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.
I met this lovely little fellow back in June on some of the nice new trails at the Pima Dynamite Trailhead in McDowell Sonoran Preserve. While I can’t quite say I love the summer heat, I love how it warms the pool for an after-hike swim, and more than anything I love how it draws out my friends from their hiding places in the rocks. Until we meet again little ones, stay safe, stay warm.
In May I met this young red-tailed hawk on one of the off-map trails in the Pima Dynamite area, it was still growing in confidence if not in size. Its movements were still a little unsure, here flaring out its wings slightly to maintain its balance atop the flower buds of the saguaro. It kept its head on a swivel, looking at not just its nearby sibling but listening further off for the parents that were keeping in touch vocally (and perhaps visually, they had a taller vantage point than I). The yellow in its legs and beak was quite pale but it had already accomplished much by growing to this size, as babies even the top predators are vulnerable to other predators such as the great horned owls I saw on the previous hike and heard hooting that morning.
By now it will be an old hand at flying about the desert even if still wearing its juvenile plumage. I turned around at this point as its sibling was on a saguaro right next to the trail and I didn’t want to disturb them, they had enough on their minds, enough to learn about their desert home. I can sympathize.
A male Gila woodpecker prepares to leave the nest as his partner brings a spider for their hungry children inside the saguaro. Both parents excavate the nest cavity, the cactus will slowly harden the inside to prevent water loss and it is only then that the woodpeckers can use the cavity as a nest. You can see how much of the surrounding surface of the saguaro has been scraped away as they created their home and now land over and over again.
When I saw this loggerhead shrike on an off-map trail near Granite Mountain I assumed it was my first one in Arizona but not my first one ever, having seen them in Washington. Except I hadn’t, when I got home and checked my notes I realized the shrikes in Washington were northern shrikes so this was both my second shrike and a new species for me. In my defense I rarely saw shrikes there or here.
A female Gila woodpecker brings a moth to the nest as the male prepares to leave (the moth was for the hungry babies inside). The parents brought a variety of insects (and spiders, as she has in her beak below) to their nest in the old saguaro. The male seemed to spend more time in the nest and the female more time hunting during the mornings I watched them. It required a bit of a hike to get to the nest so I couldn’t get there right at first light but it was a treat to watch them nevertheless. I will always be amazed by the relentless energy parents spend getting their babies past those precarious early days.
I also have a 4K clip of them at the nest which I’ll learn to edit at some point and post here. Both pictures are from this spring after we had been in Arizona for about six weeks.
The classic image of the saguaro is of arms lifted towards the sky, and many do grow that way, but the arms may twist and turn in all directions, even growing down, like this splendid old example along one of the off-map trails at Brown’s Ranch. I especially liked the unusual ones when we moved here as I could remember them and they helped orient me on a web of trails winding through an unfamiliar environment.
Hiking in the desert feels both normal and unfamiliar. I know so much more about this unique environment than when we moved here but I have so much more to learn. As I hike the trails I’m well aware that the animals are living their lives perhaps not far from where I’m walking but even for those within my sight I wonder how many I actually see. I’m still developing eyes for the desert.
I am making progress, each hike is an opportunity both to look and to see. While taking a water break near the Amphitheater I spotted what I thought might be a lizard in the scrub and walked closer with my camera, almost turning around on a couple of occasions when I became convinced it must be a stick or bit of dried cactus. Thankfully I kept going and discovered this lovely zebra-tailed lizard. It happened again this morning, out on the Rustler Trail I thought I saw another zebra-tail in the middle of the trail so I slowed my approach, but repeatedly doubted myself until I was close enough to remove all doubt.
Sometimes though I think I could live here for decades and still not see what lies before me. The only reason I saw the lesser nighthawk below was that I stopped for a water break and it flew towards a nearby rock before seeing me and settling down further off on this fallen tree, hidden in plain sight. I’ve seen them flying low over the desert numerous times but I now wonder how many I’ve passed that were settled in for the morning.
I hoped for this picture since I first learned that woodpeckers like the Gila woodpecker make their nests in cavities they drill into saguaros. I wasn’t sure how frequent a sight it would be until we moved here and thankfully I had the chance to watch a couple of different Gila woodpecker families this spring. This male and its mate made their hole facing the rising sun but it was a bit too long of a hike to get there right at sunrise. But I spent several early mornings watching in amazement as they brought an endless stream of insects and spiders to the nest.
This saguaro offered up a bouquet of flowers near sunrise on Mother’s Day. I had hopes of photographing it again with all the flowers open but by the time I could return the following Saturday, all of the blossoms were gone and I learned another fact about my new home. The flowers only last about a day, first opening at night to attract bats with their nectar and closing the following afternoon after the bees and birds have had their fill. If pollinated during that short window, the fruit below will develop during the summer.