We found ourselves nearly alone in the Quail Loop section of Dead Horse Ranch State Park in Cottonwood, Arizona recently, the heat, rain and humidity no doubt leaving most campers seeking cooler climes. But we didn’t mind. Our site overlooked a dry wash and backed up to a footpath that led directly to the Verde River Greenway, which meanders alongside the Verde River under the cover of tall cottonwood and willow trees and comes out near the three lagoons. Gone were the wintering ducks we saw when we visited the park in January, but there were still plenty of other birds around to feed my obsession.
Every afternoon we’d sit outside and watch thunderheads building in the southeast with a mixture of hope and concern. We needed rain in Arizona, the kind of slow, steady rain that dampens the parched earth and softens the brittle brush. Rain that replenishes the springs, surges into rivers and washes everything clean of dust. But with the storms comes the fear of lightning that can threaten the life of our forests and grasslands. So we’d watch the bright flashes of lightning and count the time before the sound of thunder hit us (“how far off we sat and wondered?”) until the thunderous booms were much too close, seeming to shake the earth, and we’d hastily pack away the chairs and take cover inside our coach.
Sometimes a passing storm would wake us in the middle of the night, but the mornings always dawned bright and clear, and I would head out early with my binoculars and camera to see if the storm had blown in anything interesting. Normally when I’m out birding, my eyes and ears are the most engaged senses, but as I stepped out into the quiet between the storms, my nose took control, delighting in the earth’s sweet and musty scents that had been released by the rain the night before. Walking along narrow footpaths in the early mornings, the air was warm and thick, the damp, the red Arizona soil sour with the smell of minerals and punctuated by the sharp fragrance of moist needles and sweet, wet oak, like the heavy scent of a wine-soaked barrel.
The story of the park’s name began in the late 1940s with the Ireys family, who came to Arizona from Minnesota looking for a ranch to buy. There was a large, dead horse lying at the side of the road at one of the first properties they visited. After two days of searching, Mr. Ireys asked the kids which ranch they liked the best, and the kids said, “the one with the dead horse, dad!” The Ireys family named their home Dead Horse Ranch and later, in 1973, when Arizona State Parks acquired the park, the Ireys made retaining the name a condition of sale. There are over 20 miles of double-track and single-track trails located within the park and Coconino National Forest that were developed and are managed by trail users, the Dead Horse Ranch Trails Coalition, Arizona State Parks Rangers, the U.S. Forest Service and volunteers.
One morning, I spotted a bobcat moving slowly through the campground and on another walk I startled a small owl off his perch as I walked along the Hickey Ditch trail. There were bright orange male Summer Tanagers (I saw only one yellow female the entire time), lots of noisy but hard to see Yellow-bellied Chats and a vigorously singing male Blue Grosbeak, his indigo feathers flashing in the morning sun. I could reliably find a Bell’s Vireo chatting to itself, answering its own question (Which Way to Wichita? This Way to Wichita!) in the same place every morning and a large group of Bewick’s Wrens invaded our campground each afternoon, buzzing around our caravan as though we had intruded on their spot. We probably had. One even surprised me by landing on the awning about two feet from me – too close to even get a picture! I hiked the trail along the swollen Verde River to the tune of Song Sparrows and the busy twittering of a band of Bridled Titmouse (or is that Titmice?). Along the Canopy Trail, the narrow footpath suddenly opened to a meadow filled with blooming Common Mullein, their tall spikes of yellow flowers like the masts of yachts in a protected harbor. The lagoons were home to Green Heron, Sora, Spotted Sandpiper and one morning, two beautiful White-faced Ibis. All along the trails were delicate Damselflies and lightning fast lizards, the names of which I’m still learning.
Toward the end of the week, the campground started filling with “weekenders” and our quiet, secluded spot was not so quiet and secluded anymore. Still, it was a wonderful stay, despite – or because of – the inclement weather. The quiet between the storms was not all that quiet, after all.
Please click on the image below to enjoy a slideshow of the birds and other critters I saw on this trip.