Subtle Sunrise

A large boulder and tree light up at sunrise on the Sunset Vista Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on September 25, 2022. Original: _Z726910.NEF

One of my favorite moments is when the rising sun first sweeps its light across the desert. I’ve played around with different ways of photographing it on days off when I manage to get up before sunrise, which is rare these days. I love simple scenes and when we moved here made a mental note to photograph this one next to the trailhead, only to realize the other day I had never done it. I thought I’d prefer the scene when it was more strongly lit but my favorite three images were over a 40 second span when the rising sun just fell upon the boulder and tree and left the foreground in shadow. At the moment this is my favorite of those three.

Dinner Invitations

An American kestrel grips a rodent in her talons as she perches atop a saguaro on the 118th Street Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on March 6, 2022. Original: _RAC3004.ARW

This American kestrel invited me over for dinner but I had to make my apologies lest I spoil my appetite. The white streaks running down the saguaro are not damage but rather show she’s been painting a favored perch. I suspect the rodents of the desert will be like the Townsend’s voles of the Pacific Northwest, animals I see but only manage to photograph when something else is eating them.

The Disappearing Act

A great horned owl sleeps in a palo verde with saguaros behind it on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on April 17, 2022. Original: _CAM5131.ARW

Early on a spring morning before my hiking came to a screeching halt, I saw a great horned owl sleeping in a palo verde on my favorite trail. I knew I’d have a better look a little further up but as the trail undulated up the hill my view of the owl was blocked and when I popped out in the spot where I expected to see it again, I could find no owl.

They fly silently but I thought it unlikely it left its perch given its sleepy mood, so I backtracked down to where I first spotted it and immediately relocated it. Back I went up the hill and once more the owl disappeared. This repeated a few times until I was finally able to not only relocate the owl but place it as I had hoped, with saguaros in the background. Thankfully only the owl was witness to my ineptitude and if it noticed it didn’t feel the need to rub it in.

Christmas and Easter Combined

A house finch perches on the fruit of a compass barrel cactus on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on August 7, 2022. Original: _CAM5207.ARW

Though house finches have been backyard birds for me everywhere I’ve lived, I love seeing them out in the desert proper as it boggles my mind that they thrive here. I’ve only been out for a few hikes since the early spring and before that was mostly doing macro shots, so my bird photography has gotten rather rusty and I didn’t set up the camera properly so I was delighted some of the pictures came out.

It’s perched on a compass barrel cactus, surrounded by fruit, though because it isn’t juicy and pulpy it doesn’t invite the feeding frenzy that saguaros do. We have a couple of barrels in our yard and I’ve noticed birds like woodpeckers and thrashers poking holes in the fruit to get at the seeds inside. I wondered if some of the other birds would like a crack at them so I took some of the ripened fruit and broke it open by hand and laid it in the backyard.

The next morning a huge family of quail came in and it was like Christmas and Easter combined, a little group would find one of the fruits and they’d dance around and fervently gobble up the seeds, then they’d walk around the yard and find another until within minutes all of the seeds had been consumed. I repeated the experiment last night and by this morning all of the seeds were gone.

As the Raven Flies

A common raven looks out from a flowering saguaro, taken from the Chuckwagon Trail at McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on June 6, 2021. Original: _RAC2888.ARW

A common raven looks out from a flowering saguaro, one of a pair raising their young in an old hawk’s nest in a nearby saguaro. If I could fly as the raven flies I could fly just to the left of the mountain and land at our house. Alas I have to hike as the human hikes and drive as the Lexus drives so my route home is a little more circuitous. One of the reasons I chose this house is that it is surrounded by an embarrassment of trails within a 10 or 15 minute drive, each dense with the plants and animals I love so much. There are trails in other parts of the metro area with better views but I know where my heart lies.

One day I hope to take a single picture that includes each of our types of cactus and while this image doesn’t pull that off, I think it’s as close as I’ve yet come.

Will Get Fooled Again

A male American kestrel perches on a saguaro near the 118th Street Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on March 19, 2022. Original: _RAC3136.ARW

Last weekend in the distance I saw a kestrel perched on a saguaro and since the telephoto lens was still in my shoulder bag, just whispered hello to the female I’ve seen here and continued up the trail. Whereupon I found another kestrel on a favored perch, close enough that even with my naked eyes it was clear this was the female I often see. The other kestrel was still visible in the distance so I knew she hadn’t snuck in while I wasn’t looking, pulling out the longer lens I realized the first kestrel was a male.

I was in a meandering mood and went up and down parts of various trails based on whim and whimsy, when I finally made my way back I saw the male was still perched where we first met. But as I set up to take his picture in the late light I realized it was the female.

The ol’ switcheroo!

After taking her picture I continued on, the blue light descending with the sun mostly faded, when in the distance I saw what looked like a kestrel on a saguaro. But this saguaro has fooled me many times, new growth has started where the top is broken and that little bump always makes me think at first glance that a bird is perching atop the old giant. This time though my pattern-recognition self insisted there really was a kestrel up there so I pulled out the lens and could barely contain my laughter as there sat the male, posing for this picture at the end of the day.

Maybe one day this desert will stop surprising me, but probably not anytime soon.

If I Could Change Careers …

Green and gray lichen grow on a granite rock on the Vaquero Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on January 9, 2022. Originals: _ZFC7597.NEF to _ZFC7630.NEF

If I could snap my fingers and change careers, I’d like to study lichen. It’s not that they are my favorite organism or anywhere near the top of the list, but rather I think they’d be endlessly fascinating to study and just as importantly, move at my speed. If you know anyone looking for a lichenthrope with no biological training and rather high salary demands, hit me up.

Their color is supposed to be influenced by their pigments, photosynthesis components, and how wet they are, but I suspect their favorite flavor of curry also plays a role. The lichen in the first picture clearly favors green curry, the greatest of the curries, while in the second we have fans of red and yellow. The gray lichen I assume understand that variety is the spice of life and enjoy them all.

Orange, yellow, and gray lichen grow on a granite rock on the Vaquero Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on January 9, 2022. Originals: _ZFC7499.NEF to _ZFC7524.NEF

Fast Friends

A female American kestrel perches on a dead tree on the 118th Street Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on February 5, 2022. Original: _CAM4289.ARW

I was up before sunrise, though not as early as I would have liked, I blame the orange tabby who when he heard me stirring curled up under my chin and started purring. As I finally rolled out of bed and left for my hike I brought my macro lens for a shot I hoped to take, overly optimistic given the predicted winds, and as soon as I stepped out of the car I realized my folly. Changing plans I instead visited trails that by now feel like old friends, just happy to be out in the desert as the sun rose. Halfway in I met if not an old friend then a fast one, perched on a dead tree in the early light.

Meeting her took some of the sting out of later walking past my favorite saguaro and seeing fresh damage on some of her arms, and near the end of the hike passing a dead tree I had photographed before that had broken and fallen over.