed birds like woodpeckers and thrashers poking holes in the fruit to get at the seeds inside. I wondered if some of the other birds would like a crack at them so I took some of the ripened fruit and broke it open by hand and laid it in the backyard.

The next morning a huge family of quail came in and it was like Christmas and Easter combined, a little group would find one of the fruits and they’d dance around and fervently gobble up the seeds, then they’d walk around the yard and find another until within minutes all of the seeds had been consumed. I repeated the experiment last night and by this morning all of the seeds were gone.