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

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!

Learning to Fly

An adult Harris's hawk perches on a saguaro arm with its wings partially spread while two nestlings watch from the nest below along the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2019

Early on a June morning I was watching the two Harris’s hawk nestlings when an adult flew in with a twig clutched in its talons. It landed on one of the tallest arms of the saguaro and I expected it to drop down and spruce up the nest but instead it stayed on the arm with its wings partially spread. I couldn’t figure out what it was doing, if it was trying to maintain its balance in the breeze it would have spread them out fully and used its tail, instead it sat there with wings half-extended as it looked back and forth between the two nestlings (one is looking up between the saguaro arms on the right, the other is doing the same deep in shadow on the left).

And then, taking encouragement as the adult looked on, one of the nestlings flapped its wings and landed, if awkwardly, on a lower arm. The saguaro flowers and fruits give a little extra purchase away from the sharp spines, although they also attract bees. The other nestling flapped its wings at times but made no attempts to leave the nest. The next week the one nestling had fully fledged and was now exploring the desert near the nest while the second one was actively flying from arm to arm, soon I suspect to join its sibling below. It might have been slightly younger as its feathers seemed to come in slightly behind the other.

An adult Harris's hawk perches on a saguaro arm with its wings partially spread while looking down at a nestling that is landing on a saguaro arm as it learns to fly along the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2019

Father’s Day?

An adult Harris's hawk prepares to land at its nest in a saguaro, one leg outstretched to find purchase on a saguaro blossom while the other clutches twigs to spruce up the nest, as two nestlings watch near the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2019

I’ve never seen a bird not defend its nest so I couldn’t comprehend what I was seeing. With one Harris’s hawk on its nest in a saguaro, multiple other adults were perched nearby, in trees, on saguaros, on large electrical towers. They called out repeatedly but to my untrained eyes and ears it seemed like they were keeping in touch rather than warning to keep away.

What was I seeing? Perhaps what I needed to see, what I wished for rather than what was, with Ellie’s death still stinging. But in this case both as I learned later Harris’s hawks live in family groups, even during nesting season with new life about to come into the world.

A week ago after sunup this adult flew to the nest, one leg outstretched to find purchase on a saguaro blossom while the other clutched twigs to spruce up the nest, as the two nestlings watched from the nest (they’re hard to see). Was it the father arriving? The mother? A sibling?

This morning one of the young hawks was continuously jumping from one arm to the other, working on its balance and testing its wings. I didn’t see the other until it flew over and landed awkwardly in a palo verde below the nest, having already fledged.

What joy these hawks, this family, have brought to me this spring as they add two more to their number.

Life Ends, Life Begins

Two Harris's hawk nestlings peak out from their nest in a saguaro along the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

I woke up early the morning after Ellie died, trying to decide if I was going to go hiking or not, as while I knew the trails would help with the healing I didn’t know if I was ready quite yet. I expected there to be tears as I got ready but there were none but I knew that might not hold when I was out on the trails and alone with my thoughts. I decided to go to my favorite park and chose a short loop trail that I know well.

Sunrise was still a little ways off so I had the trail to myself and stopped at a banana yucca I wanted to photograph. But my thoughts weren’t focused enough for photography and I felt compelled to keep moving, so I picked up my tripod and continued on. It felt good to be in the desert in those wonderful moments as the night yields to the day, comforting, calming, but even so I had to keep moving. Further up the trail I noticed a large nest in a saguaro a ways off the trail. An adult Harris’s hawk was barely visible in the nest, sitting mostly in shadow as the sun rose behind me. It was the first time I had seen an active nest, normally I would have stayed longer but not on this morning, I just couldn’t stand still. Although it was hard to keep the tears at bay I did keep from breaking down.

Until I walked into the house, because for a moment I forgot she wouldn’t be there. I had gotten used to her not being at the door to greet me, she’d been deaf for a while and although she slept by the door I could usually sneak past her and put my things away so when she woke I could be there to help her get up. If she didn’t wake in those first few moments, she always did as I heated up a breakfast sandwich, a little routine I got into as a reward for getting some exercise in the morning. Ellie loved them and while she couldn’t eat them I’d always give her a little sliver of meat or cheese or egg as I finished it.

Even in a deep sleep you couldn’t get anything by that nose of hers.

I couldn’t eat my sandwich that morning, knowing she wouldn’t be watching me waiting for her little treat at the end, but I went hiking nearly every free morning afterwards, healing more each time. A month later when I hiked past the Harris’s hawk nest, with the sun about to rise, I set up the tripod and calmly waited for the light. Two furry heads, barely visible, peeked out from the top of the massive nest.

Welcome to the world, little ones.