The Sunset Watch, Part II

A pair of American kestrels sit atop a large saguaro in front of Granite Mountain as sunset approaches on November 6, 2022. Original: _CAM6331.ARW

A week after watching a pair of Harris’s hawks on a large boulder at sunset, I saw them again on the boulder but this time from a different vantage point. I thought about waiting to see if they would stick around until sunset for a different take on the image, but I was in the mood to hike and decided to hoof it out to my favorite cactus. I never got there as I found this pair of kestrels on a distant saguaro and spent the end of the day with them instead. I’ve long loved photographing the encroaching sun or shadow at the start and end of the day, I forget exactly when the fascination first took hold but it was probably on a visit to the Tetons many years ago.

I haven’t been out hiking since, I’ve been taking Bear on really long walks on weekend mornings and afternoons, I need to find a better balance but it’s hard because I can’t usually walk him during the work week.

The Lion King

The base of a saguaro is caked in mud, likely from termites, in a pattern that reminds me of the face of a male lion on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on September 25, 2022. Originals: _ZFC0614.NEF to _ZFC0619.NEF

In September I went out specifically to photograph this pattern at the base of a saguaro, the ring of mud reminding me of a lion’s mane. But then I discovered a lizard hiding behind the spines a foot above this spot and spent so much time photographing her that I had to rush these shots before fleeing the park. Last weekend I went back to photograph the lion again, to compose when I was more composed, but my mind was wondering and wandering and I walked right past it. Realizing my mistake much later than I should have, I doubled back and easily located my target.

Except the lion was gone. The saguaro was there thankfully but the pattern was not. I had a little laugh as I remembered the heavy rains from earlier in the week while I was at work, which had probably washed away the work of the little artists who painted this canvas. Termites I suspect, there are a type here that eat the rough bark-like material at the base of old saguaros, which might explain the tan section in the middle.

There Is Too Much Death In The World

A snake carcass hangs from a dead saguaro at George Doc Cavalliere Park in Scottsdale, Arizona on October 23, 2022. Original: _CAM6035.ARW

We are beautiful forms but for such a short time. I rounded the bend to see a desiccated snake carcass hanging from what used to be my favorite saguaro in the park, perhaps an abandoned catch of a bird of prey. The desert recyclers had already changed the flesh of each into new forms, the scales and skeletons will take longer, the saguaro bones still a favored perch for a Gila woodpecker couple nesting nearby. The light was dying too, the sun dipping below the mountains, handing over the desert to the night watch before its rebirth in the morning.

The Sun Also Departs

A male gilded flicker perches atop a saguaro while a female looks out from a nest hole at George Doc Cavalliere Park in Scottsdale, Arizona on October 16, 2022. Original: _CAM5918.ARW

What’s better than watching a woodpecker on a saguaro? Watching two woodpeckers on a saguaro! I stopped for a while to admire the male when the female surprised me and flew into the nest. I watched this couple raise a family last spring so it was a treat to spend time with them again. I didn’t have much time as right as the female arrived a couple with a dog were approaching and though the dog ignored the birds, the male didn’t stay long. He mostly had his head turned away from me as he watched the dog approach, but turned back around for a moment as the female stuck her head out and then he flew off. In a couple of minutes the sun also departed, and so did I.

Perfectly Poised

A female common side-blotched lizard hides behind the spines in the gap between two saguaro trunks on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsale, Arizona on September 25, 2022. Originals: _ZFC0561.NEF to _ZFC0577.NEF

On a September evening I headed to my favorite trail to take pictures of patterns in two saguaros. I never made it past the first as when I stopped a common side-blotched lizard scampered up into the World’s Best Hiding Spot, protected behind large spines in a gap between two trunks. The little lizards are a favorite so I could hardly believe I’d get to add one to my series of animals on saguaros, and so perfectly posed!

Although I took a quick shot with the telephoto lens I had time to switch to my macro setup and shoot a sequence of images for a focus stack, as I wanted everything in the scene to be sharp. Unfortunately the more excited I am, the less likely I am to setup the camera properly, and the exposure was set for the scenes I originally intended to photograph. With the sun getting low and the hill in shade, each picture took 2 seconds, the sequence 34, and it was only later I realized my mistake. When I finally worked up the courage to look at the pictures weeks later, she had stayed still and all the photos were sharp. Perfectly posed and poised!

No matter how long our sojourn in the desert lasts, this will be a favorite moment.

Burn Victim

A close-up view of burn damage to a young saguaro on the Go John Trail in Cave Creek Regional Park in Cave Creek, Arizona on February 19, 2022. Originals: _ZFC9308.NEF to _ZFC9320.NEF

A fire had burned through the area, stopping at the trail which must have acted like a firebreak. This young saguaro looked fairly normal as I came down the trail but as I looked back I could see it was badly burned on the other side, and I suspect completely burned on the side I couldn’t see. It’s hard to hike through a burned area, partly because saguaros feel almost human, so I try to take a picture that pays tribute or offers hope. The split on the far right reminded of a wound that had been stitched closed, the burned areoles of gas masks, the green in the pleats of nearly dry riverbeds, the brown of a barren and broken earth. But despite the heavy damage it lived.

This was in February but I’ll go back up to check on it sometime soon now that the weather is cooling, there’s some elevation change in this hike and I’m not willing to risk it in the heat. Here’s hoping this one survived. And that I can find it again, this was my second visit to it and it took me a while to find it as it was further down the trail than I remembered.

Fruiting

A white-winged dove sits on saguaro fruit at George Doc Cavalliere Park in Scottsdale, Arizona on July 4, 2021. Original: _RAC3743.ARW

Taken last year on July 4th with the light fading as the sun slipped below the mountains, a white-winged dove enjoys saguaro fruit before calling it a night. I had planned to focus on saguaro flower and fruit photography this year but life had other plans. I wasn’t able to do much hiking this spring or early summer, and while the saguaro in our front yard blooms it only does so up high and regardless didn’t produce much fruit this year.

Dinner Invitations

An American kestrel grips a rodent in her talons as she perches atop a saguaro on the 118th Street Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on March 6, 2022. Original: _RAC3004.ARW

This American kestrel invited me over for dinner but I had to make my apologies lest I spoil my appetite. The white streaks running down the saguaro are not damage but rather show she’s been painting a favored perch. I suspect the rodents of the desert will be like the Townsend’s voles of the Pacific Northwest, animals I see but only manage to photograph when something else is eating them.