Blooming Buckhorn, Tasty Trees

A family of mule deer eat the flowers of buckhorn cholla on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2019

The buckhorn cholla were in full bloom in mid-May and this family of mule deer took full advantage of the soft treats. While other animals will also eat the flowers the deer have a height advantage so they can reach flowers the others can’t. The deer also fed on palo verde flowers, the trees blooming alongside both the cholla and soaptree yucca.

A family of mule deer eat the flowers of a palo verde, the trees blooming alongside soaptree yucca and buckhorn cholla, on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2019

The Tipping Point

A Harris's hawk calls out from atop a saguaro, lit by the soft light of the rising sun as it partially cleared the mountains, taken on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2019

A Harris’s hawk calls out as the rising sun begins to tip over the distant mountains, partially illuminating the desert with its soft light. From this angle and in this light you can barely see the distinctive chestnut patches on its shoulders and legs, but you can get a glimpse of the large white patch at the base of the tail and the white band at the tip.

After it flew off I continued up the trail, and when I rounded a corner five minutes later the hawk and I met again (I assume it’s the same one, it would be easier if they wore name tags). The rising sun having fully cleared the mountains and the hawk completely lit in the morning light, you can better see the distinctive chestnut patches. This is the same saguaro (and maybe the same hawk) I photographed shortly before sunrise a week prior.

A Harris's hawk perches atop a saguaro, fully lit by the rising sun after it cleared the mountains, taken on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2019

I Have the High Ground

Two male brown-headed cowbirds arch their heads towards the sky as they stand on flower buds atop a saguaro along the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2019

A male brown-headed cowbird was singing atop an old saguaro when it flared out its wings and then arched its back and pointed its head into the air. The reason soon became clear as another beak came into view, followed by the rest of the head. A second male had flown onto the opposite side and was inching its way up from below. It flew off pretty quickly and the original male gave chase.

Rage, Rage Against the Rising of the Light

A Harris's hawk calls out from atop a blooming saguaro in the moments before the sun rises above the distant peaks along the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

A Harris’s hawk calls out from atop a blooming saguaro in the moments before the sun rises above the distant peaks. I’m guessing it did rise, a heavy cloud cover blanketed the desert so the sun hid its face most of the morning. Perhaps the hawk was staying in touch with another hawk on a nearby saguaro, or perhaps like me it was protesting the earlier and earlier rising of the sun. My alarm went off at 4:15am that morning!

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.