Life in the Desert

Two Harris's hawks along the Hackamore Trail in the Browns Ranch section of McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

We’ve been in Arizona a month now and life in the desert is going pretty well. I am still a fish out of water at work but with each passing week more falls into place and I’ve been able to contribute a bit the past couple of weeks. The same can be said about life in general although I haven’t ventured further afield than driving to work and local hiking trails. I picked up my Arizona drivers license and license plates a while back, which drives home this is home, although with the new plates I did walk past my Subaru when returning from a hike until I realized my mistake.

It’s still spring so we haven’t had to deal with extreme heat – extreme heat for this area anyway, it is already as hot as it ever got in Portland – and while so far I haven’t minded the heat I am having a hard time imagining how it can be 20 degrees hotter, which it will be soon enough. In the meantime I am hiking as often as I can, as it is springtime in the desert and there is much to see and learn. Several varieties of cactus are starting to bloom so soon the desert will be at its most colorful.

This morning brought the 17th new species I’ve identified, a pair of Harris’s hawks along the Hackamore Trail. The one in flight is younger, it still has some of its juvenile coloration but it seems to be taking on the appearance of an adult, like the one perched below. I’ve seen more new species than this but some I can’t yet identify, especially the lizards, but I’ll get better in time. Reptile field guides aren’t nearly as good or plentiful as for birds, and I really wish there was an app, I love how the birding apps let you limit your selection to just the birds you might see in your area. I just ordered another reptile guide to go with the one I have so hopefully that will help.

But even for birds I have questions to be answered. I’ve seen a cactus wren building a nest in the arms of a saguaro, but after seeing these hawks a while later I came across a massive nest in a saguaro’s arms. Do the hawks nest in the saguaros too? There is plenty of time to learn the answer, and I hope with each answer another question follows, for that is part of the joy as I wander and wonder in my new desert home.

Gilded Thorns

A male gilded flicker perches on an ocotillo along the Hackamore Trail in the Brown's Ranch section of McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

When we moved to Arizona the two birds I hoped to see above all others were both woodpeckers, the Gila woodpecker and the gilded flicker. My interest was piqued early on when we were looking at houses online and I noticed what looked like bird holes in a large saguaro in front of one of the houses and a little research revealed the likely culprits. Woodpeckers are one of my favorite birds, a love born in childhood in our wooded Michigan backyard, a love that never ended even when my daily exposure to them did.

I was delighted to arrive here and not only see both woodpeckers but see them frequently, even in our backyard. My first gilded flicker sighting was in our backyard but I met this male on this morning’s hike on the Hackamore Trail, one of the many interconnected trails in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. Although I mostly see the woodpeckers on the saguaros where they live, he was perching on the branch of an ocotillo, a beautiful and distinctive plant covered in sharp thorns.

The Night Owl & The Early Bird

A curve-billed thrasher sings atop a saguaro in the early morning light on the Jane Rau Trail in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

I’m a night owl in a land of early birds. It wasn’t a good feeling when the alarm rang out at 4:30am but it was a great feeling when the sun tipped over the mountains and illuminated the curve-billed thrasher serenading me atop a saguaro. I love how gingerly it appears to be stepping on its prickly perch but in truth the birds fly onto these saguaros with great speed and alacrity.


A strawberry hedgehog cactus with only a couple of blooms remaining along the Tom's Thumb Trail in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

When we adopted our dog Ellie years ago, as we tried different dog toys we quickly discovered her clear favorites were stuffed hedgehogs that squeaked when you squeezed them. She so adored them that over the years we acquired a small army of adult and baby hedgehogs that were loved within an inch or their life. Some were loved too much and had to be thrown out, as once they developed a hole she would gleefully rip their stuffing out. In her elderly years she doesn’t have the agility to chase them anymore so they have fallen out of favor.

Most of the bedraggled lot didn’t make the trip to Arizona but I will always have a soft spot for anything hedgehog.

I was delighted in February when I made a brief stop to Pinnacle Peak Park on my interview trip and saw that there is a cactus named strawberry hedgehog. It’s the first cactus to bloom in the spring so when I saw the hedgehogs in late April on the Tom’s Thumb Trail most of their flowers were already spent, this one still had a couple of its lovely flowers in the interior. I have a pair of North Face Hedgehog waterproof hiking shoes so in the cooler months I’ll have hedgehogs on my feet and before them.

Looking up the hill at this scene with the blue sky behind it felt fake to me, more like a diorama in a museum than part of the vast desert landscape, so I couldn’t resist a picture of this delightful little cactus.

