A Sea of Wings

A Mormon metalmark butterfly perches on the red-winged seedpod of a slender janusia vine at sunrise on the Jane Rau Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on August 24, 2021. Original: _RAC7317.arw

I woke up early one morning in August and couldn’t get back to sleep so I went out for a short hike before work, feeling a rush of euphoria as I got a glimpse of what it must be like to be an early bird in a world designed for them. I met a couple of butterflies as the sun crested the mountains, including this Mormon metalmark set in a sea of wings. The plant was so distinctive I thought it would be easy to identify but it took me a while as at first I was looking at plants with red flowers, but thanks to Marianne Skov Jensen’s excellent field guide of the plants of the preserve I realized the red wings are part of the seed pod and the plant is slender janusia.

After returning home for breakfast and heading into work, I knew I’d pay for my early start and indeed left early that afternoon while my energy levels were still good so I could crash on the couch instead of the road. The night owl has been re-asserting himself the past couple of years so early mornings like this have not been as common as our first year here.

A Fixer Upper

A close-up of worn and hardened skin of a saguaro on the Cone Mountain Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on August 21, 2021. Original: _RAC7182.arw

Even after a few years in the desert I don’t know who to call when I see a saguaro in need of a fresh coat of paint. Who maintains them, the city? The county? The state?

I had gone out to photograph a particular saguaro at sunrise but as I feared Brown’s Mountain blocked the light for a good while. I switched over to my telephoto lens, the old saguaros always have interesting beauty spots to photograph and this one was no exception. I like the early diffuse light for shots like these.

A Little Red-Faced

Saguaro fruit juice stains the beak and face of a young white-winged dove perched on an ocotillo on the Hawknest Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on July 18, 2021. Original: _RAC4013.arw

First light on the Hawknest Trail revealed a young white-winged dove that was a little red-faced, courtesy of the saguaro fruit juice that stained its beak and the tip of its face. It was mid-July so there wasn’t much fruit left on the old giants but the plucky youngster seemed to have found some before perching on the ocotillo to preen its feathers. With its cleaning regimen complete followed by a few beak swipes on the ocotillo stem, it flew off to a nearby saguaro and chased off the adult that was feeding there.

Saguaro fruit juice stains the beak and face of a young white-winged dove perched on an ocotillo on the Hawknest Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on July 18, 2021. Original: _RAC3902.arw

The Ol’ Switcheroo

A male ladder-backed woodpecker clings to a dead tree branch early on a cloudy morning on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on March 1, 2020. Original: _RAC1308.arw

A male ladder-backed woodpecker clings to a dead tree on a cloudy morning in the Sonoran Desert, a little tribute to the overcast of the Northwest with a bird of the Southwest from someone lucky enough to have called both home. Not much later he and his mate pulled the ol’ switcheroo, when I wasn’t looking he flew off and she flew in but I didn’t notice the change at first. Taken in March of 2020, turned out to be my first sighting of the female, the male I had seen before.

A female ladder-backed woodpecker clings to a dead tree branch early on a cloudy morning on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on March 1, 2020. Original: _RAC1325.arw

Morning Surprise

A young mule deer looks out from the Sonoran Desert with Troon Mountain in the background in pink light before sunrise on the Marcus Landslide Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on May 1, 2021. Original: _RAC8010.arw

At the start of May I got up early and went to a favorite trail I hadn’t been to in a while. I soon came across mule deer so close to the trail I could have photographed them with a wide angle lens, but it was rather dark yet so rather than risk startling them I continued on towards the scene I planned to photograph at sunrise.

Further on the dim light suddenly intensified and turned pink, not nearly as strongly as the time when I was visiting my favorite saguaro but I couldn’t figure out why it was happening at all. The sun was still below the mountains and there were no clouds I could see to reflect the light, but perhaps the mountains hid more than just the rising sun. I looked around for something to shoot and had to smile when I saw the family of deer were occasionally visible through the desert scrub. I was far enough away now to need a telephoto lens but I was pleased I could include Troon Mountain in the background, as somewhere betwixt us and the mountain sits my home.

