I haven’t gotten up for any sunrise hikes yet this year but I have managed to roll out of bed for a couple of early strolls through the neighborhood, which as yet has enough green spaces that I see many of the same characters I’d see in the parks. Last Saturday was one such morning though I was saddened as I walked past the empty house across the street, we hadn’t seen the nurse who lives there in months and recently learned she died from COVID-19 a while back.
As I continued up the hill past a green space I waited for the rising sun to fall upon the top of Troon Mountain but despite blue skies the light never arrived. A bit confused I continued climbing until I could see the mountains in the east and laughed as yes, the entire sky was blue, save for a thin band of clouds over the mountains blocking the sun. I walked further on until the sun cleared the clouds and soft yellow light wrapped around the saguaro in front of me, falling upon a woodpecker peeking out of the shadows.
My wife and I get our one-jab vaccine on Tuesday. A little light is better than none.
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.
Only a little sliver of red atop this Gila woodpecker’s head is visible but the whole scene is bathed in intense red light as the sun begins to dip below the mountains behind me. Even as I took it I wasn’t sure how it would turn out as I think in isolation the red is a bit too overwhelming, at least until the light softened shortly thereafter (but after the woodpecker left) when the sun was more obscured by the hills. I had been shooting with my other camera but the patient fellow hung around until I went back and got the telephoto one.
After he left I lowered the camera and set the tripod aside as I went back to my camera bag for a drink and to get my other camera. With the woodpecker image still displaying on the back of the telephoto camera I realized I could use my shadow to mimic the saguaros to my right and take a bit of a self-portrait as a reminder of the little trail in the little park a little ways from my home.
A female Gila woodpecker brings food to the nest while the waiting male is about to pop out and make room for her. This is zoomed in less than the previous pictures to show more of the saguaro, I was kicking myself later for forgetting to take a much wider shot with my regular lens of the full saguaro and the surrounding desert. I forgot partially because of the excitement of watching woodpeckers and partially because it was 5:30am. At that hour I’m just happy if I dress myself properly because that isn’t guaranteed.
Do Gila woodpeckers eat honeybees? With the sun starting to rise this honeybee hovered over the saguaro blossom for so long that this male craned his neck out and started watching it. If he was thinking about jumping out and snaring it he never did, he stayed at the nest entrance until his mate returned. Which didn’t take long, the pair was pretty amazing to watch, even before sunup they were constantly bringing food back to the nest. I don’t know if they eat honeybees or not but there is an ample supply nearby when the saguaros are blooming.
After the hawk I had been watching flew off and sat beside another member of its family on a transmission tower to the north, I wandered up to the saguaro where it had been sitting. Wanting to extend the tranquility of the morning and with the sun about to rise, rather than hoof it up the trail to find the saguaros I originally intended to photograph, I stopped for a water break and to enjoy that moment when the light sweeps over the mountains. I lazily pointed my long lens at the old hawk’s nest I saw last year, I didn’t think it was being used so I was rather shocked to see one of the adults atop it. I put the camera on the tripod and got off a shot before the pink skies disappeared. When the sun rose, the hawk’s face was in shadow, as it was last year. A deliberate choice? I’d certainly do the same, the sun here is something else altogether.
An ash-throated flycatcher was about to land in the arms of this saguaro when it noticed the two fuzzy heads in the nest and did a mid-air about face and returned to the trees below. Flycatchers are built to snare insects on the wing so aerial acrobatics are second nature to them. Through it all the saguaro has fruit bursting open up top, offering up both its red pulp and its many seeds to all willing to risk flying above the hawk’s nest. Death comes in many forms in the desert, but so too does life.
A loggerhead shrike jumps from the top arm of a saguaro to try to catch some small prey moving about in the desert below. Oblivious to it all, inside the big nest of sticks are two fuzzy heads barely able to hold themselves up, young Harris’s hawks who can’t much move about the nest much less the desert. The shrike is no threat to the youngsters or it wouldn’t have been allowed this close, as unseen in the picture are three other predators, an adult hawk not visible from my vantage point but sitting atop a saguaro nearby, and two more high up on a transmission tower a ways behind me with an expansive view of the desert and any threats that might approach. An adult had been on the nest at sunrise but had left presumably to hunt while the rest of the family kept an eye on their newest arrivals.
If the Sonoran Desert was naught but saguaros and woodpeckers it would still be a delight. I didn’t think I’d have a shot at this gilded flicker, I was watching flycatchers when he flew up to a hole near the top of a saguaro. Given the angle to the sun he was in shadow but for a moment he leaned far enough left that the light fell upon his profile, showing his red mustache and the yellow wing linings for which he is named. They apparently prefer making nests near the top where the newer growth is softer, while the Gila woodpeckers have stronger beaks that give them more latitude in where they drill their holes. I’m not sure if this was his nest hole or not, he didn’t bring any food in his bill and only looked in briefly, he might have just been interested in the flowers blooming above his head. But it could be he was afraid to enter with me watching so I bid adieu and continued on.
So if you’re walking down the street sometime
And spot some hollow ancient eyes
Please don’t just pass ’em by and stare
As if you didn’t care, say, “Hello in there, hello”
John Prine “Hello in There”
So sorry to hear of John Prine’s passing, one of too many we’ve lost to Covid-19. I first heard his song “Hello in There” on a VHS tape I bought in my college days from the 10,000 Maniacs and was immediately transfixed by its beauty and its pain. Performed by lead singer Natalie Merchant and Michael Stipe of R.E.M. and Billy Bragg, I initially assumed the song was one of Bragg’s since I was as yet unfamiliar with his work (the other two were already favorites) only to find it was one of Prine’s. Both the cover and the original are dear to me, resonating as strongly today as they did in my youth. Goodbye to a quiet giant, and thank you.