My How You’ve Grown

A close view of a Harris's hawk juvenile looking to my right while perched in a tree, taken from Brown's Ranch Road in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in December 2019

A week ago as I neared the end of my loop hike, walking down a popular trail, I was stunned to see both Harris’s hawk juveniles close by. This one especially so, the other a bit further back in a palo verde. A couple of the adults were a ways behind me on a transmission tower where the two youngsters eventually joined them. Such a treat to see them so close after watching them so long! Of course they got so big by eating some of my favorite creatures of the desert, such is life in our world. The young fliers are much more confident in their movements now although they have much to learn as they enter their first winter.


A juvenile Harris's hawk calls out while an adult is perched higher in the tree, set against the backdrop of a variety of plants of the Sonoran Desert with saguaros rising up behind, taken on the 118th Street Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in October 2019

One of my favorite pictures this year, taken early in the morning in October looking west from a frequently-hiked trail near our house. It speaks to the misconceptions I used to have about this area and how surprised I was to learn there is so much diverse life here. There are the twisting trees, the yuccas with their flower stalks reaching towards the sky, the green-barked palo verdes, the yearning ocotillos, and above all the saguaros. Topping it off are two members of the Harris’s hawk family that so charmed me this year, an adult perched in the bare branches of the tree in the upper left and a juvenile down below, calling out to the rest of the family who must have been on the other side of the hill. The adult eventually flew off in that direction and the juvenile took its spot high in the tree before following the adult out of sight. How lucky I am to be in their, and my, home.

It’s Starting To Look a Lot Like Christmas

A cactus wren perches atop a saguaro with its beak stuffed full of the soft white material that grows on new growth at the base of the spines, particles of the white material streaming behind it, on the Cholla Mountain Loop Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in November 2019

I don’t normally associate the word ‘soft’ with saguaros but they do have this soft white material on new growth where the spines develop. A few weeks ago this cactus wren gleefully ripped out as much as it could carry in its beak before flying off, only to return for more. Normally I would assume it was looking for soft material to line its nest but at this time of year it must be that the male cardinals dress up as Santa Claus for Christmas and the wrens do their part by gathering material for the long white beards. This desert does know how to put on a show!


A curve-billed thrasher looks down as it perches atop a chain fruit cholla on the Rock Knob Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizon in November 2019

On Sunday a heavy cloud bank in the east snuffed out the sunrise but as I made my way back up the trail I was delighted when the sun poked through with such soft, diffuse light that it revealed every detail in the feathers of the birds and the spines of the cholla. I turned around and commanded the sun and clouds to hold their position for the next hour, just in case I had been granted the power of omnipotence without my knowing. Sadly I had not, though there’s always tomorrow. I was able to watch as the thrashers chased each other through the cholla, the black-throated sparrows chittered about, three cottontails poked in and out of the desert scrub, and sight unseen Gambel’s quail and Gila woodpeckers sang the Sonoran song. Just another magical morning in the desert.

The Song Disruptor

A northern mockingbird sings in the reddish light of sunrise atop a rock on the Marcus Landslide Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2019

Back in June I woke up early before work so I went out for a short hike, spending the morning the way I had the previous two mornings, watching a mockingbird dance and sing as the sun rose. The previous day a curve-billed thrasher had flown in and the mocker stayed out of sight for a while, but on this morning I got a picture of it singing right as the first light arrived. But then almost on cue the thrasher flew in, dried saguaro fruit clinging to its beak, and the mocker yielded. I noticed the previous morning that although it would lay low for a while whenever the thrasher flew in, eventually it would always come back to dance and sing, but on this morning work waited so I could not.

A curve-billed thrasher perches atop a rock, dried saguaro fruit clinging to its beak, in the reddish light of sunrise on the Marcus Landslide Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2019

The Less Early Bird Gets the Early Bird

A male Gila woodpecker perches on a dead tree branch near the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in November 2019

Last night I turned off my alarm as I wanted to get as much sleep as I could, naturally waking half an hour later than I would normally get up to hike. However with trails so close by I was able to roll out of bed and grab my hiking gear and still make it to the trailhead right around sunrise. I took an easy trail, one of my favorites, but despite seeing a number of birds couldn’t manage any pictures. Some days are like that, and it’s fine as it’s just nice to be out. But then this gorgeous Gila woodpecker posed for me on a dead tree branch, even hopping up a little into a more photogenic location, and the smile on my face got even wider.

Fall Back

A male phainopepla perches in a tree on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in October 2019

The reptiles may be gone, but look who’s back! I met this male phainopepla in October on the Latigo Trail, I’ve seen them frequently on my recent hikes though usually not so close. They remind me of cardinals, another desert bird, but having traded red feathers and black eyes for black feathers and red eyes while keeping the distinctive crest. The bills tell a different story, however, as phainopepla have the thin bills of flycatchers while cardinals have the thick bill of finches.