Three Predators: Ash-Throated Flycatcher Edition

An ash-throated flycatcher turns about in mid-air as it realizes there are two fuzzy Harris's hawk chicks in the their nest in a saugaro on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2020

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.

Three Predators: Loggerhead Shrike Edition

A loggerhead shrike jumps from the top arm of a saguaro to try to catch some small prey moving about in the desert below, as two fuzzy Harris's hawk chicks sit oblivious in the nest, on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2020

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.

High Holes

A male gilded flicker perches outside a hole near the top of a sagauro near Powerline Road No. 2 in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2020

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.

Hello in There

Hello in There

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.

Extra Sharp

The tongue of a male Gila woodpecker sticks out of his beak as he looks out from his nest in a saguaro on the Latigo Trail in McDonnell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2019

It must seem unfair to the insects of the Sonoran Desert, given all the sharp spines they have to navigate, that some saguaros are extra sharp. The tongue of this Gila woodpecker is just sticking out of his beak, it’s a long tongue that wraps around in his head that he can shoot into cavities to snare insects with the sharp tip. I’m so tickled I get to see these amazing birds every day (except times like now when it is dark when I leave for and get home from work).

How It All Began

A Harris's hawk hatchling sits up and looks out from its nest in a saguaro on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2019

Though taken in December yesterday’s picture began in May, when I first saw one of the Harris’s hawk hatchlings poke up from the nest. I’m not sure if its sibling had hatched yet, one of the parents (not visible) is laying down behind it with several more adults nearby. I wrote in my journal “There was no acrimony among the hawks given how close they were to each other & the nest, was a little surprised”, understated confusion solved later when I learned they raise the young in family groups. Also wrote “Soaptree yucca are blooming, got too distracted by the hawks for pictures”. That’ll happen!

Witch Hazel, Patron Saint of Woodpeckers

A close-up of the crested saguaro (also known as cristate saguaro) I call 'Witch Hazel' on the Vaquero Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in October 2019

I’ve seen a few crested (or cristate) saguaros, where instead of their iconic arms they grow these unusual shapes, and love them all but this one is my favorite. I named her Witch Hazel as she reminds me of the green witch from the Bugs Bunny cartoons I watched as a kid. I always had a fondness for her but I’m not sure why as I usually didn’t feel any affection for his pursuers, but perhaps she was written rather sympathetically. My witch looks over a woodpecker nest in an adjacent arm and I like to think serves as its protector, and not just for this nest but for all the woodpeckers in the area that I so dearly love. Long may you live, long may you serve.

Performance Art

A female Gila woodpecker is in freefall after she has jumped out of her nest but before she spreads her wings to fly, taken on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2019

A female Gila woodpecker is for the briefest of moments in free fall after jumping from her nest in a saguaro. It took me a while to notice this behavior, everything happens so quickly when they enter and leave the nest, and took even longer before I could find the right conditions to photograph it. It looks rather unnatural when frozen in time, one foot still sticking out below her while her wings are tucked up tight, but the nest is high off the ground so even though the fall is brief she has plenty of time to put a little distance between herself and her sharp-spined home before throwing out her wings.

Brace For Impact

A female Gila woodpecker flies to her nest with a moth in her beak, raising her legs and preparing to throw out her wings, on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2019

A female Gila woodpecker, the mate of the male in the previous picture, prepares to land at the nest with a moth in her beak. They fly in at full speed, throwing up their legs and flaring their wings at the last moment, it’s a delight to watch.