Surprises

The hole of a tarantual burrow (I think) is covered with spider's silk

I researched Arizona as much as I could before deciding to move here and now that we’ve been here over four months I can say there haven’t been any major surprises. I was a little worried that the summer heat and inescapable sun would drive me crazy right away, the risk I thought was low but the consequences severe. I thought it more likely I might be sick of the heat by the end of the summer and would want to escape back to the mountains or coast of the Northwest for a vacation, but so far that hasn’t happened. We are probably past the hottest days although it will still be above 100 degrees for a while yet. I’ve been pleased to find I can hike even on the hottest days as long as I’m on the trails early and off before the real heat of the day. We’ll see how I feel about the heat in the long term but so far the air conditioning, a nice swimming pool, and the wonders of the Sonoran Desert have made it tolerable.

Speaking of surprises, I was hiking near Granite Mountain one day when I saw what at first seemed like outstretched fingers of a human hand retreating into the earth before I quickly realized it was a tarantula pulling its legs into its hole. We saw a tarantula during a week’s vacation in New Mexico years ago so I assumed they would be more visible but so far I’ve only seen the one. I think this may be a tarantula hole, I saw it on the Vaquero Trail but didn’t see its owner, but I’m far from certain as I still have much to learn about my new home.

Seeing Red in the Desert

Fruit begins to ripen atop a saguaro on the Vaquero Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

I knew even before setting foot in Arizona that my pictures in the desert would draw heavily from a palette of browns rather than the green of the Pacific Northwest. I didn’t know that there would occasionally b red in the desert too, such as the red racer, the house finch, and the northern cardinal. However, for a month or so at the end of spring and the start of summer red explodes across the desert in the fruit of the saguaro.

Fruit splits open atop a saguaro at the Amphitheater in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

Here near The Amphitheater in McDowell Sonoran Preserve a ripe fruit bursts open, exposing the pulp and seeds inside. The fruit is chockfull of seeds, according to the National Park Service there are about 2000 seeds per fruit. Few will develop into a seedling and fewer into an adult saguaro in the harsh desert climate but its not for lack of trying. I noticed multiple birds eating the fruit but mostly it was white-winged doves, who apparently digest the seeds rather than passing them in their waste like some other birds. They end up with so much juice and pulp and seeds on their faces that I imagine some of the seeds will fall to the ground as they preen, so perhaps all is not lost.

Red saguaro fruit along the Upper Ranch Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

As the fruit continues to ripen on the saguaro, even the outside turns red. The dried stalk above them is all that remains of the flowers that grew atop them, the ripened fruit results from flowers that were pollinated. Most of the fruit grows at the top of the saguaro or the ends of its arms but some grows on the sides like the one below that has been cleaned of most of its contents by the denizens of the desert, only a few of the tiny black seeds remain inside.

Saguaro fruit emptied of its contents on the side of a saguaro in Pinnacle Peak Park in Scottsdale, Arizona

A Rhubarb With Scales

The middle of a coachwhip (red racer)

I arrived early on the Vaquero Trail to look for the antelope squirrels but as I approached from below I could see none were out on the rocks. I took a breakfast break and while drinking some water I noticed what reminded me of rhubarb back in the rocks. I hadn’t seen any plant like that in the desert but then I still have so much to learn. In case it was a discarded rubber gasket I went in for a closer look in case it was trash I should take with me, and that’s when I realized my rhubarb had scales.

The face of a red racer variety of coachwhip

I believe this is a coachwhip (of the red racer variety) and I have to say I was rather stunned to see it, I had no idea such a lovely creature existed! While not venomous it is a threat to many of the small animals of the desert and I hope the bulge I saw in its middle wasn’t one of my squirrels! Since it wasn’t coiled up and resting I took some pictures and then backed off in case it wanted to move, it didn’t while I finished my water and food break but after a mountain bike came whizzing past I looked up and the snake was gone.

The red racer variety of coachwhip between rocks

Rock Climbing

A Harris's antelope squirrel stands up as it looks out from a rock in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

I love this little spot on the Vaquero Trail. I first started stopping here to look for the Harris’s antelope squirrels that use the rocks as a lookout, replete with a surrounding network of holes leading underground. It’s a nice spot for a water break and a little breakfast and in that quiet I’ve seen a variety of other desert wildlife, from birds to mammals to reptiles. Including a remarkably beautiful creature I didn’t know existed and which I hope didn’t eat my beloved little squirrels.

Comings and Goings

Two Harris's antelope squirrels look out from their rocky perch along the Vaquero Trail in the Brown's Ranch section of McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona

I first learned of the Harris’s antelope squirrel from a sign on the Bajada Nature Trail a couple of weeks after we moved here, and funnily enough got my first brief look at one just a few minutes later. After seeing one of the little ground squirrels up close on the Vaquero Trail I did a little research to learn if their home range was small (it is) and if they liked to look out from higher vantage points like the one I had observed (they do).

Knowing that, I decided to hike the Vaquero Trail again and kept my eyes peeled when I approached the area of my previous sighting. And there it was up on the rocks! Up on a small hill it had a complete view of its surroundings and would have seen me before I saw it. Unfortunately I had forgotten my 100-400mm lens at home but I returned the next morning and there it was again! I had settled on using my Canon 100-400mm lens with a 1.4X teleconverter as my wildlife hiking setup, which presented a problem, as on my Canon body I could only use the center focus point, and the autofocus wasn’t that reliable in low light. Attached to my Sony body the autofocus was sometimes quick but not reliably, but I could also use it for video and for manual focus.

I shot the squirrel with both setups, starting with the Canon before switching to the Sony. Fortunately the AF was working well when a second squirrel popped up behind the first! The experience cinched a decision I had been mulling for a while now and that afternoon my wife and I went down to Tempe Camera and purchased the Sony 100-400mm lens and Sony 1.4X teleconverter. The new lens proved its mettle as soon as I arrived at the preserve the next morning, and on multiple hikes since, but those are stories for another day.