In Death, Supporting Life

A lesser nighthawk perches on a dead buckhorn cholla on the 118th Street Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2020

Nighthawks were a new species for me when we moved to Arizona. I see them relatively often near the break of day, zooming about low to the ground in erratic flight like massive swallows. When sitting still they can be pretty hard to spot and usually I only manage it if see them land, as in this case when a dead cholla lended its support on a spring morning.

Learning to See in the Desert

A zebra-tailed desert on the ground near The Amphitheater in McDowell Sonoran Preserve

Hiking in the desert feels both normal and unfamiliar. I know so much more about this unique environment than when we moved here but I have so much more to learn. As I hike the trails I’m well aware that the animals are living their lives perhaps not far from where I’m walking but even for those within my sight I wonder how many I actually see. I’m still developing eyes for the desert.

I am making progress, each hike is an opportunity both to look and to see. While taking a water break near the Amphitheater I spotted what I thought might be a lizard in the scrub and walked closer with my camera, almost turning around on a couple of occasions when I became convinced it must be a stick or bit of dried cactus. Thankfully I kept going and discovered this lovely zebra-tailed lizard. It happened again this morning, out on the Rustler Trail I thought I saw another zebra-tail in the middle of the trail so I slowed my approach, but repeatedly doubted myself until I was close enough to remove all doubt.

Sometimes though I think I could live here for decades and still not see what lies before me. The only reason I saw the lesser nighthawk below was that I stopped for a water break and it flew towards a nearby rock before seeing me and settling down further off on this fallen tree, hidden in plain sight. I’ve seen them flying low over the desert numerous times but I now wonder how many I’ve passed that were settled in for the morning.

A lesser nighthawk is barely visible as it rests on a fallen tree in McDowell Sonoran Preserve