Nature Song Field Journal: Native Plants and Local Sounds of the Verde Valley

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Stunning natural beauty has always been one of Sedona and the Verde Valley’s biggest draws.  From the majestic red rocks and wide open spaces, to the panoramic sunset views, this corner of Arizona has been well-documented in post cards and well-traveled by tourists.

Some among us have always been interested in a closer look (and listen), however.  The less well-traveled path.  Doug Von Gausig, a naturalist (who incidentally also happens to be the mayor of Clarkdale), is one of these people.  His website,, features nature sound recordings, photographs, and offers help with the identification and taxonomy of local Verde Valley flowers and plants.

I spoke with him only after first surfing onto his website by accident and noticing both the local and unique angle.

Can you tell me a little bit about your website,  Why did you start the website?  What is represented there?

The website was started in the 1990’s as a way to disseminate natural sounds, especially bird songs.  The main purpose was as a resource for bird sounds.  I started posting these sound recordings on the web, and it all expanded from that.  Currently, there are over 200 bird species represented in sound recordings on the site and another 100 or so amphibians, mammals and insect recordings.

Some people were also interested in identifying local plants around the Verde Valley, so I started a separate page on the site to help identify those.  We have people writing everyday asking for help identifying plants as well as sounds.  Naturesongs is actually one of the more visited naturalist sites on the web today.

Are you a botanist by profession?  What is your background?

I am a biologist by training.  I have a B.S. from ASU, graduating in 1970. After I got out of the Air Force, I worked full time as a botanist for 4 years.  This really has always been an avocation, if not at all times a vocation.

How did you go about identifying the many native plants in the
VerdeValley?  Do you have recordings of local sounds–birds, insects, and nature available on your website, too?

I use several resources to help identify both sounds and native plants.   There are a number of books, and the Arizona Native Plant Society is also very helpful.  There is a network of people from around Sedona and Prescott who are interested in these things who help as well, both professionals and amateurs.

Some species are very easy to identify.  Some take lots of research, due to a great number of variations among the species.

I believe that I’ve recorded every species of bird that normally occurs in the Verde Valley. There are other natural sounds available on the site, too.

We actually sell a lot of sounds to museums, plays, movies, and websites—soundscapes of the area, of animals, oceans.  Also, we hear from a tremendous amount of conservation organizations.  My policy is that for any conservation organization and most non-profits, I don’t charge for the use of my sounds.  I do charge commercial users, though.

As far as photographs, we get requests mainly for books on plants of the area, magazines, nature web sites, and museums. They may need photos of plants showing the flowering stage, or the bark of a tree, for example. We also hear from bird book publications and magazines. My photographs have appeared in Field and Stream, High Country News, and many other publications, even Highlights for Children.

As it is a very popular thing to do here in the area, do you have any tips on how to go about getting better nature photographs?  You always see the same kind of sunset photos, etc…

Patience.  You really need to sit still for 35-40 minutes before birds or other animals will come along again.  You are trying to blend in with the natural environment.  You need to sit in one place for a long time and also be fairly close to your subjects. I find it’s best to let them come to you, they are more comfortable that way, and less cautious.

I once sat on a six-foot step ladder for 6 hours every day for months to get good recordings—just sitting in the middle of Tavasci Marsh with my equipment.

What are a few especially interesting native plant species?  How about ‘invasive’ species?

Russian Knapweed is one invasive species that is taking hold of the Verde Valley, but there are many others.  Pampas Grass down by the river, Giant Reed.  There are lots of efforts locally to get these species out of the riparian areas.  At least half of all plants in the Verde Valley are considered invasive.

Once interesting native species is the Milk Vetch, also called ‘loco weed.”  The way the species got its common name was that cattle started acting crazy after eating it.  There are certain poisons within the plant.  There are actually 50-60 varieties, each occupying a special niche.  Each a specialist.

Do you know of any interesting story surrounding the name of local plants?

You find a great deal of plants named after the person who discovered them.  There was an Army naturalist working in the area during the late 1800’s/early 1900’s by the name of Dr. Edgar Mearns.  I find it interesting reading his reports about the Peck’s Lake/Tavasci Marsh area. He catalogued several local plants and animals and his name is part of their names.

Do you have photography and recordings available for sale on your website?  Is it a business?  Tell readers a little bit about what is available.

I have accumulated much over the years.  It is a business.  I have both recordings and photography for sale.  Another interesting thing on the site is that the local weather is available for viewing.  I have a weather station at my house and information is uploaded to the internet every 15 minutes.

Anything else you would like to add?

Well, the website is there to encourage people to enrich their experience while out in nature.  To listen and experience with their ears as well as just with their eyes An ‘ear birder’ has a much richer experience than just a visual birder, because they have a more complete impression of what is around them.


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