One More for the List

A European starling pokes its head out of its nest in a saguaro in Scottsdale, Arizona on March 21, 2021. Original: _RAC5715.arw

This spring I went down to a rock formation in the neighborhood to try and photograph a pair of starlings, I have mixed feelings about seeing them since while I enjoy watching them they were introduced in the US and have negatively impacted some native species. Thankfully they don’t seem to be making much of an inroads here, I’ve not seem them in the desert (even on trails near subdivisions) and rarely see them in the neighborhood. I was surprised to find them nesting in a woodpecker hole, possibly built by one of the local architects below, this one poking its head out right as the sun was about to dip below the mountains. One more species added to my list in my attempt to photograph every animal in the desert on a saguaro.

A female Gila woodpecker perches on a saguaro near sunset in Scottsdale, Arizona on March 21, 2021. Original: _RAC5482.arw

A Fixer Upper

A close-up of worn and hardened skin of a saguaro on the Cone Mountain Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on August 21, 2021. Original: _RAC7182.arw

Even after a few years in the desert I don’t know who to call when I see a saguaro in need of a fresh coat of paint. Who maintains them, the city? The county? The state?

I had gone out to photograph a particular saguaro at sunrise but as I feared Brown’s Mountain blocked the light for a good while. I switched over to my telephoto lens, the old saguaros always have interesting beauty spots to photograph and this one was no exception. I like the early diffuse light for shots like these.

Flickerfreude

A young gilded flicker peers out from its nest in a saguaro after the sun set at George Doc Cavalliere Park in Scottsdale, Arizona on May 31, 2021. Original: _RAC2537.arw

One of my great joys this spring was to go to a local park on weekend evenings and watch a pair of gilded flickers raise their family in a nest near the top of an old saguaro. I’ve shared some of those pictures before and have more I haven’t sorted yet, but one of my favorites is the last one I took. Earlier in the weekend as I scouted for antelope squirrels lower in the park I heard a flicker calling out constantly and worried something had gone wrong and one of the adults was alarmed, but when I made my way to the nest I realized the last remaining youngster had found its full flicker voice and was putting it to good use.

It was as close to fledging as it could be, often hanging out of the nest hole and even leaning down occasionally to shoot out its long tongue (I’m presuming ants were climbing up the cactus as they are a favored food). It was happy enough to take feedings from its parents but after the sun set and I prepared to leave, I wondered if the Germans had a word for the feeling that as much as you had loved watching a flicker grow up, you hoped not to see it again. Not that I wouldn’t technically see it, just that I wouldn’t know I had, as I knew I wouldn’t be able to get back until the next weekend and something would have gone wrong for it not to have left the nest by then.

I took one last photo, though I had taken one just like it after the sun set the day before, and whispered let’s not meet here again. As I arrived the following weekend I was both happy and sad to walk up the trail and not hear the familiar voice, to see the nest hole emptied of a bird on the precipice of leaving the comfortable world it had known to join the fuller world that awaited, and hoped it would have a wonderful life.

Spinarium

A close-up view of water drops pool on the spines and skin of a saguaro after a heavy rain on July 25, 2021. Original: _RAC5440.arw

I was photographing two of my favorite subjects last weekend, saguaros and the rain, when my macro lens breathed its last (or so I thought), the manual focus ring barely turning. This is my favorite set of saguaro spines, I wanted to capture water droplets pooling on them while I had the chance as no lightning accompanied the rain. The soft white cushion from which the spine cluster emerges is known as the areole, a distinguishing feature of a cactus (compare these to the thorns of the the ocotillo in the previous post which grow directly out of the stem). A few larger spines shoot out from the center while smaller spines radiate out in all directions. Bit of a shame that English botanist Adrian Hardy Haworth’s proposed term in 1830 for the areole, spinarium, never caught on.

As I held the lens in the following days, thinking back to how many things I had photographed with it over the years, there was some comfort in knowing it died doing what it loved, or more precisely what I love. After it sat idle on my coffee table for a few days I picked it up again, idly turning the focus ring and was surprised to see the lens focus in response. I don’t know if some rain had inadvertently gotten in and caused a mechanical glitch or if a cat hair had worked its way past the lens casing but in any case, the situation resolved itself and the lens has sprung back to life.

You Should Have Called First!

A male kestrel prepares to land at his nest in a saguaro but is surprised to find one of the nestlings looking out from the nest entrance. Taken near sunset at George Doc Cavalliere Park in Scottsdale, Arizona on June 6, 2021. Original: _RAC3468.arw

A male kestrel arrives at his nest in a saguaro to feed the last of his young that had not yet fledged but was surprised to find him sitting in the entrance hole. Strong winds blew as the sun was about to set but kestrels are agile fliers with a strong grip, so even though he had to fall backwards to avoid crashing into the youngster he was able to flare out his wings while grasping the cactus with his talons and maintain his purchase. He not only recovered with remarkable grace but soon leaned in and fed his hungry charge before flying off to look for the next meal.

