Neither my husband nor I were surprised when a guest walked into our living room and was automatically drawn to the long, high window on the partially earth-bermed side of our Arizona home.He smiled as he watched a parade of Gambel’s quail – those handsome blue-gray birds with white dashes on their wings and black and white markings plus a distinctive erect tassel on their heads. The males boast a buff-colored-and-black, half-bulls-eye mark on their chests. On that particular day, several chicks were toddling about looking like peanuts on toothpicks. Quail moms and dads are so diligent and responsible that they could conduct classes in parenting – Mom is usually at the front and Dad at the rear of a group of perhaps thirteen chicks. He stands guard on something higher than the ground, such as a rock or tree stump, while the family drinks water.When he says, “Go!” the chicks run in line, scurrying to keep up.
After the bird action calmed down, our guest turned his attention to a small waterhole about five feet from the house. What looked like a hole was actually a small, shallow container that automatically filled with water whenever the level dropped. Water is important in the desert, and quite a variety of wildlife is attracted to it.For example, tiny Harris ground squirrels, about three inches long, tan, with dark brown-and-off-white racing stripes down each side of their bodies, were frequent visitors.They flick their fluffy tails that are about the same length as their bodies, as they stand on their hind legs to gain a better view.
My ever-ready camera waited on a cabinet below the window. Since the berm came up to the windowsill, the eye-level of the indoor photographer was perhaps a foot or two higher than the ground. Most of the time, I used a 70- 300mm telephoto lens. That worked well with small animals, but sometimes the larger animals required that I change to a normal lens. Film speeds weren’t a problem. I used anything from ISO 50 to 400, depending on the amount of movement of the subjects, the light conditions, and the background effect that I wanted. This allowed enough leeway for me to enjoy the process, and I did.
One animal I especially enjoyed was the javelina (have-uh-LEENA), a wild relative of the pig that has stiff-looking bristles it can raise from the back of its neck.The babies look exactly like the parents, only smaller and cuter. Luckily for me, javelinas don’t see well. I could move slowly inside the house without alerting them to take off like a bolt of lightning, as other wild creatures often did. They compensate for their poor vision with a strong sense of smell. The males have serious-looking tusks that can appear threatening when the occasion requires it. Another defense javelinas have is their musk glands. Maybe the glands aren’t meant to be repellent. In fact, javelinas probably smell good to each other, but when they wallowed in the waterhole at night, we could easily detect their passage the next morning. The polite word is “odoriferous.”Their idea of a grand treat is digging up cactus plants to feast on the roots.I’ve seen them drink their fill of water, then lie down and take a nap next to house in the middle of the day. That doesn’t mean that they’re pets.If someone walks outside, they’ll trot off in a family group to travel the dry desert washes. Keep your distance, and if you’re lucky, you’ll get to photograph them.
Our house was built to blend in with the landscape of the mid-altitude Sonoran Desert.We took great pains to preserve the natural vegetation.When our guest noticed our long hallway lined with six three-by-six-foot windows, he exclaimed, “Your house is built like a wildlife blind!” We smiled and nodded. It was a very comfortable 2,500 square-foot blind, convenient for people who didn’t have the time or inclination to sit outside in a canvas enclosure and wait for something to happen.
Things did happen around our house. Coyotes made eye contact with me when I glanced outside.However, they’re wily and know enough not to hang around long, which makes them difficult to photograph.In the summer when there wasn’t much water for deer at the higher altitudes, they dared to approach civilization. I became excited when I got up, walked into the living room, and saw several mule deer nibbling the foliage near the house. It was so thrilling that it was difficult for me not to make a dash for my camera.But even our house/blind didn’t work that way. I had to force myself to move slowly. Creeping behind furniture, I stalked the animals and then rose slowly, trying not to press the shutter button hard enough to move the camera.I photographed several bobcats in this manner, hundreds of cottontails, a few shy jackrabbits, rock squirrels, birds of many species (including a rare zone-tailed hawk in the act of killing a mourning dove), insects, snakes, lizards, and a pack rat.
As a matter of fact, the pack-rat is a darling animal–gray and tan, with beady black eyes, and pink ears, nose, and feet. It would be easy to become enamored of such a charmer. He builds his home in branches of cholla cactus from sticks and whatever else his little heart desires. One time, I accidentally came across a nest that was decorated with plastic flowers dragged from a cemetery about a half-mile away. Surprisingly, this rodent possesses one talent that can strike terror in the hearts of men.It can disable a vehicle. It crawls up into a motor and chews the wires to wear down its fast-growing teeth and, at the same time, sharpen them.The photo of a pack rat shown here is the only one that wasn’t taken from inside our house. My helpful spouse caught it in a Havahart trap (they’re humane), and then asked me if I wanted to photograph it. Of course I did!He emptied the trap into an empty garbage can to give me a chance to get several shots of the occupant. Afterward, I was afraid to ask what happened to my poor subject, but I was pleased to learn that my husband released it into a woodpile. How appropriate. Another name for the pack-rat is wood rat.
Thus ends the saga of our Cave Creek, Arizona house. We have since moved about a hundred miles up the road to the high-altitude Sonoran Desert. Since development is denser in our new location, the coyotes have to travel closer to the houses. When they howl at night, it sounds as though they’re in the next room, and I’ve captured better shots of them. Wildlife photography is fun for me—especially when I can do it from inside our house. You can’t top it for convenience.
By Gene K. Garrison