Thursday, August 8, 2013

Battle of the Desert Icons: Mojave vs Sonoran

I will share images of a few birds observed in Gilbert, Arizona and St George, Utah as I made my way back to Utah July 24th, but first I want to share evidence of a very slow moving battle I witnessed between the icons of the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts along Highway 93 in Arizona.

A Little Background
Marrying a southern California girl resulted in frequent trips from Utah to southern California. When we traveled with our children I would often point to the icon of the Mojave Desert and declare, "That's a Joshua Tree!" As the kids got older they would beat their old man to the punch and say, "Hey, Dad. Do you know what that is? It's a Joshua Tree!"

When our daughter married a young man from Chandler, Arizona we began making trips from Utah to the Phoenix area. As a matter of family tradition I would announce, "That's a Saguaro!" when we'd see our first one on the way to Phoenix.

Battle of the Desert Icons
I had always associated Joshua Trees with the Mojave and Saguaros with the Sonoran Desert. It wasn't until our most recent trip to Gilbert, Arizona that we took a new route. On the advice of our son in law, we drove Highway 93 to State Road 74 (aka Carefree Highway). The usual route of Highway 89 through Paige, Arizona was not an option since the road south of Paige was out of commission. As we drove along 93 I was surprised to see a Joshua Tree. Before I knew it there were more Joshua Trees and the road actually took on the name of Joshua Tree Parkway. "What are Joshua Trees doing in the Sonoran Desert? Are we in the Mojave Desert?"

As we continued our drive we saw Joshua Trees and Saguaros right next to each other.  I felt like I had just made a Columbus-like discovery. My two favorite deserts were merging. I shared my discovery with my wife hoping she'd appreciate what we were seeing and warm up to the idea of stopping for some photos. She did not share my level of enthusiasm and was anxious to get to Gilbert so I made a mental note to stop and get photos of this amazing place on the way home (I'd be driving home by myself).

I spent an hour engaged in speed birding at the Riparian Preserve at Gilbert Water Ranch the morning I was leaving to return to Utah. I also did some speed birding at Tonaquint Park in St George, but the most fun I had was the drive between those to birding spots. The images below were taken along Highway 93 between Wickenburg and Wikieup  Click here to learn more about that stretch of the road. I did my best to document the battle of the desert icons at several stops along the way. I had never seen a Joshua Tree and a Saguaro anywhere near each other--they were always hundreds of miles apart until my first drive along Highway 93.

I was quite impressed by how robust the Joshua Trees appeared and had a hard time deciding which ones to photograph. I settled for the one below because of the Creosote Bushes in the foreground and the blue sky in the background.

Joshua Tree with Creosote Bushes in Foreground Yavapai County, AZ
Further along the road I saw evidence that these desert icons were actually trying to stake their territory by intimidating one another. You can see that the Saguaro below has actually intimidated the young Joshuas to the point of them bowing at its feet.

Just meters away was a Joshua Tree sneaking up from behind on a still-confident Saguaro. Joshua was raising his arms and preparing to unleash a terrifying scream on the unsuspecting Saguaro.

After witnessing and documenting the desert battle I was relieved to discover that one mighty Saguaro was dedicated to providing direction to travelers along Highway 93. He was very faithful in his service because he was standing in the very same place on the way down to and back from Gilbert.

Now The Birds on Both Ends of the Desert Battle Ground:
On my way out of Gilbert, as mentioned previously, I did a very quick walk-through of the Riparian Preserve at Gilbert Water Ranch. Because I moved quickly I had to be opportunistic with photos. The first willing subject was a female American Wigeon.

Female American Wigeon Riparian Preserve at Gilbert Water Ranch Gilbert, AZ
The distinct cooing of Inca Doves caught my attention so I spent about ten minutes tracking down on the other side of one of the Preserve's ponds.
Inca Dove Riparian Preserve at Gilbert Water Ranch Gilbert, AZ
Inca Dove Riparian Preserve at Gilbert Water Ranch Gilbert, AZ
It wouldn't be a trip to the preserve without seeing the ubiquitous Curve-billed Thrashers.

