Morning on the Latigo

A near-silhouette of a juvenile Harris's hawk perched in a large ocotillo on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2020

An old ocotillo, giant, sprawling. A young Harris’s hawk, calling, listening. An unseen family, listening, answering. A blue and pink sky, the sun will come, the sun will come. All is quiet save the birds, morning on the Latigo.

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.

The White Rump

A male gilded flicker perches on an ocotillo in June 2019, showing off hsi white rump and red mustache and a hint of the yellow beneath his wings, taken on the Latigo Trail in the Pima Dynamite area of McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

I frequently see both gilded flickers and Gila woodpeckers flying through the desert, the easiest way I distinguish the two woodpeckers in flight is to look for where the white is, flickers with their white rumps and Gilas with their white wing patches. With a closer look you can see not only his glorious red mustache but also a hint of the yellow ‘gilding’ under his wings that gives these birds their names. This lovely fellow perching on an ocotillo was feeding one of his hungry and noisy youngsters beside the Latigo Trail in the Pima Dynamite area of McDowell Sonoran Preserve. I hung back as they moved up the trail ahead of me as I didn’t want the young one to miss a meal.


My Tom Bihn Guide's Pack backpack with my tripod underneath sits on quartz rocks on the Quartz Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

A week ago I went to a trail near what I expected was going to be my second choice in houses to help cement my opinion. I went further than I’ve gone before, continuing on to the Quartz Trail and wandering up to this outcropping of quartz that looks out over Scottsdale. I had a fun morning and confirmed the other house was my first choice but also that I’d be happy living in the second if we didn’t get the first.

Disappearing Act

A white-winged dove perches on an ocotillo starting to leaf out after the summer rains in McDowell Sonoran Preserve

This ocotillo had just started leafing out in the middle of July with the arrival of summer thunderstorms in the Sonoran Desert. The white-winged dove perched in the morning light is one of thousands I have seen, they are not only the bird I see most in our backyard but out in the desert as well, never more so when seemingly one or two or three were atop every saguaro as they devoured the ripening fruit. But after a self-imposed two week ban to allow a knee to heal, I returned to the trails twice last weekend and didn’t see a single one. Not one!

From what I’ve read, the white-wings arrived in the desert about the time I did and will be leaving this fall. So I suppose in a month or so they will be gone from our backyard as well. The smaller mourning doves and much smaller Inca doves will appreciate it, the larger white-wings are more aggressive, but our cats and I will miss them.

Gilded Thorns

A male gilded flicker perches on an ocotillo along the Hackamore Trail in the Brown's Ranch section of McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

When we moved to Arizona the two birds I hoped to see above all others were both woodpeckers, the Gila woodpecker and the gilded flicker. My interest was piqued early on when we were looking at houses online and I noticed what looked like bird holes in a large saguaro in front of one of the houses and a little research revealed the likely culprits. Woodpeckers are one of my favorite birds, a love born in childhood in our wooded Michigan backyard, a love that never ended even when my daily exposure to them did.

I was delighted to arrive here and not only see both woodpeckers but see them frequently, even in our backyard. My first gilded flicker sighting was in our backyard but I met this male on this morning’s hike on the Hackamore Trail, one of the many interconnected trails in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. Although I mostly see the woodpeckers on the saguaros where they live, he was perching on the branch of an ocotillo, a beautiful and distinctive plant covered in sharp thorns.