Many years ago in Oregon I was reading about someone who visited one of the American deserts and so fell in love they moved there and never left, and I thought “How do you fall in love with sand?” I wonder how much of my photography in the desert is a love letter to that past self, gently poking fun at his complete and utter ignorance of the desert but also deeply thankful that when it became apparent he was going to have to leave the place he never wanted to leave, he kept an open mind and found not just a new home but a new love.
This trail is in not just my favorite part of the preserve but one of my favorite places anywhere. In December 2021 I was taking environmental portraits of phainopepla and as sometimes happens, took my favorite late in the day while hiking out. I saw the male atop a crucifixion thorn in front of the Four Peaks, the late light starting to cloak them in their purple mountains majesty, near an old saguaro replete with woodpecker holes, and couldn’t resist a quick shot before continuing towards my exit.
I wasn’t ready for summer to end but a consolation prize was the arrival of one of my favorite winter residents, phainopepla. This female turned the blue skies a little gray, in a happy way, as these cheery red-eyed flycatchers are frequent companions on hikes and dog walks.
This is what a female phainopepla looks like on our more typical sunny desert days. I heard her cheerful cheeps from the backside of a tree as the trail wound its way up a small hill but I was headed to a particular spot and wasn’t going to try for a photograph. But as she flitted about she hopped onto this ready-made perch right as I approached so I couldn’t resist a quick picture of one of my favorite birds.
On-again, off-again rain showers left this phainopepla feeling a little bedraggled as she preened her damp feathers to get them back into their normal glorious shape, here gently rubbing her crest on the branch. She was her normal chipper self even if the wet weather seemed to have thrown her a little off her game. I wonder how she felt the next day when it snowed.
Is there a job where you can photograph phainopepla and saguaros all day?
Since we moved to Arizona I’ve been fascinated by the moment when light first sweeps across the desert or, as in this case, the light suddenly falls away. There was a particular cactus I wanted to photograph at last light but I was delayed watching a sparrow and a family of hawks. I had to laugh as I hurried down the wide trail, seeing something I wanted to photograph and the light disappearing before I could get the camera to my eye. I was able to get this environmental portrait of a phainopepla before the light disappeared from all but the mountains, a shot that pokes gentle fun at my misunderstanding of what the desert here was like, thinking it was just sand and an occasional cactus. But also a show of gratitude that I researched the area when an opportunity appeared here at the last minute, and for a park dense with vegetation and wildlife that drew me in and didn’t let go.
Phainopepla have been back for a while now and are one of the birds I see most on the trails I’ve been hiking recently. The charming flycatchers are a delight and take some of the sting out of the arrival of cooler temperatures and the disappearance of reptiles. I liked the flow of the dead tree branches as this male preened on a warm November morning but was even happier when I realized I could sidle down the trail a few steps and put the tall arms of a saguaro in the background to give the scene more context.
Our winter skies are brightened by the dark forms of phainopepla, I love walking down the trails and hearing their quiet voices from the other side of trees. This one is from an early December morning on the Marcus Landslide Trail, I haven’t been hiking in about six weeks (!!!), partially from wanting to minimize exposure to others and partially from being exhausted. I’d like to try some of the wider and less popular trails as it would be beneficial mentally and physically but we’ll see how tomorrow goes. So far the weekend has been a lot of curling up for naps with the cats before yard work in the evenings.
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.
The name “Phainopepla” (pronounced fay-no-PEP-la) comes from the Greek for “shining robe,” a fitting characterization of the shiny black plumage of the males, at least on a sunny day. However on this overcast morning last December the soft diffuse light showed off the details in his feathers. They’ve been gone all summer but I gather will be back in the next month or so. We didn’t see them at the rental house but will see them here, though this lovely fellow was on the nearby Marcus Landslide Trail.