The Morning Surprises

A gambel's quail sings, silhouetted against a blue sky, early on a spring morning near the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

I first visited Brown’s Ranch a month after we moved to Arizona last year and fell in love immediately. One of the things I liked about our new house was its close proximity to some of my favorite local trailheads, Brown’s Ranch included. I haven’t been much since the fall, only visiting on Christmas and New Year’s Eve, at first because I was exploring another area (also near the house) and then because I was concentrating on trails near some of the other houses we were considering.

While I haven’t had much time and/or energy for hiking lately I was up for an easy hike last weekend so I begrudgingly got up before sunrise and made the short drive to Brown’s Ranch. A cardinal serenaded me before I stepped out of the car and I could hear the calls of Gambel’s quail and mourning doves and cactus wrens all around. I thought about how much I had learned in my year here, how much more these sights and sounds are familiar to me now, as I grabbed my camera and headed to the Jane Rau Trail, a short little loop trail near the trailhead and the first trail I hiked at Brown’s Ranch last year.

A gambel's quail sings, silhouetted against an orange sky, early on a spring morning near the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

I then headed down the Latigo Trail, despite my low energy levels I was so happy to be back that I almost felt like running. I didn’t, however, feel much like taking pictures, a feeling I get sometimes where I almost put the camera away. I usually keep the camera out but there is a mental shift where I don’t worry so much about photography. Sometimes though the animals pull me back in, as they did on this morning. It started with a Gambel’s quail in the trees, silhouetted against the morning sky, I took a quick picture against the blue sky before moving further on and taking another against the orange sky.

An ash-throated flycatcher perches at the edge of a tree limb early on a spring morning along the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

A mourning dove shows off the distinctive black spots running down its wings early on a spring morning along the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

As the sun rose I spotted an ash-throated flycatcher and couldn’t help but stop for some pictures. It didn’t stay long as a couple of mourning doves flew into the tree and scared it off, so I photographed one of them instead. They were out in abundance, I imagine the white-winged doves will be back in numbers soon and the smaller mourning doves will get moved a step down the pecking order. Beside the trail the banana yuccas were budding and blooming, a sight I hadn’t seen before, and I thought I could spend a lifetime photographing them in their various stages, each beautiful in its own way, but I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to photograph them on this morning.

A close-up view of a rock squirrel perching in the rocks early one morning along the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

But when I saw a familiar shape in the rocks, bathed in the lovely morning light, I eagerly setup my camera beside the trail to photograph what I initially assumed was an antelope squirrel but which I quickly realized was the larger rock squirrel. I had seen them before but usually from a distance, only once getting a close look up at Tom’s Thumb. This one though posed for me in its rock home and now in more of a photographic mood I photographed it with different focal lengths, including wide and medium shots and this full on close-up.

A great horned owl perches in a palo verde near the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

Further up the trail I stopped when I thought I saw a hawk on a distant saguaro, but when I lifted the telephoto lens to my eye to get a better look I realized it was a great horned owl, my first owl in Arizona. It flew a little closer as an American kestrel hassled it from above and landed in this foothill palo verde. It occasionally cast its eyes over towards where the rock squirrel was but it didn’t seem too interested in hunting.

A mourning dove pauses while preening atop a large rock as the breeze picks up and ruffles its feathers on a spring morning along the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

I continued up the trail a bit but didn’t go too far, I was tired and while there are times it’s good to push yourself, this morning didn’t feel like one of them. As I headed back I did see a couple of genuine hawks on a large saguaro, a pair of Harris’s hawks that I suppose will be nesting soon. A grasshopper accidentally impaled itself on a buckhorn cholla and I thought my hike might end on a sad note but then I saw a mourning dove preening from a rock above as the breeze rustled its feathers.

Despite not seeing any reptiles it was a quick reminder of why I love this place as I saw so much beauty in so short a time. Soon enough I did get to see a reptile as when I got home a spiny lizard was doing pushups in a tree behind the house, it was too bright for pictures but hopefully he and I will meet again. And hopefully so too the rock squirrel, if it survives the owls and the hawks and the snakes and …

Lair of the Rock Squirrel

A rock squirrel peeks out from the rocks it calls home along the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

A rock squirrel peeks out from the rocks it calls home. A great horned owl was nearby, itself being harassed by an American kestrel, perhaps it got too close to her nest. A little later I saw a grasshopper fly off and impale itself on a buckhorn cholla. Life isn’t easy in the desert, even in a lovely spring.

Welcome to the Neighborhood

A male northern cardinal sings from a tree on a March afternoon in Scottsdale, Arizona

I keep a spreadsheet of what animals I see each month not only in the parks I visit but in places I’ve lived. During our 16 years in the urban neighborhood of our Portland house I recorded 10 bird species for the month of March. In a few days at our new house in Scottsdale I’ve seen 13! Including this lovely male cardinal who sang to me on the day the mover’s arrived with our belongings. He serenaded Ellie and I this morning as we relaxed on the back porch. Verdin were building a nest in the buckhorn cholla in the common area below the house. Lesser goldfinches flitted about, curve-billed thrashers called out. A pair of Gambel’s quail fed near the house as Sam and Trixie watched eagerly from the windows. Phainopepla, mourning doves, house finches, house sparrows, gila woodpeckers, a pair of Harris’s hawks soaring overhead. I stood dumbfounded watching a robin, a bird I’ve known from everywhere I’ve lived but had no idea lived in Arizona. Yesterday on my first commute home from a work a roadrunner darted across the road (with no coyote in hot pursuit).

With all these birds so close at hand I may not go hiking anymore! (Just kidding)

A New Backyard Bird

A male phainopepla perches on a tree on a sunny winter morning along the Marcus Landslide Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

The first bird I saw from the backyard of the new house was a male phainopepla, sitting in a tree in a narrow wash beside our yard. That’s a new one for me, I’ve seen quite a few birds in the backyard of our rental house but until now the phainopepla I had only seen on the trails. I saw this male on the Marcus Landslide Trail where they were numerous this winter, I haven’t been back recently but will soon as the trailhead is only a 10 minute drive from the new house.