At Picture Canyon

The waning moon sets beyond the branches of a ponderosa. Nothing else to see here, honest!
The waning moon sets beyond the branches of a ponderosa. Nothing else to see here, honest!

In writing about my recent photo hike at Picture Canyon, I run the risk of getting a questionable reputation: I’m that unusual woman who likes to hang out at wastewater treatment plants.

My previous post, “A Second Opportunity,” extolled the delights of the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch, which uses reclaimed water from the city of Gilbert. And now I’m writing about this reclaimed wetland downstream from Flagstaff’s Wildcat Hill Wastewater Treatment Plant.

What can I say? In arid Arizona, any free-flowing water is bound to attract wildlife. And where there is wildlife, there are people like me, who love looking for it. We stroll slowly down the paths or stand stock still, necks at odd angles as we stare into silent trees, bearing our burdens bravely: binoculars on elastic harnesses, spotting scopes on tripods, cameras in backpacks.

Picture Canyon has many devotees in Flagstaff who are stewarding it back to health. Once called “Sewer Canyon,” it’s now been cleaned up and the streambed restored to a more natural meander. Native plants and wildlife have returned to the area. I’d already explored the trails twice, taking scenic photographs and getting used to the area; on this trip, I hoped to bring back photographic evidence of wildlife.

Scenic Picture Canyon in autumn.
Scenic Picture Canyon in autumn.

Autumn in Flagstaff sometimes means still breezes and sunny skies at 60 degrees, but not this time. Intermittent blasts of wind at 20 mph meant I couldn’t hear birds. Wind also meant cold, not just for me, but for the wildlife I’d come to find.

It was tempting to turn and flee to the warm car, but I am nothing if not stubborn, and since the light was fine, I set out in search of my goals. I wanted a Lewis’s woodpecker, that strange bird with the glossy green-black coat and scarlet breast. I wanted mule deer silhouetted amid golden autumnal grasses. I wanted migrating pintails, their chocolate-colored feathers gleaming.

One thing about wildlife watching is, what you want is often not what you get. The reason I keep coming back to wild places has less to do with meeting predetermined goals than with enjoying the satisfactions of any given day. It’s important to simply show up, open your eyes and pay attention.

On this day, my attention was rewarded by time spent watching a flock of mallards paddling on a pond, and a raucous crowd of American robins and Steller’s jays chasing bugs and one another through bare-limbed oaks.

I went home happy, thinking at least I’d seen everything there was to see … and then had one more surprise. I was processing images of the waning moon alongside an old ponderosa when I spotted the acorn woodpecker perched on a branch. I hadn’t seen the bird when the moment happened. Isn’t that just like an acorn woodpecker? They’re such tricksters.

It’s not a publishable photo, as far as I’m concerned. For one thing, I stitched together two images to get both the tree and the moon in focus; for another, the tree’s shape is too busy, making the bird hard to find. (Click on the photo at the top, and see if you spot him.) But I like it simply as a record of a day when I showed up to see what was happening, and was surprised once again by what I found.


2 thoughts on “At Picture Canyon

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  1. From my students: I really like the pictures, it’s a great view and it’s really pretty. I like how you kind of tricked people by telling them there was nothing there (in your picture) but when we looked closer, there was a woodpecker. I think it’s really cool that you are really interested in wildlife. I like your descriptions for the animals. How did you get such good pictures? How did you get so close to the bird without it flying away? I like how you use interesting words to describe your adventure.

    1. Wendy, thank you for sharing this post with your students. I really appreciated their thoughtful comments. To answer their questions, taking good photos requires time, patience and good camera gear. I was using a very big camera lens that allowed me to zoom in on the birds even when I was very far away. That lens lets me watch them closely without bothering them, which is important when we watch wildlife. So I wasn’t really close to the bird, it just looks that way. Good questions!

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