Adapting to the Desert

A foothill palo verde tree grows in front of saguaro cactus along the Gateway Loop Trail in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

We’ve been here four weeks now, though strangely it feels to me like we’ve been in Arizona a month but left Portland months ago. One of the appeals of moving here was the unique beauty of the Sonoran Desert and I’m thankful that not only have I been able to start exploring the desert, but I’ve been out six times! A welcome respite after only getting out once since November while in Oregon. What a blessing it is to be out on the trails.

One of the things I looked for in a rental house was easy access both to work and to local hiking trails, thankfully our house is only 15 to 30 minutes from a number of trails, allowing me to explore the desert in spring before the brutal summer heat arrives. While the trees here like this palo verde don’t provide shade, I have found some trails that are shaded in the morning by the surrounding hills, so hopefully those will be tolerable for a couple hours after sunrise even during the summer months. We shall see.

In the meantime adjusting to hiking here means adjustments to my hiking gear.

I’ve had the same hiking hat my entire time in Oregon, a hat we picked up at REI after we moved there, but after a few hikes in the desert I realized I was going to need a hat designed for the heat. On Friday the Columbia Sportswear Bora Bora II Booney hat arrived and was immediately put to use on both hikes this weekend. I immediately noticed the difference as the new hat is lighter and lets out more heat while keeping out the sun. Loved the old hat and will love the new one. I figure sun hats here are like sunglasses, you’ll want multiple ones so you’re never caught without one when you need it, so I may keep the old hat in the car and maybe pick up a different style of hat as well, but this one I expect to be my main hiking hat.

I’ve been wearing a pair of old New Balance trail runners on all my hikes so far, which work well on the flat hikes but on some of the hills I would have preferred a more structured shoe. Both of my pairs of hiking shoes are waterproof and a bit warm for the desert in the summer (they’ll be fine in the winter). Saturday my Merrell Moab 2 Ventilator shoes arrived, I haven’t worn them hiking yet but Saturday night I wore them around the house and they fit well and don’t seem like they’ll need any break-in. I ordered them in black as I like the look despite knowing from the moment I hit the trails they’ll be covered in desert dust from here on out.

Saturday morning after returning from my hike I ordered two Klean Kanteen 27 oz water bottles to join the two I’ve had for years (as well as a smaller one) and they arrived that afternoon, a perk of the the Phoenix metro area is Amazon has same-day delivery on some items. They joke about the dry heat but it really is dry here and you have to work harder to stay hydrated. I always try to hike with more water than I’ll need so it was time to up the water bottle ante, the two new bottles were put to use this morning. The Klean Kanteen bottles are sturdy and I’ve never had a leak, which is important to me as they sit next to some expensive camera gear. They come in a variety of colors, really love these bottles.

I do miss Portland’s tap water though.

My wife picked up a small bottle of sunscreen so I can keep it in my backpack in case I forget to apply it before I leave or if I need to reapply it. I used the same bottle of sunscreen in Oregon for many, many years, as I rarely needed it unless I was above tree line or out on the coast. Here though I never hike without it. I already had some good hot weather hiking shirts, I’m still testing out when I’ll wear long versus short sleeves, and I have a couple pairs of lightweight hiking pants that convert to shorts, so I’m OK there. I did order a long sleeve swim shirt and a new swimsuit, as while I haven’t swum much the past thirty years, that’s about to change and I enjoyed testing them out in our pool this afternoon.

A quick dip in the pool to cool off, and to get some exercise even in the heat, that I think I’ll love.

Lots of pictures to come, this desert really is something special.

Rock Squirrel

A rock squirrel looks out from a crevice in the massive rock formation known as Tom's Thumb in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

A rock squirrel lives up to its name as it crawls along a crevice in the massive rock formation known as Tom’s Thumb in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. It had been at the base of the formation but crawled way up into the crevice when hikers with a dog approached. This is not a new species for me, we saw one during our visit to New Mexico a decade ago, but it is nice to be reunited. I owe a lot to that trip, not only because we had a great time but because it got me thinking about moving to the Southwest when looking for a job. I’ll eventually make it over to New Mexico but for now I’m focusing on trails near our home in Scottsdale.

Hello Gila

A female Gila woodpecker sits atop a saguaro cactus on the Bajada Nature Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

One of the birds I was hoping to see once we moved to Arizona was the Gila woodpecker. It only took a couple of weeks, and my second time hiking, to find one, courtesy of the Gateway Loop Trail at McDowell Sonoran Preserve. My first Gila was a ways off but after finishing the loop I found this female atop a saguaro on the Bajada Nature Trail. I’ve since seen one in our backyard but wasn’t able to get a picture. The Gila is one of 14 new species for me since we moved here a few weeks ago (11 birds, 1 mammal, and 2 lizards).