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.

Yellow Belly

A male Gila woodpecker carries an insect in his beak as he flies in with his wings spread to his nest in a saguaro along the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2019

A Gila woodpecker lands at his nest in a saguaro, carrying an insect (maybe a grasshopper?) in his beak, about to feed his hungry babies inside. I love their yellow bellies, both males and females have them. There are a handful in our backyard as I write this from the porch but this flying fellow is from the spring, taken on the Latigo Trail.

Home in the Heights

A Harris's hawk nestling spreads its wings as it practices for flight by moving from one arm of the saguaro holding its nest to another, taken at sunrise on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2019

When I hiked to this Harris’s hawk nest back in June I noticed one of the chicks had fledged and this one was getting close, practicing by hopping from one arm of the saguaro to another, already at it when I arrived before the sun was even up, with the adults occasionally bringing in something to eat. I nicknamed it Trixie as it would eat just a few bites before returning to flight practice, then go back for a few bites, much like our youngest cat who likes to nibble at her food then play play play, repeat repeat repeat.

In the low light before sunrise, knowing it would be hard to freeze the motion of the young bird constantly on the move, I did what I had been meaning to do on several previous visits, zoom out to give a view of the saguaro holding the nest. The cactus doesn’t have the classic look of the tall central spire but does have an ample space to hold the nest. If you look at the teddy bear cholla in front of the saguaro (the light colored cholla in between the darker buckhorn cholla) there’s a nest of a smaller bird.

An environmental portrait of a Harris's hawk nestling practicing for flight by moving from one arm of the saguaro holding its nest to another, taken before sunrise on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2019

I was rather surprised when we moved here to see so many birds nesting in the various types of cactus as it seemed a rather inhospitable place to build a home. But it must give them a fair amount of protection from ground predators that can climb trees but can’t deal with the cactus spines, but if a fledgling falls from the nest it doesn’t have far to fall. Contrast that with the red-tailed hawk’s nest I saw up on the canyon walls, where a slip off the narrow ledge would result in a deadly fall, or the bald eagle’s nest in Washington that was high up in a massive tree.

I had intended to hike past this nest on the Chuckwagon Trail and then take a familiar loop back to the car, but after spending the first part of the morning watching this young bird building its agility and its confidence, I got distracted by a handful of lizards in a rock formation just up the trail, so with the morning wearing on I just took the Chuckwagon back to the trailhead. Although I didn’t get as much exercise as intended it was a positive result, Ellie had died two months earlier and it was a sign of how much I had healed that I could sit still for so long, an impossibility in the weeks after she died.