I watched from afar as the deer drifted in and out of view until they disappeared for good. The pink light stayed but for a moment before turning yellow, then a sickly white, then dying away until the sun at last cleared the hills. I tarried too long with the deer to have any chance of reaching my original destination so I went a little further down the trail to my favorite rock formation and soaked in the moment when the light suddenly floods across the desert.

It’s a little embarrassing that after a few years in the desert I can still struggle so to predict the sunlight, my excuse that I love rainy days and spent decades in an area with a plethora of them only goes so far, but it’s alright if I never get much better.

Sometimes it’s nice to be surprised.

A Plethora of Perches

A young Harris's hawk looks out from atop an old saguaro at sunset on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on May 9, 2021. Original: _RAC8897.arw

An old giant provides a plethora of perches for a young Harris’s hawk to choose from as it scans the desert floor at sunset. This time of year the perches are relatively soft courtesy of the large flower buds (and by now, flowers themselves). Apparently Audubon would name the birds for his friend and supporter Edward Harris but when he first drew one for his book Birds of America he called them the Louisiana hawk. The University of Pittsburgh has the entire collection online but be forewarned, it can be a real time sink.

There is a movement to rename birds named after people, something I’d like to see. I’d rather see birds named after their nature (especially for these hawks, their social network since it’s so unusual) rather than an homage to a human, regardless of whether the person should be remembered or forgotten or somewhere in between. Interestingly Wikipedia notes, among other things, Audubon may have stolen the Harris’s hawk specimen he used as a model for his drawing.

We humans are complicated creatures.

Hawkland

An environmental portrait of a young Harris's hawk atop an old saguaro as it looks out over an expanse of desert, Cholla Mountain visible in the distance, as the sun sets on the Latigo Trail at McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on May 9, 2021. Original: _CAM1682.arw

Most of the desert falls into shadow as the setting sun clings to the saguaros and mountains; a young Harris’s hawk looks out over its home from atop one of the old giants. Looking north towards Cholla Mountain there aren’t a lot of saguaros but there are around me, a short walk to my right leads to my favorite. Walking left leads to an area chock-a-block full of them and all the wildlife they support. Nearby too is the neighborhood entrance I’m heading towards with the park about to close, it’s not my neighborhood but we live close by and my wife was picking me up, having dropped me off earlier for an evening hike before the encroaching summer heat puts an end to those.

Great Scott’s!

A male Scott's oriole sings from his perch atop the flower buds of a saguaro on the Rustler Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on May 2, 2021. Original: _RAC8508.arw

Last weekend I stopped at the end of the Rustler Trail for a water break, trying to decide which way to meander on the network of trails, when an oriole flew into the ocotillo in front of me to feed from its flowers. Caught flat-footed holding a water bottle I didn’t want to make any sudden moves towards the camera, we both needed refreshment, but I did get a chance for pictures when he flew off to a distant saguaro and sang to me from the flower buds before disappearing down the trail.

I made a mental note to add Bullock’s oriole to my bird list for the day even though I was surprised his plumage was so yellow. It was only when I got home and looked at the pictures that I had a little laugh at myself when I noticed his head and shoulders were solid black and, while clearly an oriole, he looked nothing like a Bullock’s. In my defense I had gotten up two days in a row for a sunrise hike, the first time this year, so the old gray cells were not in finest form.

I fired up Sibley’s on the iPad and discovered my friend was a Scott’s oriole, a new species for me and thus a new species in my attempt to photograph every animal of the Sonoran Desert atop a saguaro (though I have to say, the mammals aren’t cooperating).

I ended up hiking the Upper Ranch Trail to the Rustler Trail to the Latigo Trail to the Hackamore Trail to the Tarantula Trail to the West Express Trail, returning via the Hackamore Trail to Cone Mountain Trail to Upper Ranch Trail. It was my first time on the West Express, there are formal trails in this part of the preserve now instead of the temporary off-map trails that were there before.