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.

Dressed in Orange

A mule deer doe and her fawn graze in the desert scrub in the first light of the day along the Watershed Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in December 2019

The first light of day filtered through the desert scrub, bathing a doe and her two fawns in orange light. I too was dressed in orange, my jacket a holdover from my time in Oregon when I walked to the train station and needed every advantage to be seen by drivers who weren’t looking for me. I stick out like a sore thumb in the desert and have thought about replacing it with something less distracting, but for the moment I’ve held off as it does make me more visible both from a distance and a glance to the cyclists I share the trails with.

Though she’s looking at me for eternity in this picture, the doe paid me little heed as I stood quietly and watched the trio graze as the sun rose. Suddenly to my right a young buck and doe crossed the trail and I stopped taking pictures for a while, obviously I was rather visible but I didn’t want to make any noise as the mother doe was slightly nervous at the new arrivals. She relaxed when the two showed no aggression and they all breakfasted together, coming in and out of view through the shrubs and trees and cacti, when suddenly they bolted and disappeared from view. I soon heard why as two cyclists came riding up the trail, we said our good mornings and they too disappeared from view. A lovely quiet morning on the Watershed Trail.

Blooming Buckhorn, Tasty Trees

A family of mule deer eat the flowers of buckhorn cholla on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2019

The buckhorn cholla were in full bloom in mid-May and this family of mule deer took full advantage of the soft treats. While other animals will also eat the flowers the deer have a height advantage so they can reach flowers the others can’t. The deer also fed on palo verde flowers, the trees blooming alongside both the cholla and soaptree yucca.

A family of mule deer eat the flowers of a palo verde, the trees blooming alongside soaptree yucca and buckhorn cholla, on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2019

Smug

A mule deer chews its food along the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

I was walking along the Chuckwagon Trail with the sun about to crest the horizon when the pattern recognition part of my brain thought it saw a distant deer hidden behind some plants. On second glance I was less sure and thought “There you go again, turning trees into deer.” I lifted the telephoto lens to my eye anyway and the tree was a deer, it walked out into the open as it ate soft plants as it strolled along its path, then did the little mule deer hop to move down the hillside.

My pattern recognition self was feeling pretty smug the rest of the hike, even when he was spotting marmots in the rocks though there are no marmots in Arizona. That will take a while to go away, after spending a summer in Florida it took years for me to stop thinking I saw alligators in the marshes of Oregon and Washington. I don’t mind, the successes are worth the failures, and if you don’t look you can’t see.