South Mountain morning

It was 90 degrees when I parked at the Pyramid Trail head in South Mountain Park this morning. Somehow, I must dig deep to find the character to flip my mornings: hike first, coffee later. If I’m going to be happy this summer I need to get going closer to sunrise than lunch.

Grandma and machinesConstruction was in full swing on the Chandler Boulevard extension. A grandma pulled in next to me with a little boy. They toddled off for a better look at the work, and I was slammed back 20 years, when the sight of earth-moving machines would have been a full morning’s entertainment for our kids.

I strapped on my gear: Camelback, binoculars, camera. Red Sox hat – check. Hiking stick – check.

My intention was to follow Pyramid until it reaches the old ruts that lead to the remains of a building, tucked in a canyon north and west of the lot. The stories say that the chimney and foundation are all that’s left of a speakeasy. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s a good yarn, and the ruin was the right distance for a hike at this time of day.

Black-tailed GnatcatcherI crossed the wash, hoping to see an Ash-throated Flycatcher – a common occurrence in that spot — or at least a mockingbird, but I didn’t hear much until I climbed up the other side. Then, looking into the treetops, I saw Black-tailed Gnatcatchers flitting through the branches. They were beyond the range of my lens, especially given the bird’s fast moves on the interior of the tree. But, I could ID him from his song. I stopped another hiker to tell her what I was seeing, and she was appreciative to put a name to “one of those little gray birds.” Something changes when you know a creature’s name.

The land stretches flat for the first half mile or so. Before I reached the Basura Trail cut-off, I spotted a Gila Woodpecker hanging out in the elbow of a saguaro, to the west. I’ve seen a pair of them several times on that cactus: I think they have a nest hole on the west-facing side. At the trail junction, I paused to check out a pair of trees where, in past years, I’ve seen Loggerhead Shrikes. One time we watched as one of them impaled a lizard on a thorn and broke off pieces to feed the kids. No luck today, though.

Ash-throated FlycatcherAfter I joined the old speakeasy road I finally saw an Ash-throated. In March, these flycatchers were courting – almost every branch you looked at had a singing bird perched at the tip. The babies may have fledged, because the adults have returned to more normal behavior.

Further ahead, the trail dips down into the wash again. This spot is where I spent 30 happy minutes watching an American Kestrel this winter – it’s popular with the flycatchers, too. I found some dappled shade by a tree and settled in to listen and watch: that’s how you see birds. But this is a popular trail. I’ve encountered bikes as well as hikers here, and so it was this morning. I could hear three women approaching, and one of them was telling a story about a multi-car wreck. It was a good story. After they passed I knew I had  five minutes or so to wait for the birds to start moving again.

Black-throated Sparrow 3-11 v2At the last minute, I decided to ditch the plan to visit the foundation and follow the wash instead. It offers the cover of trees and brush – welcome relief from the sun. There’s an informal trail that winds through the wash, then climbs up the slope to the north of the Basura, finally intersecting that trail a couple miles west. It’s not an official park trail, but some hikers call it the Eliminator. When I hiked it in March I saw two new birds for the first time: a Sage Thrasher (above) and a Black-throated Sparrow (left).

It was after 10 and the heat was cranking up. Time to turn around. Back on the flat I started to pick up mockingbird songs, flights of House Finches and the raucous calls of Gilded Flickers. They are more comfortable living among us –no need to look for rooftops to know that I was getting close to the parking lot.

93 degrees. Lunchtime.



  1. OMG! Liz, you’ve shown me the way . I’m in the process of starting a small blog (nature5072). I’ll get out my binoculars that also take pictures & now have a reason to go walking in the a.m. I’ve always loved birds & taken great interest in your FB posts.I sure need the exercise after so many months in bed with Valley Fever. The blog isn’t my main goal… getting out & seeing what’s making up my world is. Thanks, Kathy

    Liked by 1 person

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