By James Bishop, Jr.
(November 16, 2018)
“… The daily existence of every bird is a remote and bewitching mystery.”
— Thomas Wentworth Higginson-The Life of Birds 1868
“Let nature be your teacher”
— William Wordsworth
Never heard of the Sedona Wetlands Preserve? Ever pass by a cluster of cottonwoods and cattails just past milepost 365 on your way to Cottonwood only to see a packed parking lot on a Sunday morning? Well, then one day stop in and experience one of the more inspiring recent tourist attractions in the Verde Valley—and in Arizona.
But wait! No, there will be no hopped-up ATV’s, fancy Jeep Tours, a famed sculptor working, rare Hopi Jewelry or woo-woo Psychic Readings. Welcome to the Sedona Wetlands –transformed from a Wastewater treatment facility to a nature preserve and bird sanctuary that has become a birder’s delight and a tourist attraction.
There, you may find some of the 191 species of birds for 2018 and counting, which migrate through, stay for the summer or winter, or live here year round. Surrounding this unique man- made ecosystem, lives a mixture of wild large and small trees, shrubs and plants, all native to the local area providing a comfortable home for birds, as well as butterflies, reptiles and many other native creatures. Says birder Sam Hough, Audubon Society member and one of the early supporters of the bird sanctuary, “We get a lot of people from England, and I’ve had people from Poland and all over the world. They come to Sedona to get life birds including The Virginia Rail and the Sora. These species are really special because they’re so hard to see and you can sit here and they’ll be walking out in front of you.”
A surprise to many people except Anita MacFarlane of the Audubon Society and the late Dena Greenwood, the Sedona Wetlands Preserve – dedicated in 2013–has become one of the paramount birding destinations in Arizona. Not only does the city have a first rate wastewater treatment facility with the environmentally desirable method of disposal on 27 acres, —but in addition to the effluent targets, the wetlands offer habitat for numerous wetland species and serves as a public park for bird watching and hiking. Truth be known, the Wetlands Preserve has developed what city staffers say is, “A new arrow in Sedona’s tourism quiver and has added a new revenue stream to the local economy.”
On any given morning, tourists will often bump into local Sam Hough, the self-made volunteer of the Sedona Wetlands. “I come here almost every day and observe at the first viewing stand and the second larger viewing stand then I walk the periphery to see what is here and get some exercise”.
How did the sanctuary get off the ground the way birds do? Says Sam, a retired Lockheed engineer, “I used to be into just hiking, but a lady named Dena asked for some help with getting the Sedona Wetlands up and running as a bird preserve. She mentioned all pole plantings that had to happen and I said, ‘Who is going to plant them?’ and she said, ‘How about you?’ That was in April of 2012.” In December of 2012 the Wetlands opened to the public thanks to many volunteers and city staffers.
It is impossible to mention birding in the Verde Valley and not talk about the late, Dena Greenwood and Audubon’s Anita McFarland who were responsible for bringing birding to the top of the list for tourist attractions in the area through educating, delegating and creating such events as The Verde Valley Bird Festival and the utilization and enhancement of recently closed, Jay’s Bird Barn. It was a sad day in history when Dena passed away in June with Jay’s Bird Barn shutting its doors for good soon afterwards.
However, Sam and many others still keep her dream alive here at the Sedona Wetlands. Sam informs the forest service of the diverse wildlife species he observes. He also works with a local botanist to help promote the growth of healthy, native plants that attract a variety of birds, butterflies and more. Primarily though, Sam posts on E-bird, an amazing technological phone application that allows anyone in the world to see what birds are active at the Sedona Wetlands Preserve today.
Says Sam, “E-bird tracks and provides more information than ever before about birds all around the planet. It allows any viewer see where certain ‘hot spots’ are as well all of the behaviors, sounds, colors, flight patterns etc. there are for each bird. And every year they make it better and better.” With this new development, The Sedona Wetlands Preserve is now famous way beyond Sedona for now everybody can post their information in one place.
Like Sam himself, many local people have become birders: “We have people who do bird walks that are still working but they do bird walks in the State Park on the weekends. However, most– a lot of them are retired but just come out to see the birds”.
Birders- the new tourists- learn about which birds come and go. Some stay here in the winter when skies and waters are constantly changing. Then you have the birds that come for the summer and then so everything is constantly changing. Recalls Sam, “I came out to the wetlands on Thanksgiving morning last year and wondered, what could possibly get anyone out here to the Wetlands on Thanksgiving? Then I saw an American Bittern and posted it on E-Bird. The next thing you know, 25 people were out here at around 11:00 a.m.!”
On Sunday, November 11, Veteran’s Day of this year, another local bird expert, Rich Armstrong led the first organized Audubon bird walk of the season at the Sedona Wetlands. Eleven energetic birdwatchers were rewarded on an unseasonably cold morning with a female Lesser Scaup, a Townsend Solitaire, a Western Grebe, and numbers of Green Winged Teals, Canvas Backs, Ring Neck Ducks, Ruddy Ducks, Northern Shovelers, Eared Grebes and Mountain Bluebirds and it was only 9:00 a.m.!
Threatening the future of this place where nature is still in charge, looming like a dark cloud is the potential sale of a large-scale plot of private land up the road from the Wetlands to billion-dollar Chicago developers who have plans to build 680 home sites. “So if that project goes through, that’s going to be very bad for the Wetlands” Says Sam, looking worried“, it’s going to be bad for everyone. It is mid-morning and hear how much traffic you have here? That would turn into cement trucks and more traffic for many years to come. This place would never be the same. You will not be able to drive on these roads. This would all come to an end.”
But until that happens—and citizens are organizing against it with county executives –swing your partner round and come out to the Sedona Wetlands Preserve whether you are an avid birder, a nature walker looking for easy, flat terrain or perhaps you would like to find a bright sunny spot to go on a picnic. The Preserve provides not only beauty and wildlife but also facilities that include restrooms and shaded picnic tables. Many a dog owner also enjoys the walking the grounds with their favorite pooch. “See ya ‘round,” Says Sam as he ambles off on his morning walk, welcoming birders and writing notes in a tiny notebook.
By James Bishop Jr and Karen Walker
We should also thank former Councilman Cliff Hamilton for the foresight in helping to create the wetlands that we now enjoy in our birding. Anita MacFarlane was an early supporter of the wetlands and she worked tirelessly to make the wetlands a reality. Dena Greenwood will forever be remembered for her ability to sing like a bird by whistling of bird calls. Visiting the wetlands one can feel her soul permeating the very air we breathe and the song birds she joined. Nice story, Jim.
Very nicely written article and love the fact you mentioned Anita and Dena. Sam is so awesome sharing the birds with amazing photos and quips:) I would like to mention Barbie Hart and her crew for all the work over the years they put into the Verde Valley Bird Festival at Dead Horse State Park. I believe Barbie has passed the torch now but it is a fun time for all ages at the end of each April.
Dear Jim, I read your wonderful story about the added attraction to Sedona and how our once empty fields became the wildlife haven! What a benefit for the area. Wow!