Red Eyed Lady of the Lowlands

A female phainopepla perches on a curved branch on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on November 28, 2020. Original: _RAC9951.arw

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.

I Feel You, Sister

A phainopepla rubs her damp head feathers on a branch on the interpretative trail in the Fraesfield area of McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on January 24, 2021. Original: _RAC3738.arw

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.

Fleeting

An environmental portrait of a phainopepla perched in a tree at sunset on the 118th Street Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on November 26, 2020. Original: _RAC8869.arw

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.

Look Who’s Back!

A male phainopepla perches on a dead tree with the arms of a saguaro visible in the background on the 118th Street Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on November 22, 2020. Original: _RAC8600.arw

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.

Winter Bright

A male phainopepla perches in a tree early on a winter morning on the Marcus Landslide Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in December 2019

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.

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.

Shining Robes

A male phainopepla perches on a thorny tree with his crest extended on a cloudy morning on the Marcus Landslide Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in Decmeber 2018

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.

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.