Great Scott’s!

A male Scott's oriole sings from his perch atop the flower buds of a saguaro on the Rustler Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on May 2, 2021. Original: _RAC8508.arw

Last weekend I stopped at the end of the Rustler Trail for a water break, trying to decide which way to meander on the network of trails, when an oriole flew into the ocotillo in front of me to feed from its flowers. Caught flat-footed holding a water bottle I didn’t want to make any sudden moves towards the camera, we both needed refreshment, but I did get a chance for pictures when he flew off to a distant saguaro and sang to me from the flower buds before disappearing down the trail.

I made a mental note to add Bullock’s oriole to my bird list for the day even though I was surprised his plumage was so yellow. It was only when I got home and looked at the pictures that I had a little laugh at myself when I noticed his head and shoulders were solid black and, while clearly an oriole, he looked nothing like a Bullock’s. In my defense I had gotten up two days in a row for a sunrise hike, the first time this year, so the old gray cells were not in finest form.

I fired up Sibley’s on the iPad and discovered my friend was a Scott’s oriole, a new species for me and thus a new species in my attempt to photograph every animal of the Sonoran Desert atop a saguaro (though I have to say, the mammals aren’t cooperating).

I ended up hiking the Upper Ranch Trail to the Rustler Trail to the Latigo Trail to the Hackamore Trail to the Tarantula Trail to the West Express Trail, returning via the Hackamore Trail to Cone Mountain Trail to Upper Ranch Trail. It was my first time on the West Express, there are formal trails in this part of the preserve now instead of the temporary off-map trails that were there before.

A Common Sight

A mourning dove perches on a log beside the Rustler Trail early in the morning in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2019

It sometimes still surprises me to see mourning doves out in the middle of the desert, even though they are one of the most common native birds in the States. They are year-round residents and also common visitors to our backyard. They are fairly skittish so I see them a lot more than I photograph them, but this one on the Rustler Trail posed early on a spring morning.

I Did Not Eat My Hat

A desert spiny lizard perches on a granite rock along the Rustler Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

I like to think I’m a man of my word but I suppose we all have our limits. Last weekend I hiked out to Balanced Rock for the second time and after taking some pictures noticed in the distance the head of a spiny lizard sticking out from a rock, much like this desert spiny lizard on the Rustler Trail. It was far off and in the shadows but seeing the shape and that the head was darker than the surrounding granite I thought “If that isn’t a spiny lizard I’ll eat my hat.”

I lifted the telephoto lens to my eye to be sure. It wasn’t a spiny lizard. I tell you, the granite can be cruel.

But I didn’t eat my hat.

This spiny lizard is the same as in the linked picture but from the other side of the rock and in different lighting. The granite was in a kinder mood.

The Valley of the Sun

A common side-blotched lizard all in shadow save for its head along the Rustler Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

In the Valley of the Sun, when you get the first rays of light depends on when the rising sun clears any mountains to the east. This scene played out in miniature early one morning when I found this common side-blotched lizard completely in shadow until it turned its head into a shaft of light that had just cleared the rock behind it.

Turning Rocks Into Lizards

A desert spiny lizard peeks out from behind a rock on the Rustler Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

As I hike the pattern recognition part of my brain is constantly scanning for objects that might be wildlife even though they often turn out not to be. I spent a summer in Florida in the mid-90’s and was delighted by the many alligators there, it took years after we moved to Oregon for that part of my brain to stop trying to identify possible alligators when I hiked in marshland. In Yellowstone on a gravel road there was a large rock in the distance that in the periphery resembled a bear. I loved that road and drove it a number of times and as I approached that spot, I’d tell myself not to be fooled even for an instant by what I came to call Bear Rock. But every time the pattern recognition would kick in for a fraction of a second and say “Hey is that a …” before the rest of my brain would reply “I just told you it wasn’t going to be a bear!”

Here in the Sonoran Desert I am fooled by cholla skeletons that look like rattlesnakes, twigs like small lizards, granite protuberances like large lizards. I try to use my mental powers to turn rocks into lizards but usually I fail, rock stays rock. But sometimes I succeed and the rock comes to life, such as this beautiful desert spiny lizard on the Rustler Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve. One success is worth a thousand misses.