Young Curve-billed Thrasher Riparian Preserve at Gilbert Water Ranch Gilbert, AZ
Curve-billed Thrasher Riparian Preserve at Gilbert Water Ranch Gilbert, AZ
Curve-billed Thrasher Riparian Preserve at Gilbert Water Ranch Gilbert, AZ
I found Northern Mockingbirds looking rather normal yet fluffy...
Northern Mockingbird Riparian Preserve at Gilbert Water Ranch Gilbert, AZ
...and rather odd. This bird didn't quite have the fully developed plumage .

Northern Mockingbird Riparian Preserve at Gilbert Water Ranch Gilbert, AZ
I captured the image of the Canada Goose below because the band was so visible. I wanted to report the band to the North American Bird Banding Program and learn where it was originally banded. I submitted the image, band number, and location to About a week or so later I received a certificate of appreciation which provided the location and date of the bird's banding. I was hoping for an exotic location, but it turned out that this goose was banded June 26, 2009 at Chaparral Park in Scottsdale, about 15 miles from where I photographed the bird. Apparently, this bird returns to the same general area for the breeding season. B58 is a female according to the bander.

Tagged Canada Goose Riparian Preserve at Gilbert Water Ranch Gilbert, AZ
Snowy Egrets were foraging on most of the ponds at the preserve. This one was very cooperative as I was hurrying back to my car after to begin the road trip back to northern Utah.

Snowy Egret Riparian Preserve at Gilbert Water Ranch Gilbert, AZ

Snowy Egret Riparian Preserve at Gilbert Water Ranch Gilbert, AZ
Since I was the only one in the car on the way back to Utah I stopped a number of times to photograph plants and landscapes. Below is a Prickly Pear Cactus near the multi-directional Saguaro I shared earlier in this post.

Prickly Pear Cactus on Highway 93 in Arizona
Male Apache Cicadas were using the "timbals" on the sides of their abdomens to make a lot of noise in hopes of attracting females. Adults only live for a few weeks. This guy was quite noisy so I decided to capture an image. Cicadas are the only bugs in the world that can sweat during the hottest days of summer. These cicadas spend most of their lives in underground burrows, but individuals emerge in three to five year cycles to breed. They are not considered pests and do not harm people. They don't even bite. If a bird were to pick up a male cicada it would be in for quite a shock when the cicada turns its whole body into a rattling noisemaker made of armor. Female cicadas, on the other hand might become a delicious meal, especially if it were laden with eggs.

Apache Cicada Along Highway 93 Yavapai County, AZ
I know nothing about the plants of the Sonoran Desert so I consulted with a local botanist and was informed that this plant is Nolina bigelovii. It is often called Bigelow's Nolina and Beargrass. I liked seeing them stand out with the light yellow flowering stems.

Bigelow's Nolina Along Highway 93 in Arizona
This scene included several of the desert plants that fascinated me along Highway 93--Creosote, Nolina, and Saguaro. What other plants can be identified in this image? Please share what you see when you leave a comment at the end of the post.

I stopped at Tonaquint Nature Center in St George for my last stop on my way home. The park was quite due to the lingering heat of the afternoon, but I did hear the song of my favorite summertime passerine, a bright male Blue Grosbeak. I followed his song and captured a few images before completing the last 3.5 hour segment of my return trip home.

Blue Grosbeak at Tonaquint Nature Center in St George, UT
Blue Grosbeak at Tonaquint Nature Center in St George, UT


  1. I enjoyed reading this post. That Blue Grosbeak is a beautiful-looking bird, but it was the Inca Dove that really caught my eye as I hope to maybe see one in Costa Rica early next year, and your photo gives a much more realistic idea of one than a field guide.