July 2005 As we hiked up the trail over Deem Hills one morning in May, we were greeted by the shrill calls of a red-tail hawk. The hawk circled closely, amber feathers flashing in the sun, seeming more alarmed than our normal encounters with red-tails soaring overhead. A few steps further, we finally noticed the cause for warning. We had entered her territory, specifically that of a nest where she and her mate were raising a still fuzzy-headed nestling, which raised its wings and hissed at us as we approached. The nest was a pile of sticks in the arms of a great saguaro. We returned a few days later and found both parents sitting in the nest with the young one. Perhaps they had seen plenty of two-leggeds pass by since our last visit, because this time, there were no alarm calls, no distracting flights away from the nest, and no threatening postures. All three simply sat and watched us with a sense of calm, a firm claim on this piece of earth, and most certainly, this particular saguaro.
I tell this story, not so much because of the hawk, but because of the saguaro that they chose to nest in. This is where they chose to raise a family. This cactus in the Deem Hills is the heart of their territory. Life, for these hawks, was centered on a100+ year-old saguaro. And so it is with much of life in the Sonoran Desert. More than any other creature, plant or animal, the Saguaro defines this part of the southwest. And now, in the heat of July, which is also the crux for all of life in this desert, is when the saguaro bears fruit, each filled with thousands of tiny black seeds. Bearing in mind that the fate of all of those seeds are mostly to be eaten, each saguaro seed that grows old enough to bear its own fruit is truly one in a million. That a certain old saguaro would be chosen to be the central point of the territory for a family of hawks is another miracle in itself. The greatest miracle is that we were allowed to witness this family so closely. If you see a red-tail hawk soaring over the Deem Hills, it is likely one of this mating pair, who have established their territory in our backyard. Red-tail mates remain together for their lifespan of about two decades, and will often re-use the same nest site for several years in a row. If we are lucky, we’ll likely find the same pair rearing a new brood in the same old cactus next year. By now, the young one has most likely flown off to find a territory, a mate, and a saguaro of its own.
Since May 2005, I have written a natural history column for a neighborhood newsletter published by Jennifer Moore called "Our Big Backyard: Natural History of the Deem Hills," and since 2010, "A Suburban Naturalist."All of these columns are reproduced here. Deem Hills is a City of Phoenix Desert Preserve located just north of Happy Valley Road in north central Phoenix, and just west of I-17. The Preserve and adjacent hills comprise over 900 acres of open space with several miles of hiking trails. For more perspectives from the Deem Hills and suburban Phoenix, also check out my companion blog, Kat Tracks.
As a naturalist with a special interest in botany and plant ecology, some of my greatest passions are to explore, photograph and write about native plants. If I can spark an awareness or interest in natural history in others along the way, that is my greatest reward.