By Your Leaves

An American snout spreads its wings into the light of the rising sun on the Jane Rau Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on August 24, 2021. Original: _RAC7475.arw

As the butterfly turned and spread its wings into the light of the rising sun, I could see how its wings resembled fallen leaves with uneven edges and transparent sections that mimic areas that have rotted away leaving only the veins. The disguise might be more effective in the forest than the desert where the leaves tend to be rather tiny.

A Day of Lasts

A black bear peeks out from the branches of a pine tree as it eats pine cones on the Mount Washburn Trail (South) in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming on October 1, 2011. Original: _MG_1253.crw

As I descended Mount Washburn on my last hike on the last day of my trip to Yellowstone in the fall of 2011, I met this black bear feasting on pine cones up in a tree beside the trail, the bear and I at eye level courtesy of the steep hillside. The bear was relaxed and hardly anyone passed by in the late afternoon so I sat down and spent a blissful hour watching it fatten up for the winter. At last it ambled down the tree and waddled off into the forest and I continued down to my ever faithful Subaru to start the long journey home. I couldn’t have known then it would be my last hike in this wonderful park, and as I recall my last bear sighting as well. At least I went out on a high note!

The Ol’ Switcheroo

A male ladder-backed woodpecker clings to a dead tree branch early on a cloudy morning on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on March 1, 2020. Original: _RAC1308.arw

A male ladder-backed woodpecker clings to a dead tree on a cloudy morning in the Sonoran Desert, a little tribute to the overcast of the Northwest with a bird of the Southwest from someone lucky enough to have called both home. Not much later he and his mate pulled the ol’ switcheroo, when I wasn’t looking he flew off and she flew in but I didn’t notice the change at first. Taken in March of 2020, turned out to be my first sighting of the female, the male I had seen before.

A female ladder-backed woodpecker clings to a dead tree branch early on a cloudy morning on the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on March 1, 2020. Original: _RAC1325.arw

Red Eyed Lady of the Lowlands

A female phainopepla perches on a curved branch on the Latigo Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on November 28, 2020. Original: _RAC9951.arw

This is what a female phainopepla looks like on our more typical sunny desert days. I heard her cheerful cheeps from the backside of a tree as the trail wound its way up a small hill but I was headed to a particular spot and wasn’t going to try for a photograph. But as she flitted about she hopped onto this ready-made perch right as I approached so I couldn’t resist a quick picture of one of my favorite birds.

I Feel You, Sister

A phainopepla rubs her damp head feathers on a branch on the interpretative trail in the Fraesfield area of McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on January 24, 2021. Original: _RAC3738.arw

On-again, off-again rain showers left this phainopepla feeling a little bedraggled as she preened her damp feathers to get them back into their normal glorious shape, here gently rubbing her crest on the branch. She was her normal chipper self even if the wet weather seemed to have thrown her a little off her game. I wonder how she felt the next day when it snowed.

Two Dancers

Two (or one?) trees appear to be dancing on Powerline Road No. 2 in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on August 2, 2020. Original: _CAM4158.arw

Two dancers in the morning light, not yet ready to yield the night. A high thin band of smoke from wildfires in California blanketed the sky and the light had an unusual look to it, in person I preferred the trees when directly lit but in pictures I have a slight preference to this subtler version when the light dimmed. If they were closer to one of the trailheads I’d have photographed these trees (tree? trees? not sure) dozens of times by now but to get to them I have to walk past my favorite saguaro and a phalanx of woodpeckers, hawks, wrens, thrashers, and flycatchers. To solve this problem I’m thinking of getting a big catapult to chuck me directly into the middle of the preserve, I haven’t worked out how to survive the landing but no plan is perfect.

Fleeting

An environmental portrait of a phainopepla perched in a tree at sunset on the 118th Street Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on November 26, 2020. Original: _RAC8869.arw

Since we moved to Arizona I’ve been fascinated by the moment when light first sweeps across the desert or, as in this case, the light suddenly falls away. There was a particular cactus I wanted to photograph at last light but I was delayed watching a sparrow and a family of hawks. I had to laugh as I hurried down the wide trail, seeing something I wanted to photograph and the light disappearing before I could get the camera to my eye. I was able to get this environmental portrait of a phainopepla before the light disappeared from all but the mountains, a shot that pokes gentle fun at my misunderstanding of what the desert here was like, thinking it was just sand and an occasional cactus. But also a show of gratitude that I researched the area when an opportunity appeared here at the last minute, and for a park dense with vegetation and wildlife that drew me in and didn’t let go.

Look Who’s Back!

A male phainopepla perches on a dead tree with the arms of a saguaro visible in the background on the 118th Street Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on November 22, 2020. Original: _RAC8600.arw

Phainopepla have been back for a while now and are one of the birds I see most on the trails I’ve been hiking recently. The charming flycatchers are a delight and take some of the sting out of the arrival of cooler temperatures and the disappearance of reptiles. I liked the flow of the dead tree branches as this male preened on a warm November morning but was even happier when I realized I could sidle down the trail a few steps and put the tall arms of a saguaro in the background to give the scene more context.