Granite plays a large role in the Sonoran Desert but there are lots of other types of rocks here too. However since I don’t know my rocks I tend to call everything granite unless it’s something like quartz that even I know.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The alarm went off at 3:41 a.m. this morning, the start of a three day weekend. I’ve been a bit worn out and my stomach has bothered me a couple of days this week but I nevertheless crawled out of bed, if a bit reluctantly, as high clouds were predicted instead of the usual clear skies and I was curious to see what the sunrise might bring. I was on the trails before the sun but it looked like there wouldn’t be much color in the skies as the sun rose, and there wasn’t, save for one small portion of the sky. Unable to get the picture I hoped for I instead took my delight in the serenity of the desert morning.
Heading up the Vaquero Trail to where I had seen antelope squirrels the week before I stopped when I saw an American kestrel perched on a saguaro in the distance, one leg held in the air, silhouetted against the patch of orange sky. The little falcon didn’t stay long nor did the color but I got my sunrise picture after all, just not the one I was expecting, the first of several surprises the desert had in store for me this morning. The little appendages sticking out from the saguaro are spent flowers on top of the fruits developing below, handy perches above the cactus spines.
My first impression after hiking with saguaros was of redwoods. Of massive lifeforms with an outsized impact on their environment. Of warriors, long-lived giants, their struggles written on their skin. Yet for all of that a surprisingly shallow root system. Saguaros have a central tap root that grows down but the rest of their roots radiate outward a handful of inches below the surface, soaking up every bit of rainwater they can. Sometimes erosion exposes these shallow roots, as on this old saguaro at sunrise on the Vaquero Trail, Brown’s Mountain rising in the background.
Moving to Arizona has required a number of minor adjustments to my clothing and gear. I dress up a bit more for work here so I had to get all new work clothes. Our rental house has a pool which meant ordering swimsuits, swim shirts, goggles, and towels. The desert meant meant a new hat designed to shed heat (and a second one I just ordered to stay in the car for days like today when I forget mine), new hiking shoes, new socks, and an extra pair of hiking pants. More water bottles. Shorts to wear around the house.
I think it’s about to force one more change, a more major one, at least in terms of expense. On the auto tour at Ridgefield I mostly used my big 500mm telephoto lens, but that’s way too heavy for hiking for hours in the desert. I’ve been using a lens I adore, my Canon 100-400mm zoom, and the Canon 1.4x teleconverter. The weak link is the camera I have to attach to, my Canon 7D II, a camera which in general I like apart from it being an SLR instead of mirrorless, the lack of an articulating touch screen, the weight, and the poor video (I do like it, it has many good points). But now there’s this: the autofocus works great with the 100-400 by itself but not with the teleconverter attached.
It’s not useless, and I’d put up with it if I had no choice, but a while back Sony introduced a similar 100-400 lens. The autofocus on my Sony camera would work well with the lens even with their teleconverter attached, plus I’d avoid the problem that almost cost me this shot: the optical viewfinder. I had been shooting this Harris’s antelope squirrel in the shade when it bounded across the trail and climbed this bush to survey the landscape. I was shooting in manual to deal with the difficult exposure but forget to change the settings for the sunlight the squirrel was now in. This would have been obvious in a mirrorless camera, fortunately I eventually realized my mistake and got a picture before it climbed back down.
It would mean switching to the Canon for wider angles until I have a second Sony body (I’d wait until they bring out an upgraded version of what I have now), which will mean more weight in the short term, but in the long term both less weight and a better fit for how I hike in the desert.