I bet next time he calls first to let junior know he’s on his way.

A male kestrel starts to fall backwards after being surprised to find one of the nestlings looking out from the nest entrance in a saguaro. Taken near sunset at George Doc Cavalliere Park in Scottsdale, Arizona on June 6, 2021. Original: _RAC3477.arw

A male kestrel recovers after being surprised to find one of the nestlings looking out from the nest entrance in a saguaro. Taken near sunset at George Doc Cavalliere Park in Scottsdale, Arizona on June 6, 2021. Original: _RAC3483.arw

A male kestrel flares out his wings to maintain his balance as he leans into his nest in a saguaro to feed a nestling. Taken near sunset at George Doc Cavalliere Park in Scottsdale, Arizona on June 6, 2021. Original: _RAC3486.arw

Happy Father’s Day!

A male gilded flicker regurgitates food into the mouth of a hungry nestling shortly before sunset at George Doc Cavalliere Park in Scottsdale, Arizona on May 30, 2021. Original: _RAC2058.arw

Happy Father’s Day to my father of the year, this gilded flicker nesting near the top of a saguaro. It was my first time watching a flicker raise a family so I was a bit confused when, unlike Gila woodpeckers, the adults arrived at the nest with empty beaks. As the nestlings grew old enough to lean out of the nest I understood why, they were regurgitating food into the always-hungry mouths of the little ones.

A male gilded flicker prepares to feed a hungry nestling shortly after sunset at George Doc Cavalliere Park in Scottsdale, Arizona on May 31, 2021. Original: _RAC2048.arw

The nest was in a nearby park, best visible late in the day, so on weekends I’d stop by to watch this tireless provider feeding his babies before and after the sun set. I brought out my Canon 500mm telephoto for these pictures, the autofocus doesn’t work very well on my Sony cameras but it’s amazing it works at all given it’s a 15 year old Canon lens attached to a Sigma converter attached to a Sony camera, a combo they were not designed for. I often shot with the electronic shutter so I wouldn’t make any noise.

For a while I was concerned something had happened to the mother as I only ever saw this male (a bit of his red mustache is visible in the picture below as he feeds the last nestling) but it turned out to be a coincidence of timing as eventually I would see her too. The top picture is right before the sun set, the bottom two just after (on the following day).

A male gilded flicker regurgitates food into the mouth of a hungry nestling shortly after sunset at George Doc Cavalliere Park in Scottsdale, Arizona on May 31, 2021. Original: _RAC2500.arw

A Faithful Father

A male gilded flicker perches outside his nest in a saguaro at George Doc Cavalliere Park in Scottsdale, Arizona on May 8, 2021. Original: _RAC8770.arw

My favorite times to be in the desert are around sunrise and sunset, transfixed by how rapidly the light rises and falls, changing not only in intensity but color. I love the moment as the sun fades when a little diffuse red light mixes in with the heavier scattered blues, similar to the light here. But the sun, while low in the sky, had not yet set, instead blocked by a band of smoke in the northwest from a burning desert. While a depressing sign of things to come in the drought-stricken West, there was hope before me too. Flower buds on an old saguaro, soon to burst into blossom. And a faithful flicker father landing at his nest, squeaking voices inside welcoming him home.

Red Mustache

A male gilded flicker peers out from the top of a saguaro covered in flower buds at George Doc Cavalliere Park in Scottsdale, Arizona on May 8, 2021. Original: _RAC8820.arw

A few weeks back flower buds dotted the tops of saguaro arms with the occasional early bloomers producing a flower or two. Normally the flowers are white but this one appeared to have a red mustache, perhaps a trick of the light as the sun dipped behind the mountains and only a little direct light fell upon the high points of the desert.

A Plethora of Perches

A young Harris's hawk looks out from atop an old saguaro at sunset on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on May 9, 2021. Original: _RAC8897.arw

An old giant provides a plethora of perches for a young Harris’s hawk to choose from as it scans the desert floor at sunset. This time of year the perches are relatively soft courtesy of the large flower buds (and by now, flowers themselves). Apparently Audubon would name the birds for his friend and supporter Edward Harris but when he first drew one for his book Birds of America he called them the Louisiana hawk. The University of Pittsburgh has the entire collection online but be forewarned, it can be a real time sink.

There is a movement to rename birds named after people, something I’d like to see. I’d rather see birds named after their nature (especially for these hawks, their social network since it’s so unusual) rather than an homage to a human, regardless of whether the person should be remembered or forgotten or somewhere in between. Interestingly Wikipedia notes, among other things, Audubon may have stolen the Harris’s hawk specimen he used as a model for his drawing.

We humans are complicated creatures.