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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve been in the mood for environmental portraits so I was delighted to take one of two of my favorite desert inhabitants, the saguaro and the common side-blotched lizard, one of the largest residents and one of the smallest (at least one of the smallest on four legs). As much grief as I give my pattern-matching self for spotting marmots in the rocky hills when he knows there are no marmots here (he’s mostly stopped with the occasional relapse) and for spotting lizards that turn out to be protuberances in the rocks, he nailed this one from afar. The little fellow was a ways off and wasn’t worried about me so I had time to find a spot on the trail both where I could see the saguaro behind him and place him in a gap between the giant arms so he’d be easy to see against the blue sky.
I quietly wondered if he’d be willing to stick around for an hour-and-a-half for the last light of day but I knew he wouldn’t stay that long and neither would I, I wanted to get some hiking in and I had only just begun. In any event I finished the day further east, taking environmental portraits of another favorite resident, but no spoilers …
A quiet morning in December, looking north to Granite Mountain. The large depression was created decades ago when the giant lizard who had been resting beneath the mountain finally woke, shaking off its slumber and heading west to California and the Pacific Ocean. It was seen swimming in the direction of Tokyo but I don’t know what happened to it after that, hope it had a good life.
Two years ago I watched a pair of Gila woodpeckers, my favorite desert bird, bringing food to their nest in a saguaro. While all of these pictures are of the male, both parents were relentless in caring for their young. Mostly he was doing the sort of things he should, such as bringing a moth (1st picture), a spider (2nd picture), and clearing out debris made by the growing family (3rd picture). But then he brought a small rock, thankfully he realized his mistake before feeding it to the babies and brought it back out. I suspect he must have grabbed for an insect and picked up the rock in the capture, which left enough of a gap for either the insect to get away or fall out in transport.
Amongst the many holes on this old saguaro I see a face that reminds me of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. This is not the work of a maniacal woodpecker, perhaps the cactus has an infection of some sort. Behind it are dark clouds that I refer to as rain clouds though here in the desert they only sometimes bring rain (thankfully on this day in January they did).
From last spring in the early morning light, a canyon towhee finds a soft perch atop a saguaro courtesy of its large flower buds. A pleasant reminder that spring is coming and a not-so-pleasant reminder that the already cruel sunrises will only get earlier. I’ve managed zero sunrise hikes so far this year so I’m not off to a promising start.