Fear of Flying

A close-up of the jumbled arms of an old saguaro on the Metate Trail in Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area in Cave Creek, Arizona on February 27, 2022. Originals: _ZFC1441.NEF to _ZFC1450.NEF

I’ll do just about anything to avoid getting on a plane but it’s not because I’m afraid of the plane crashing. Rather this jumble of saguaro arms is a visual representation of how I feel when packed into a crowded boarding area or jammed into the ever-shrinking plane seats. Thankfully I rarely have to fly as let’s just say I’m not a fan.

While I was thinking of that when I took this image early in the year, it’s also how I came to feel about much of this year, which got me thinking about bringing my retirement date in as early as we can, to live a quieter and simpler life.

Taken with the Nikon Z fc and 105 mm macro lens, this is a focus stack of 10 images so I could keep even the background arms in focus, to better emphasize the jumbled nature of this gorgeous cactus up in Spur Cross.

As the Raven Flies

A common raven looks out from a flowering saguaro, taken from the Chuckwagon Trail at McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on June 6, 2021. Original: _RAC2888.ARW

A common raven looks out from a flowering saguaro, one of a pair raising their young in an old hawk’s nest in a nearby saguaro. If I could fly as the raven flies I could fly just to the left of the mountain and land at our house. Alas I have to hike as the human hikes and drive as the Lexus drives so my route home is a little more circuitous. One of the reasons I chose this house is that it is surrounded by an embarrassment of trails within a 10 or 15 minute drive, each dense with the plants and animals I love so much. There are trails in other parts of the metro area with better views but I know where my heart lies.

One day I hope to take a single picture that includes each of our types of cactus and while this image doesn’t pull that off, I think it’s as close as I’ve yet come.

Will Get Fooled Again

A male American kestrel perches on a saguaro near the 118th Street Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on March 19, 2022. Original: _RAC3136.ARW

Last weekend in the distance I saw a kestrel perched on a saguaro and since the telephoto lens was still in my shoulder bag, just whispered hello to the female I’ve seen here and continued up the trail. Whereupon I found another kestrel on a favored perch, close enough that even with my naked eyes it was clear this was the female I often see. The other kestrel was still visible in the distance so I knew she hadn’t snuck in while I wasn’t looking, pulling out the longer lens I realized the first kestrel was a male.

I was in a meandering mood and went up and down parts of various trails based on whim and whimsy, when I finally made my way back I saw the male was still perched where we first met. But as I set up to take his picture in the late light I realized it was the female.

The ol’ switcheroo!

After taking her picture I continued on, the blue light descending with the sun mostly faded, when in the distance I saw what looked like a kestrel on a saguaro. But this saguaro has fooled me many times, new growth has started where the top is broken and that little bump always makes me think at first glance that a bird is perching atop the old giant. This time though my pattern-recognition self insisted there really was a kestrel up there so I pulled out the lens and could barely contain my laughter as there sat the male, posing for this picture at the end of the day.

Maybe one day this desert will stop surprising me, but probably not anytime soon.

Broken Beauty

A close-up of the broken portion of a saguaro arm that shows the green skin, the spongy material where water is stored, and the woody skeleton. Taken on the Metate Trail at Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area in Cave Creek, Arizona on February 27, 2022. Originals: _ZFC1543.NEF to _ZFC1547.NEF

It’s always a bit sad to see the old giants breaking down but this fallen arm provides a view into the interior life of the saguaro. On the outside is the familiar waxy skin tinted green by chlorophyll. Light for photosynthesis is ever-abundant in the desert but rainfall is not, so filling most of the interior is a spongy material where water is converted and stored. Storing water is one thing, supporting its weight is another, a burden borne by the wooden skeleton that runs the length of the saguaro, shown here as broken ribs that shattered as the arm fell from the body.

The saguaro itself still looked healthy to my novice eyes, it will seal off the wound and might well outlive me despite having a head start of two or three of my lifetimes.

Where Sharpness Grows

A close-up of spines growing from areoles at the tip of a saguaro arm on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on December 31, 2021. Originals: _ZFC6005.NEF to ZFC6028.NEF

A network of spines grow in a spiral galaxy of areoles in the depression at the tip of a saguaro arm. This is a focus stack of 24 images taken with the Nikon Z fc and the Nikon Z 105mm macro lens, my main motivation for getting the camera was for taking close-ups and I’m happy to say I’m loving it and have done little else on my hikes the past month.

I picked up the camera and a couple of lenses early during my time off at Christmas so I could start to learn the Nikon system, I hoped to get the macro lens as well but was resigned to wait as my local stores and usual mail order stores were out of stock. But then Steve Mattheis mentioned on his video channel he got his Nikon Z9 from Pictureline up in Salt Lake. They were new to me but seemed like good folks and had the lens in stock, so with a few clicks the lens was on its way and I had a handful of days to play with it before my break ended and I returned to a busy month at work. Very easy process, they took Apple Pay and kept me up-to-date throughout to the point the email saying the lens was delivered arrived before the UPS truck had pulled away from the driveway!

I resisted watching Steve’s channel at first when Youtube started recommending it as some photographers view wildlife photography as a non-lethal form of trophy hunting but Steve shows both knowledge of and concern for the animals he photographs up in Wyoming, with a philosophy that the animal is more important than the picture of the animal. Highly recommended, watching his videos is a respite from a hectic world.

Eyes in the Sky

A female American kestrel perches atop a saguaro in front of Granite Mountain on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on December 23, 2021. Original: _ZFC0845.NEF

Kestrels are one of the birds that live both in our old home in the rainy Northwest and our current home in the arid Southwest. In Washington I’d often see them hovering above a large meadow, looking for Townsend’s voles sneaking through the grasses below. One day I watched one hunting earthworms in the soggy soil like a robin in falcon’s clothing. I’ve seen them a number of times here but have yet to witness the hovering behavior, I’m guessing since they have natural perches that let them sit up high and watch for small creatures without a dense canopy of leaves or needles obscuring the view below.

Taken with the Nikon Z 24-200mm, after buying the Nikon Z fc I liked it enough to immediately buy this lens, partially for environmental portraits like this one of a female kestrel as the clouds rolled in on a December afternoon.

The Karate Kid

A female American kestrel preens while perched atop a saguaro on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on December 23, 2021. Original: _RAC2849.ARW

I don’t know who her opponent is but I feel for them, I’ve seen the movie and know what comes next. I suspect this is the same kestrel as the previous post, I’ve seen a female a few times this month in the same general area of the park. Taken two days ago in the late afternoon as heavy clouds rolled into the desert, the next day they brought a steady rain.