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.

Favorites

A female American kestrel perches on a saguaro on the 118th Street Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on December 5, 2021. Original: _RAC1934.arw

Judging by the white streaks running down the saguaro I’m guessing this kestrel likes this perch. I met her before sunset as I was heading out of the park and couldn’t resist stopping briefly for a picture, I so adore these little falcons. Unlike my time in the Northwest I’ve not gotten to see their hovering pose here in the desert. I think I too would enjoy a nice sit-down given the many high perches nature has graciously provided.

Pink Light, Blue Light

A view of a stand of saguaros far in front of Brown's Mountain under pink skies of sunset. Taken near the Brown's Ranch Entrance to McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on October 24, 2021. Original: _CAM3874.arw

A couple of quick snapshots after sunset, taken a week apart in October, as I hiked out of the local preserve. I like the blue light of the second picture the best, the park closed a bit after sunset so I had enough time to wait for the soft light of dusk before leaving (I’m steps away from the park entrance where my wife was picking me up).

That’s Brown’s Mountain sneaking in in the background, I usually try to include the mountains in this area if I can since they were so fundamental to me getting oriented on the trails when we moved here and life seemed a whirlwind. I’ve been meaning to try some other compositions but to get here I have to make it past a couple of favorite trails that often have good views of wildlife, such as the last picture where a female Gila woodpecker sidles round a saguaro in the last light of the day. Hard to pass up a chance to watch the desert fauna, at which point I have to hurry on down the trail. One day though, one day …

A view of a stand of saguaros far in front of Brown's Mountain in the blue light after sunset. Taken near the Brown's Ranch Entrance to McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on October 31, 2021. Original: _CAM3920.arw

A female Gila woodpecker on a saguaro at sunset near the Jane Rau Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on November 14, 2021. Original: _RAC1617.arw

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.