At Sedona, Arizona
I know them only as Kristen and Phyllis, two birders from Cottonwood, Az. I met them while hiking along the West Branch of Oak Creek, in the Coconino National Forest. With binoculars around my neck and a field guide in hand, it wasn’t hard to peg me as a fellow birder. Birders, I learned long ago, are usually helpful and often gregarious. We got talking, as birders do, and they quickly realized I was a visitor, and a visitor from afar. Veteran birders, they knew what I wanted to see even without my asking. Had I come upon the acorn woodpeckers at the beginning of the trail? “Uhh, no, and I really want that bird.” Check the dead trees behind the parking area. Gila woodpecker? Dead Horse Ranch State Park in Cottonwood. There’s a bird walk at Red Rock State Park tomorrow at 8, a great place to see some other western species, they said. You want summer tanager? Back toward the beginning of the trail. Red-faced warbler? Missed them by a week or two – they migrated.
My hike was part of a four-day getaway to the Red Rock country of Sedona, where the Red Rock mountain scenery is every bit as good as they claim. At times I just stared at the mountains, as visitors here do. But every day included a hike of several miles in the canyons. If you are going to really experience Red Rock country you need to walk Red Rock country. I came back to my motel room each day with red rock dust on my shorts, socks and boots. Get away from the paved surfaces and you see things. Sacred datura bloomed along several of the trails. It is a gorgeous plant with a massive, trumpet-like white flower almost the size of an ice cream cone, though don’t be tempted – it is poisonous and hallucinogenic. I came to Sedona expecting to find trees sparse and species few in this high desert country, but I left surprised at both the number of trees and their diversity. From my pack I pulled a leaf that I had plucked from an oak only an hour earlier, figuring I might identify the tree species more specifically once home. From its shape I assumed it must be one of the white oaks, but I had no idea which one, certainly not the white oak of the Northeast, the state tree of Connecticut. I had not brought a field guide to the trees, I told my new friends, and I was annoyed with myself. Phyllis and Kristen took a quick look and did not hesitate in their identification: gambel oak. Birds, trees, wildflowers, they knew them all.
Back at the parking area I looked for the dead trees. They were not hard to find, nor were two acorn woodpeckers, plain as day and as cooperative as Kristen and Phyllis. The birds worked the barkless, sun-bleached wood while I hauled a big lens out of my daypack. The acorn woodpeckers were new birds for me – life birds as we birders call them – and interesting ones. The acorn woodpecker has a facial pattern as distinctive as a wood duck or the American kestrel; in fact, with its white eyeball and black pupil, its white throat, black bill, white forehead, red cap, the Sibley field guide describes its appearance as clownish. The acorn woodpecker drills holes in a dead tree and stuffs the holes with acorns. In a tree not far from the parking area I came upon several more acorn woodpeckers and settled in to get more photos. I got one photo that will serve as my signature acorn woodpecker shot – an acorn woodpecker with an acorn in its bill, the acorn about to be stored in a pale-gray tree trunk riddled with holes.