Shining Robes

A male phainopepla perches on a thorny tree with his crest extended on a cloudy morning on the Marcus Landslide Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in Decmeber 2018

The name “Phainopepla” (pronounced fay-no-PEP-la) comes from the Greek for “shining robe,” a fitting characterization of the shiny black plumage of the males, at least on a sunny day. However on this overcast morning last December the soft diffuse light showed off the details in his feathers. They’ve been gone all summer but I gather will be back in the next month or so. We didn’t see them at the rental house but will see them here, though this lovely fellow was on the nearby Marcus Landslide Trail.

Mellow, Yellow

An overhead view of a master blister beetle sleeping on a heavily-chewed brittlesbush blossom on the Marcus Landslide Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsale, Arizona in May 2019

A sleepy master blister beetle isn’t quite ready to shake off its slumber and rise to meet the world. From the heavily chewed flower petals you can see why the brittlebush is both bedroom and dining room for the lovely little ones, at least on the one and only time I saw them this spring.

On Pins & Needles

A curve-billed thrasher perches on a chain fruit cholla on the Marcus Landslide Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in December 2018

No matter how many times I witness it I can’t quite wrap my head around how birds can fly in at full speed and land on a cactus with densely packed spines, such as this curve-billed thrasher on a chain fruit cholla. I adore this cholla (and the similar teddy bear cholla) but they are best appreciated at arm’s length, they are even more fearsome than they look.

A Surprise in the Familiar

Two master blister beetles cling to a spent brittlebush flower early in the morning on the Marcus Landslide Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2019

While I enjoy exploring new trails I like to have a set of favorites I visit repeatedly, both because I find comfort in the familiar and because it makes it easier for me to see change from day-to-day and season-to-season, never more so than when we are in a new area like we are now. The Marcus Landslide Trail has been a favorite since I discovered it late last year but this morning in May had a surprise in store as these gorgeous little creatures clung to seemingly every blooming brittlebush. I had never seen them before (or since) so I did a little research when I got home to learn these jewels are master blister beetles. It was still pretty early, the sun still hiding below the mountains, when I found these two clinging to the same spent flower in the middle of the brittlebush.

If, However

The tail of a western diamondback rattlesnake is visible showing the rattle, the black-and-white bands, and part of the camouflaged body in heavy brush beside the Marcus Landslide Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in July 2019

If the rest of the diamondback was as vividly marked as the black-and-white bands of the tail there wouldn’t be nearly so many surprise encounters with humans. However as ambush predators they rely on surprise encounters with the small creatures they eat, when the camouflaged coloring of the rest of their body comes in handy.