I’ve been in the mood for environmental portraits the past couple of years but I still love a simple portrait, in this case a cactus wren perched on an old ocotillo. The ocotillo is sometimes mistaken for a cactus as the spiraling arms are often covered in spines, but unlike a cactus they grow out of the stem rather than an areole. The cactus wren is our state bird and I was going to say our noisiest bird but the Gila woodpeckers might have a word or two to say about that …
Escaping the Shadows
A piece of public art known as Mountain Climber hangs outside our local firehouse at the entrance to Cavalliere Park. Donated to the city by Flip Weber, the steel sculpture was created by artist Alan “Dale” Wright, who interestingly grew up in my beloved Portland before later arriving in Scottsdale.
I’ve been meaning to photograph the sculpture since I first saw it but it’s taken me a while, and even once I went to the park specifically to photograph it I had to come back for a second try as the dinky tripod plate I had been temporarily using on the Nikon came loose and I didn’t like my handheld shots too much. I took a close shot too but I prefer this one, taken late in the day right before the sun got blocked by the mountains. The higher parts of the park were still lit so I wandered up for a little hike and some nature photography.
I’ve since ordered a proper L-bracket for the camera. It was the second time the little bracket had come loose, I’m a slow learner but I can learn.
The Mocking Bird
I keep track of what animals I see in the parks but I’m not too religious about it, I mostly just pay attention to the animals that are close so a proper wildlife watcher would come away from the same visit with a much larger list. I’ve seen mockers in the local preserve every month except September, so I was hoping to spot one on recent hikes but had no luck. Yet in the first week of October as I headed out of the park, the light a ridiculous red from the setting sun, there sat a patient mocker in this gorgeous old ocotillo, just begging to be photographed.
Of Wax & Wood
The tendrils at the base of this old ocotillo reminded me of ornate candles with wax dripping down the side, with the exposed root more like a bleached and broken branch from a fallen tree than a life-giving support to a spiraling giant. If I ever learn to draw or paint this kind of scene is one I’d like to do over and over in different ways, I love the colors and textures and the way beauty seems to have burst out of a shell no longer able to contain it.
A Little Red-Faced
First light on the Hawknest Trail revealed a young white-winged dove that was a little red-faced, courtesy of the saguaro fruit juice that stained its beak and the tip of its face. It was mid-July so there wasn’t much fruit left on the old giants but the plucky youngster seemed to have found some before perching on the ocotillo to preen its feathers. With its cleaning regimen complete followed by a few beak swipes on the ocotillo stem, it flew off to a nearby saguaro and chased off the adult that was feeding there.
Rain, Finally Rain
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.
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.
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 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.
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
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.