Rain, Finally Rain

Large water drops sit on the leaves of an ocotillo in our backyard in Scottsdale, Arizona on July 23, 2021. Original: _RAC4236.arw

Thursday night a monsoon storm brought thunder and lightning and buckets of rain in a short period of time, while I prefer the Oregon rains that spread out a year’s worth of rainfall over hundreds of days rather than a few hours, I can’t complain as the desert desperately needs the water. Less intense thunderstorms arrived on Friday, since I was off work I was able to grab my macro lens to photograph a scene I had envisioned for a while but hadn’t been able to capture, large water drops collecting on the leaves of an ocotillo. The thunderstorms diminished as the weekend progressed but showers continued on and off through Sunday, giving me several days of joy out in the rain photographing plants around the yard.

The fun ended Sunday evening when the focusing unit of my Canon macro lens at long last gave up the ghost, I hoped it was a momentary glitch but sadly that does not appear to be the case. It was a few months shy of 22 years old as I bought it in November 1999 for $580, what fun we’ve had over the years! I have no idea what I’ll do for a replacement, modern lenses have a number of features I’d like that my old lens didn’t, but it’s the cameras that give me pause. Sony doesn’t have focus bracketing in their cameras but it would be so useful for the things I shoot I might add another system just to get it, but we’ll see.


A male house sparrow holds leaves and fur in his beak as he perches on a leafy branch of an ocotillo in Scottsdale, Arizona on April 11, 2021. Original: _RAC6982.arw

I’ve not seen a house sparrow in the local desert but they are neighborhood residents, judging by the leaves and fur in this male’s beak I imagine he’s building a nest nearby. We may not be contributing to nesting materials here but I like to think a great many birds in our Irvington neighborhood in Portland grew up in the luxury of a fur-lined nest courtesy of a black lab who seemed to shed her weight in fur each week.


A curve-billed thrasher perches on a leafy branch of a flowering ocotillo in Scottsdale, Arizona on April 11, 2021. Original: _RAC7013.arw

We left blue jays behind when we moved to Oregon but gained scrub jays and the occasional Steller’s jay. The large gregarious birds were a favorite of our cat Emma who would chirp to me from her perch in my office to let me know who was visiting our backyard, crows and flickers also being favorites. In Arizona we have another noisy neighbor I think she would have loved, here sitting in a flowering ocotillo on a warm spring morning. I saw a number of curve-billed thrashers on my walk last weekend in addition to this one, one pair was already feeding hungry babies in a nest in the arms of a saguaro.

A True Ninja Can Hide Even in an Orange Jacket

A self-portrait wearing a bright orange jacket while sitting in front of a copse of ocotillos on an off-map trail in the Pima Dynamite section of McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on December 26, 2020. Original: _CAM8203.arw

A couple of days ago I visited my favorite copse of ocotillos at sunrise, when I realized they were going to be partly in shadow for a while I started goofing around with self-portraits. The jacket is a holdover from my time in Portland where I was frequently a pedestrian, I have a small army of jackets and hoodies in bright orange to make me more visible. On this morning it was a little cool and windy so I put up the hood of my wool hoody to take the chill off. I have a wool cap on underneath, I’ve never liked the cold but after a couple of years in the desert I’ve lost any tolerance of it. The mask didn’t go unappreciated not just for a little warmth, and not just because I didn’t need to smile for the camera, but because it hid the tears streaming down my cheeks from being up so early.

I can’t tell the story of the Sonoran Desert, only my time in it. I’d love to revisit this shot when the ocotillos leaf out or bloom but this is their normal state, bare arms soaring into blue skies, and I hope in some sense it shows how beautiful the desert is even when it’s not trying to be spectacular.

A self-portrait wearing a bright orange jacket while standing in front of a copse of ocotillos on an off-map trail in the Pima Dynamite section of McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on December 26, 2020. Original: _CAM8233.arw

For this shot I put myself at the edge of the large flat boulder, the plants are growing between this one and the next, so I could be as close as possible to the same plane as the two ocotillos in front to give some context as to their size. All of which is to say no optical tricks, they get pretty big.

Not So Serene

A female American kestrel perches atop an ocotillo right after sunset on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on November 26, 2020. Original: _RAC8875.arw

I timed my hike on Thanksgiving afternoon so I’d arrive right at closing at the neighborhood entrance where my wife was picking me up. The sun set a handful of minutes before closing, the trailhead a handful of minutes away, when I spotted a kestrel in a large ocotillo next to the trail. I first thought to photograph her in silhouette but the northern sky was already dark enough that I could brighten the exposure and leave the picture a little dark and blue, a nod to the quiet moment when the day begins to yield. I fired off four quick shots with the self timer and hoped for the best as the scene was not so serene for her, her head swiveling around to keep an eye on the two Gila woodpeckers below who were absolutely giving her the business. I’ve seen her and her mate around before, and I suspect the woodpeckers may be the pair who were nesting in an adjacent saguaro this spring, so this neighborhood squabble may not be the first of its kind. I had to continue on to make my target but thankfully one of the pictures of the lovely little falcon turned out as I hoped.

Desert Flora

A view at sunset of some of the larger plants of the Sonoran Desert, looking towards Granite Mountain from the Latigo Trail on October 17, 2020. Original: _CAM5616.arw

A view at sunset of some of the larger plants of the Sonoran Desert, looking towards Granite Mountain. I assumed the trails would be packed in the evenings but went since I haven’t been able to get out much in the mornings and to my surprise saw almost no one. Perhaps it’s a quirk of timing where it was still hot in the evenings but not dangerously so, maybe now that it is cooling off it will be more crowded.

Purple Crown

A male Costa's hummingbird head flashes purple as he looks in my direction in the Troon neighborhood of Scottsdale, Arizona in February 2020. Original: _RAC3253.arw

A Costa’s hummingbird shows off his purple crown on a winter morning. The color is based on the way the light falls upon the feathers, not pigment, so when he had his head turned his crown appeared black (as the rest of his face and throat does here, but they will light up too if the light is at the right angle).

The Neighborhood

A cactus wren sings from a blooming and leafing ocotillo in the Troon neighborhood of Scottsdale, Arizona in March 2020

The sun was rising, the ocotillo blooming, the cactus wrens singing, on a morning walk in the neighborhood last weekend. On my afternoon walk I saw a bobcat working its way down the hill. At night I heard a noise and for a second assumed it was one of the cats except they were all sleeping on me. I looked out the window to see a javelina rooting around in the yard. Lovely neighbors abound.

Blooming Ocotillos

An ash-throated flycatcher perches on the tip of a blooming ocotillo on the Latigo Trail in the Pima Dynamite area of McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2019

When we first moved to Arizona I instantly fell in love with ocotillos, their long thin arms spiraling into the sky. Their tips usually bloom with an explosion of reds and yellows and oranges although sometimes it’s a more subtle mix of browns and grays and whites with a splash of rufous.