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 Little Convincing

A curve-billed thrasher with its feathers flared looks down into the cavity of a broken saguaro in Scottsdale, Arizona on March 20, 2021. Original: _RAC5168.arw

This might as well be a portrait of me each spring when I try to convince myself the pool is warm enough and I should just jump in and start swimming. I don’t like being cold in the slightest so it always takes a bit of convincing. Always nice to find a thrasher in an expressive pose as it can be hard to convey their personalities in pictures.

A curve-billed thrasher sings from the cavity of a broken saguaro in Scottsdale, Arizona on March 20, 2021. Original: _RAC5219.arw

A curve-billed thrasher sings from the cavity of a broken saguaro in Scottsdale, Arizona on March 20, 2021. Original: _RAC5182.arw


A male northern cardinal sings from the top of a saguaro in Scottsdale, Arizona on March 27, 2021. Original: _RAC5792.arw

When the flowers aren’t blooming most of the colors in the desert are subdued but there are notable exceptions. I grew up with cardinals back east but we had to say goodbye when we moved to Oregon decades ago. Here in the desert we’ve been reunited again, we rarely saw them at the rental house but I’d see them more often in the desert proper. At our current house they are frequent visitors and last year brought their fledglings into the backyard to feed. I met this singing male last weekend on a neighborhood walk, a familiar sight from my youth in many ways save for his chosen perch.

My Stomping Grounds

An environmental portrait of a cactus wren singing from the flower stalk of a soaptree yucca with mountains in the background in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2020

As the first light of day spills across the desert, a cactus wren sings from the flower stalk of a soaptree yucca as it makes the rounds of the high places. In between this patch of McDowell Sonoran Preserve and the mountains on the horizon are a host of subdivisions, including ours, I see the mountains on the left from the back porch. There are 5 (!) preserve trailheads near us and this is where I do most of my hiking, either in the massive northern area like this or down by the mountains. The preserve continues quite a ways to the south, those trails are great fun too (our second favorite house was at the southern end) but the northern part is my favorite.

The Neighborhood

A cactus wren sings from a blooming and leafing ocotillo in the Troon neighborhood of Scottsdale, Arizona in March 2020

The sun was rising, the ocotillo blooming, the cactus wrens singing, on a morning walk in the neighborhood last weekend. On my afternoon walk I saw a bobcat working its way down the hill. At night I heard a noise and for a second assumed it was one of the cats except they were all sleeping on me. I looked out the window to see a javelina rooting around in the yard. Lovely neighbors abound.

Singing Soaptree Stalks

A curve-billed thrasher sings from a soaptree yucca flower stalk on a sunny winter morning on the Brown's Ranch Road trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in January 2020

When I think of flower stalks I think of the delicate stems of the wildflowers I’d see on hikes through most of my life, like daisies or columbine or fairly slippers. The soaptree yucca, on the other hand, has a towering stalk that’s thick at the base like a tree limb before tapering into thin branches at the top. Even so it is a testament to how impossibly light birds are that this bedraggled thrasher only slightly depressed its perch as it sang on a sunny winter morning.


A cactus wren sings while perched on the branches of a palo verde and its tiny leaves, taken on the Jasper Trail at Cave Creek Regional Park in Cave Creek, Arizona in January 2020

This palo verde sprouted its tiny little leaves, I suppose their small size minimizes water loss while allowing more photosynthesis than from just their green bark. It also sprouted a cactus wren, as have seemingly all the tall plants on my hikes lately, as I’ve seen (and heard) these boisterous birds frequently the past few weeks. Perhaps it is time to establish territory and seek out mates, or perhaps they are practicing for an upcoming all-wren revue. Either way, can’t wait!

Time to Leave

A bull elk calls out while looking directly at me on a rainy afternoon in the Madison area of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming in October 2006

I started the morning of the last day of my fall hiking trip in 2006 with snow in the higher elevations of Yellowstone. I didn’t stay long as I’m not used to driving in snow and spent the rest of the day in the lower elevations, finishing the trip watching an elk herd in the Madison area while a steady rain fell. It was October so the rut was winding down and the scene was rather tranquil, this bull nuzzled one of the nearby cows as the rest of the herd lingered nearby. Although it ignored me and the others who watched from near the road, the bull did glance in my direction once while calling out.

A bull elk turns his head to the side, showing six points on one antler and seven on the other, on a rainy afternoon in the Madison area of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming in October 2006

It looked like this bull had six points on one antler and seven on the other. There was a ranger there who said the elk in this drainage weren’t living as long as the others, based on analysis of wolf kills they suspected minerals in the Madison River were making their bones brittle. Fortunately I was ready for the picture up top as within a minute the bull laid down to rest. Ten minutes after taking the picture below, I had to say my goodbyes as it was time to start the long drive back to Oregon.

A bull elk lays down on a rainy afternoon in the Madison area of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming in October 2006