One of my great joys this spring was to go to a local park on weekend evenings and watch a pair of gilded flickers raise their family in a nest near the top of an old saguaro. I’ve shared some of those pictures before and have more I haven’t sorted yet, but one of my favorites is the last one I took. Earlier in the weekend as I scouted for antelope squirrels lower in the park I heard a flicker calling out constantly and worried something had gone wrong and one of the adults was alarmed, but when I made my way to the nest I realized the last remaining youngster had found its full flicker voice and was putting it to good use.
It was as close to fledging as it could be, often hanging out of the nest hole and even leaning down occasionally to shoot out its long tongue (I’m presuming ants were climbing up the cactus as they are a favored food). It was happy enough to take feedings from its parents but after the sun set and I prepared to leave, I wondered if the Germans had a word for the feeling that as much as you had loved watching a flicker grow up, you hoped not to see it again. Not that I wouldn’t technically see it, just that I wouldn’t know I had, as I knew I wouldn’t be able to get back until the next weekend and something would have gone wrong for it not to have left the nest by then.
I took one last photo, though I had taken one just like it after the sun set the day before, and whispered let’s not meet here again. As I arrived the following weekend I was both happy and sad to walk up the trail and not hear the familiar voice, to see the nest hole emptied of a bird on the precipice of leaving the comfortable world it had known to join the fuller world that awaited, and hoped it would have a wonderful life.
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.
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.
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).
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!
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.
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.
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.