Large Mercies

A cuve-billed thrasher swallows after feeding from a saguaro blossom on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2020

Even with a relatively long beak, come springtime curve-billed thrashers end up with faces covered in pollen courtesy of the massive flowers of the saguaro. Saguaros are many things, subtle is not one of them. I’m thankful for the mercy of these large flowers, because if they were carnivorous they could easily eat their fill of desert birds who thrust their entire heads into the blossoms (and later, fruit) to feed.

A cuve-billed thrasher sticks its head into a saguaro blossom on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2020

OCCUPIED! OCCUPIED!

A white-winged dove looks up from feeding from a saguaro blossom as another is about to land, taken on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2020

A white-winged dove looks up from feeding from a saguaro blossom as another is about to land. The incoming bird landed on the leftmost blossom so they were able share the perch for a while. I haven’t seen so many white-wings this year, to be fair I haven’t hiked as much this spring and summer and when I do it’s often on different trails, but we also aren’t seeing so many in the yard as last year. Which works out well for the mourning doves as in numbers the larger white-wings can push the smaller doves around but this year the white-wings are fairly subdued and it’s only the quail parents with babies whose wrath the doves have to avoid.

A Moment of Peace

A near silhouette of an adult Harris's hawk perched on the tallest arm of a fruiting saguaro on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2020

My hiking has fallen off dramatically the last six weeks as most days I’ve been too worn out to get up early. I managed it a couple weeks back and decided to photograph a pair of saguaros in the light of dawn and sunrise. Before I got that far up the trail I ran across a Harris’s hawk from the family I watched last year, so I stopped and played around with some near-silhouettes as it sat atop the fruiting arms. I decided not to press on to my original target as this saguaro is literally next to the trail and I wouldn’t be able to pass without spooking the bird. It felt like a form of sacrilege to disturb the tranquility of the desert dawn, so I whispered “Take as long as you like,” then laughed and added “only let’s not make it hours.” I stayed back but knew I could really only buy it minutes as I’m not the only one who loves this trail. Only no one else came by, leaving the two of us in the quiet, relative quiet, as we were joined by flycatchers and thrashers and woodpeckers and wrens, with small flocks of white-winged doves flying overhead and mourning doves cooing in the distance.

I didn’t get the picture I came for but what joy I received in return!

Legs Up, Hands On Hearts!

A wave begins to break over the body of the first harbor seal in a group at Cobble Beach in Yaquina Head Oustanding Natural Area in Newport, Oregon in October 2017

The rising tide brings waves that overwhelm the sleeping locations of the harbor seals, eventually sending them into the water. The bigger seals often held the ground that let them sleep the longest while the younger seals took the first brunt of the wave action. As each wave swept past, they’d raise their legs in unison, allowing the water to sweep over their bodies instead of knocking them into the sea, though in the end the water always wins.

I could spend hours watching the seals, relaxing on land or swimming in the sea, someday I’d love to spend more time in the area. A couple of years ago when it was time to choose between two job offers, the job in California would have put me relatively close to the coast with not just harbor seals but other mammals I haven’t seen before. If the cost of living had been swapped between the two locations perhaps we’d have gone on a different adventure, but thankfully the Sonoran Desert had its own wonders in store.

Harbor seals lift their legs as a wave breaks over them at Cobble Beach in Yaquina Head Oustanding Natural Area in Newport, Oregon in October 2017

A group of harbor seals lie with their legs raised after a wave swept past at Cobble Beach in Yaquina Head Oustanding Natural Area in Newport, Oregon in October 2017

There Are Yardbirds, and There Are Yardbirds

A juvenile Harris's hawk perches on a rooftop in the Troon area of Scottsdale, Arizona in Apri 2020

A young Harris’s hawk perches atop a house in our neighborhood in April. Last year I noticed all the yardbirds scatter in an instant when an adult landed on our back fence. Hopefully enough green space will remain that the hawks can stay as more and more of the area gets turned into subdivisions, as our neighborhood must have a couple of decades ago (we were settling into our lives in Oregon back then).

Hallelujah Arms

A battered old saguaro on the Morning Vista Trail has fruit atop its many remaining arms, while some of the other arms have been snapped in half or broken off altogether, taken in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2020

The rising sun illuminates a battered old saguaro, some of its arms shattered in half and some broken off altogether. But it still has a host of hallelujah arms raised towards heaven, all now fruiting and not just hopefully starting new life from its seeds but sustaining the lives of others with its fruit, a prized treat for many birds. In the picture below, taken just before the sun rose, a curve-billed thrasher feeds atop one of the taller arms.

A curve-billed thrasher feeds on fruit atop a battered old saguaro on the Morning Vista Trail, taken in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2020

In Death, Supporting Life

A lesser nighthawk perches on a dead buckhorn cholla on the 118th Street Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2020

Nighthawks were a new species for me when we moved to Arizona. I see them relatively often near the break of day, zooming about low to the ground in erratic flight like massive swallows. When sitting still they can be pretty hard to spot and usually I only manage it if see them land, as in this case when a dead cholla lended its support on a spring morning.

My Stomping Grounds

An environmental portrait of a cactus wren singing from the flower stalk of a soaptree yucca with mountains in the background in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2020

As the first light of day spills across the desert, a cactus wren sings from the flower stalk of a soaptree yucca as it makes the rounds of the high places. In between this patch of McDowell Sonoran Preserve and the mountains on the horizon are a host of subdivisions, including ours, I see the mountains on the left from the back porch. There are 5 (!) preserve trailheads near us and this is where I do most of my hiking, either in the massive northern area like this or down by the mountains. The preserve continues quite a ways to the south, those trails are great fun too (our second favorite house was at the southern end) but the northern part is my favorite.

High Holes

A male gilded flicker perches outside a hole near the top of a sagauro near Powerline Road No. 2 in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2020

If the Sonoran Desert was naught but saguaros and woodpeckers it would still be a delight. I didn’t think I’d have a shot at this gilded flicker, I was watching flycatchers when he flew up to a hole near the top of a saguaro. Given the angle to the sun he was in shadow but for a moment he leaned far enough left that the light fell upon his profile, showing his red mustache and the yellow wing linings for which he is named. They apparently prefer making nests near the top where the newer growth is softer, while the Gila woodpeckers have stronger beaks that give them more latitude in where they drill their holes. I’m not sure if this was his nest hole or not, he didn’t bring any food in his bill and only looked in briefly, he might have just been interested in the flowers blooming above his head. But it could be he was afraid to enter with me watching so I bid adieu and continued on.

The Cholla Calls

A cactus wren perches in a buckhorn cholla along Powerline Road No. 2 in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2020

Have I wandered too long in the desert heat? The cholla is talking to me. Not in quiet whispers but in bold boisterous calls, raising my spirits and quickening my pace, pulling me closer. So far I have not been drawn into its warm embrace, so far, so far.