The Morning Stretch

A Harris's hawk stretches while perching on a dead tree, surrounded by palo verde blossoms fore and aft, near the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 2019

I met this Harris’s hawk shortly before sunrise, it was mostly sleeping perched high in a dead tree. With the palo verdes blooming, there was one spot on the trail where if I lowered my tripod to a particular height I could frame the hawk using blossoms on trees between us and blossoms on the trees behind. The picture is a bit of a lie in that it gives the impression the hawk is in a dense section of trees but in truth it was in the open, I’ll post other pictures later that give a more accurate depiction of why it chose this perch.

I framed the shot for the pose when the hawk was resting but when it suddenly stretched after the sun came up most of the time its head was obscured behind the yellow blossoms, up until it reached the peak of its stretch and it came into full view again, showing off its chestnut shoulders and legs and the large white patch at the base of its tail and the white strip at the tip. I thought it was going to go to the bathroom, birds often do before they take flight, but it was just a morning stretch. Do all animals have their equivalent? Our cats do it after waking up from a nap, our dog Ellie did too and something about it always made me laugh.

Explosion

A large palo verde blooms in an explosion of color along the Hackamore Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2019

The shape of the branches of this blooming palo verde made it seem to me as though it was literally exploding with color. I had to hoof it out there to arrive as the sun was about to clear the slopes of Cone Mountain behind me, I only had a brief moment for pictures as immediately after this shot clouds obscured the sun and the light was gone.

Blooming Buckhorn, Tasty Trees

A family of mule deer eat the flowers of buckhorn cholla on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2019

The buckhorn cholla were in full bloom in mid-May and this family of mule deer took full advantage of the soft treats. While other animals will also eat the flowers the deer have a height advantage so they can reach flowers the others can’t. The deer also fed on palo verde flowers, the trees blooming alongside both the cholla and soaptree yucca.

A family of mule deer eat the flowers of a palo verde, the trees blooming alongside soaptree yucca and buckhorn cholla, on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona in May 2019

Environmental

A Harris's hawk perches on a dead tree in front of a mountain as light from the rising sun sweeps over the desert, while the palo verdes below are in full bloom with the surrounding saguaros just starting to bloom

I’ve photographed Harris’s hawks up close several times the past couple of weeks but I was delighted to make an environmental portrait of a distant adult as light from the rising sun swept over the desert. The palo verdes below it were in full bloom while some of the saguaros towering above it were just starting to flower.

The Morning Surprises

A gambel's quail sings, silhouetted against a blue sky, early on a spring morning near the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

I first visited Brown’s Ranch a month after we moved to Arizona last year and fell in love immediately. One of the things I liked about our new house was its close proximity to some of my favorite local trailheads, Brown’s Ranch included. I haven’t been much since the fall, only visiting on Christmas and New Year’s Eve, at first because I was exploring another area (also near the house) and then because I was concentrating on trails near some of the other houses we were considering.

While I haven’t had much time and/or energy for hiking lately I was up for an easy hike last weekend so I begrudgingly got up before sunrise and made the short drive to Brown’s Ranch. A cardinal serenaded me before I stepped out of the car and I could hear the calls of Gambel’s quail and mourning doves and cactus wrens all around. I thought about how much I had learned in my year here, how much more these sights and sounds are familiar to me now, as I grabbed my camera and headed to the Jane Rau Trail, a short little loop trail near the trailhead and the first trail I hiked at Brown’s Ranch last year.

A gambel's quail sings, silhouetted against an orange sky, early on a spring morning near the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

I then headed down the Latigo Trail, despite my low energy levels I was so happy to be back that I almost felt like running. I didn’t, however, feel much like taking pictures, a feeling I get sometimes where I almost put the camera away. I usually keep the camera out but there is a mental shift where I don’t worry so much about photography. Sometimes though the animals pull me back in, as they did on this morning. It started with a Gambel’s quail in the trees, silhouetted against the morning sky, I took a quick picture against the blue sky before moving further on and taking another against the orange sky.

An ash-throated flycatcher perches at the edge of a tree limb early on a spring morning along the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

A mourning dove shows off the distinctive black spots running down its wings early on a spring morning along the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

As the sun rose I spotted an ash-throated flycatcher and couldn’t help but stop for some pictures. It didn’t stay long as a couple of mourning doves flew into the tree and scared it off, so I photographed one of them instead. They were out in abundance, I imagine the white-winged doves will be back in numbers soon and the smaller mourning doves will get moved a step down the pecking order. Beside the trail the banana yuccas were budding and blooming, a sight I hadn’t seen before, and I thought I could spend a lifetime photographing them in their various stages, each beautiful in its own way, but I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to photograph them on this morning.

A close-up view of a rock squirrel perching in the rocks early one morning along the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

But when I saw a familiar shape in the rocks, bathed in the lovely morning light, I eagerly setup my camera beside the trail to photograph what I initially assumed was an antelope squirrel but which I quickly realized was the larger rock squirrel. I had seen them before but usually from a distance, only once getting a close look up at Tom’s Thumb. This one though posed for me in its rock home and now in more of a photographic mood I photographed it with different focal lengths, including wide and medium shots and this full on close-up.

A great horned owl perches in a palo verde near the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

Further up the trail I stopped when I thought I saw a hawk on a distant saguaro, but when I lifted the telephoto lens to my eye to get a better look I realized it was a great horned owl, my first owl in Arizona. It flew a little closer as an American kestrel hassled it from above and landed in this foothill palo verde. It occasionally cast its eyes over towards where the rock squirrel was but it didn’t seem too interested in hunting.

A mourning dove pauses while preening atop a large rock as the breeze picks up and ruffles its feathers on a spring morning along the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

I continued up the trail a bit but didn’t go too far, I was tired and while there are times it’s good to push yourself, this morning didn’t feel like one of them. As I headed back I did see a couple of genuine hawks on a large saguaro, a pair of Harris’s hawks that I suppose will be nesting soon. A grasshopper accidentally impaled itself on a buckhorn cholla and I thought my hike might end on a sad note but then I saw a mourning dove preening from a rock above as the breeze rustled its feathers.

Despite not seeing any reptiles it was a quick reminder of why I love this place as I saw so much beauty in so short a time. Soon enough I did get to see a reptile as when I got home a spiny lizard was doing pushups in a tree behind the house, it was too bright for pictures but hopefully he and I will meet again. And hopefully so too the rock squirrel, if it survives the owls and the hawks and the snakes and …

Welcome to the Neighborhood

A male northern cardinal sings from a tree on a March afternoon in Scottsdale, Arizona

I keep a spreadsheet of what animals I see each month not only in the parks I visit but in places I’ve lived. During our 16 years in the urban neighborhood of our Portland house I recorded 10 bird species for the month of March. In a few days at our new house in Scottsdale I’ve seen 13! Including this lovely male cardinal who sang to me on the day the mover’s arrived with our belongings. He serenaded Ellie and I this morning as we relaxed on the back porch. Verdin were building a nest in the buckhorn cholla in the common area below the house. Lesser goldfinches flitted about, curve-billed thrashers called out. A pair of Gambel’s quail fed near the house as Sam and Trixie watched eagerly from the windows. Phainopepla, mourning doves, house finches, house sparrows, gila woodpeckers, a pair of Harris’s hawks soaring overhead. I stood dumbfounded watching a robin, a bird I’ve known from everywhere I’ve lived but had no idea lived in Arizona. Yesterday on my first commute home from a work a roadrunner darted across the road (with no coyote in hot pursuit).

With all these birds so close at hand I may not go hiking anymore! (Just kidding)