You Should Have Called First!

A male kestrel prepares to land at his nest in a saguaro but is surprised to find one of the nestlings looking out from the nest entrance. Taken near sunset at George Doc Cavalliere Park in Scottsdale, Arizona on June 6, 2021. Original: _RAC3468.arw

A male kestrel arrives at his nest in a saguaro to feed the last of his young that had not yet fledged but was surprised to find him sitting in the entrance hole. Strong winds blew as the sun was about to set but kestrels are agile fliers with a strong grip, so even though he had to fall backwards to avoid crashing into the youngster he was able to flare out his wings while grasping the cactus with his talons and maintain his purchase. He not only recovered with remarkable grace but soon leaned in and fed his hungry charge before flying off to look for the next meal.

I bet next time he calls first to let junior know he’s on his way.

A male kestrel starts to fall backwards after being surprised to find one of the nestlings looking out from the nest entrance in a saguaro. Taken near sunset at George Doc Cavalliere Park in Scottsdale, Arizona on June 6, 2021. Original: _RAC3477.arw

A male kestrel recovers after being surprised to find one of the nestlings looking out from the nest entrance in a saguaro. Taken near sunset at George Doc Cavalliere Park in Scottsdale, Arizona on June 6, 2021. Original: _RAC3483.arw

A male kestrel flares out his wings to maintain his balance as he leans into his nest in a saguaro to feed a nestling. Taken near sunset at George Doc Cavalliere Park in Scottsdale, Arizona on June 6, 2021. Original: _RAC3486.arw

Happy Father’s Day!

A male gilded flicker regurgitates food into the mouth of a hungry nestling shortly before sunset at George Doc Cavalliere Park in Scottsdale, Arizona on May 30, 2021. Original: _RAC2058.arw

Happy Father’s Day to my father of the year, this gilded flicker nesting near the top of a saguaro. It was my first time watching a flicker raise a family so I was a bit confused when, unlike Gila woodpeckers, the adults arrived at the nest with empty beaks. As the nestlings grew old enough to lean out of the nest I understood why, they were regurgitating food into the always-hungry mouths of the little ones.

A male gilded flicker prepares to feed a hungry nestling shortly after sunset at George Doc Cavalliere Park in Scottsdale, Arizona on May 31, 2021. Original: _RAC2048.arw

The nest was in a nearby park, best visible late in the day, so on weekends I’d stop by to watch this tireless provider feeding his babies before and after the sun set. I brought out my Canon 500mm telephoto for these pictures, the autofocus doesn’t work very well on my Sony cameras but it’s amazing it works at all given it’s a 15 year old Canon lens attached to a Sigma converter attached to a Sony camera, a combo they were not designed for. I often shot with the electronic shutter so I wouldn’t make any noise.

For a while I was concerned something had happened to the mother as I only ever saw this male (a bit of his red mustache is visible in the picture below as he feeds the last nestling) but it turned out to be a coincidence of timing as eventually I would see her too. The top picture is right before the sun set, the bottom two just after (on the following day).

A male gilded flicker regurgitates food into the mouth of a hungry nestling shortly after sunset at George Doc Cavalliere Park in Scottsdale, Arizona on May 31, 2021. Original: _RAC2500.arw

A Faithful Father

A male gilded flicker perches outside his nest in a saguaro at George Doc Cavalliere Park in Scottsdale, Arizona on May 8, 2021. Original: _RAC8770.arw

My favorite times to be in the desert are around sunrise and sunset, transfixed by how rapidly the light rises and falls, changing not only in intensity but color. I love the moment as the sun fades when a little diffuse red light mixes in with the heavier scattered blues, similar to the light here. But the sun, while low in the sky, had not yet set, instead blocked by a band of smoke in the northwest from a burning desert. While a depressing sign of things to come in the drought-stricken West, there was hope before me too. Flower buds on an old saguaro, soon to burst into blossom. And a faithful flicker father landing at his nest, squeaking voices inside welcoming him home.

Light Breaks Through

A female woodpecker peeks out of the shadows next to a hole in a saguaro in Scottsdale, Arizona on March 27, 2021. Original: _RAC5766.arw

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.

Right and Almost Right

A male Gila woodpecker brings a moth to his nest in a saguaro on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on May 28, 2019. Original: _DSC5120.arw

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.

A male Gila woodpecker brings a spider to his nest in a saguaro on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on May 28, 2019. Original: _DSC5337.arw

A male Gila woodpecker removes debris from his nest in a saguaro on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on May 28, 2019. Original: _DSC5356.arw

A male Gila woodpecker brings a small rock to his nest in a saguaro on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on May 28, 2019. Original: _DSC5391.arw

A Little and a Lot

A Gila woodpecker is bathed in intense red light at sunset as it perches on a saguaro at George Doc Cavalliere Park in Scottsdale, Arizona on December 13, 2020. Original: _RAC0844.arw

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.

My Sony A6600 and tripod are bathed in the red light of sunset in front of the hill at George Doc Cavalliere Park in Scottsdale, Arizona on December 13, 2020. Original: _CAM7485.arw

Changing of the Guard

A female Gila woodpecker perches outside their nest in a saguaro as the male prepares to leave on the 118th Street Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2020

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.

Are You a Tasty Bee: Gila Woodpecker Edition

A male Gila woodpecker looks down at a honeybee hovering above a saguaro blossom near the 118th Street Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2020

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.

A male Gila woodpecker looks out while a honeybee hovers above a saguaro blossom near the 118th Street Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2020

A Nest Surprise

A Harris's hawk sits in a nest in a saguaro in front of pink skies on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2020

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.

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.