Writing about Red Rock

In November 2008, I hiked Red Rock State Park near Sedona to research a story about its wildlife-watching opportunities.

A rainstorm had blown through the night before, leaving broken clouds behind. On the morning of my visit, cloudy skies kept many visitors away, so the crowds sometimes found in Sedona were mercifully absent.

Also absent, though not mercifully, was the wildlife. I hiked first to Oak Creek, thinking this bountiful stream flowing through the desert would yield some sightings. I saw only a pair of mallards. Walking along the creek, I listened hard for songbirds and looked for tracks or movement … nothing.

Giving up on the river, I hiked up into the nearby hills. There are several loop trails and I walked them all, stopping every few minutes to look and listen. I heard a canyon wren’s descending song and saw berry-filled scat on the trails, but after several hours in the park, I still wasn’t seeing anything worth writing about.

As the day moved along, my hope for a wildlife encounter was fading. It’s tough to write about wildlife-watching opportunities when there are no birds or animals to be seen. These moments can be nerve-racking, but as a wildlife writer you can’t let them phase you. If you get tense and start trying to force something to happen, the very feeling you’re hoping for, that engagement with the natural world and its creatures, becomes less and less likely.

Finally, there it was: my first sighting of the day. On a rock it crouched, motionless. Instantly my attention was absorbed as I felt my heart pounding. What caused this feeling, you ask? Was it a mountain lion? No. Javelina? No.

Tarantula. I write about wildlife for a living, but I’m not big on spiders. So it took awhile to gather my courage to move closer and, as the spider still didn’t move, closer still, until I was just a couple feet away. I took pictures, moving around it for a good angle; nothing. The whole time I was watching it, that spider didn’t move.

Belatedly I began to wonder if it were dead. That would be really something: To spend all day at the park looking for wildlife and find a pair of mallards, some poop on the trail and one dead spider.

Finally, I moved on and a few minutes later, stumbled into a mixed flock of Western bluebirds, dark-eyed juncos and cedar waxwings. The waxwings are elegant brown birds with dark masks and a band of bright yellow at the tip of the tail. At the flock’s edges, spotted towhees chased one another through the juniper branches.

Sitting in the red dirt, binoculars planted against my eyes, listening to the birds and watching their antics as they fed, I lost track of time. When the flock finally moved on, my heart felt as light as a waxwing’s tailfeather. I had stopped worrying about getting the story, and just started enjoying the day. A flock of songbirds on a bright hillside in late fall is a sight to lift anyone’s spirits.

“Rare Birds and Red Rocks,” May–June 2009, Arizona Wildlife Views magazine

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