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.

Calling Out

A rock squirrel calls out atop a large granite boulder near Granite Mountain in McDowell Sonoran Preserve

A rock squirrel calls out atop a large granite boulder near Granite Mountain. It had a piece of saguaro fruit but instead of eating it was sending out the alarm for much of the time I watched it during a food and water break. At first I thought it was complaining about me to the other nearby squirrels, even though I was far down the hill, but it kept looking in other directions and went quiet for a while before starting up again. It has lots of enemies in the desert, most of whom would not have been visible from my vantage point, but I haven’t spent much time with these squirrels yet to get a feel if it was sending out an alarm or claiming this spot as its own.

Under Tom’s Thumb

An environmental portrait of a rock squirrel between two massive granite rocks at Tom's Thumb in McDowell Sonoran Preserve

I met this rock squirrel back in April a few weeks after we moved here. One of the reasons I love a telephoto zoom like the 100-400mm lens so much (this is the Canon, I only got the Sony recently) is that you can zoom in and take a traditional portrait of a small animal far away, like the shot below, but you can zoom out and take an environmental portrait as well like the picture above (when the scenery allows it). In this case I vastly prefer the environmental portrait as you get a feel for the massive rock this squirrel is perching under. Given more time I would have preferred an ever wider perspective with a different lens to show that it was perched high off the ground between much more massive granite boulders above and below than you can see here, but the squirrel only paused for a moment as it ran up the rocks at the approach of a dog on the trail.

I was struck by how at ease this rock squirrel was in the rocks as it moved about the narrow passages and great heights as easily and gracefully as a tree squirrel in the trees. I was delighted to find both rock squirrels and Harris’s antelope squirrels in the desert as I had mistakenly surmised I was leaving squirrels behind when we left Oregon. I fell in love with chipmunks and squirrels at an early age, we had a forest behind our house as a child in Michigan, I can’t remember ever not loving them. They’re a rarer treat now than then, but a treasured treat always.

A rock squirrel between two massive granite rocks at Tom's Thumb in McDowell Sonoran Preserve

Rock Squirrel

A rock squirrel looks out from a crevice in the massive rock formation known as Tom's Thumb in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

A rock squirrel lives up to its name as it crawls along a crevice in the massive rock formation known as Tom’s Thumb in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. It had been at the base of the formation but crawled way up into the crevice when hikers with a dog approached. This is not a new species for me, we saw one during our visit to New Mexico a decade ago, but it is nice to be reunited. I owe a lot to that trip, not only because we had a great time but because it got me thinking about moving to the Southwest when looking for a job. I’ll eventually make it over to New Mexico but for now I’m focusing on trails near our home in Scottsdale.