Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Ducks in the Desert

You wouldn’t think there would be ducks in the desert, but there are. Besides the few oases and year round rivers, one of the best places to find shore birds and waterfowl is at the Waste Water Treatment Plants. In my quest to compete for a Big January I decided to stop at the Green Valley Waste Water Treatment Facility today on my way to the store. It was well worth the effort, for, not only did I increase my month total by 14 birds; I also added a new species to my life list.

The GVWWTP is off Continental rd. To visit you must sign in at the office and sign out when you leave. I arrived at 11:55 a.m. and parked my vehicle near the evaporation ponds. I haven’t been here since my birding trip with Tucson Audubon. That time I was with a group of 12 or more. This time I was alone-just me and the birds, and there were a lot of them.

I walked quietly to the first pond which is full of Northern shovelers. I see a few Widgeons here also. Along the “shore,” if you can call it that, least sandpipers and killdeer are picking along with great-tailed grackles and rock pigeons. Across the pond Red-winged blackbirds and Brewer’s blackbirds flock in the brush and among the buildings and equipment. The stench is noticeable but not overwhelming. I’m soon lost in a world of birds and I no longer notice it. The mesquite trees offer me some shade and some camouflage. I stand quietly and the birds soon relax as if I’m not even there. In the middle of this pond the water rushes out of some giant spout. It causes a constant wave to lap the shore and all the ducks face into the current in a circle, so most of them have their tails facing outward. It’s almost as if they are taking part in some duck idol worship with the spout being the object of adoration. Sometimes one or another will swim towards the shore before joining the flock again.

I walk quietly north towards other ponds scanning the horizon for birds. It is now that I see a patch of white on the far bank. I look through my binoculars but can’t believe my eyes. I think I see a snow goose, but it slips down below the bank. I walk farther north and finally see the goose again, but wait! There are two of them. Since this is a new sighting for me, it requires a consultation with my bird guides. I slip my bag of notebooks and bird guides to the ground, pull out my glasses and start researching. I can’t believe what I am reading, for the information before me says I am seeing Ross’s geese, not snow geese. I continue to watch the geese for 30 minutes or more. I snap off 10 to 20 photos in hopes that I will be able to get a better look once I am home. I notice that both geese have small pink bills and rounded heads, though one seems more rounded than the other. Still, I am not seeing the characteristic “Grin patch” of the Snow Goose or the longer, flatter bill shape.

In the pond where the geese are I find more ring-necked ducks and ruddy ducks, along with green-winged teal. I spot a few gadwalls in the bunch, as well as some coots. Sandpipers and killdeer are everywhere along the shores. I catch a movement from the corner of my eyes and look off to the east where there is yet another pond. Here I watch as a prairie falcon swoops down towards the ducks, lands on the shores, then takes to the air again. With strong beats of its pointed wings it swoops and dives, then flies off over the eastern bank. At the same time the falcon is swooping and diving, a Northern Harrier makes its lazy flight over the grassy banks and the desert beyond.

As I’ve been standing and watching the sun has steadily risen in the sky. I’m starting to feel warm in my fleece vest. My stomach is starting to growl and I really have to pee. All the ducks are tucking their beaks into their wings for an afternoon nap. It feels warm and lazy and peaceful with the dull hum of the treatment plant motors in the background. My eyes are getting bleary form bird watching and my brain has turned to mush. Still, it is with reluctance that I decide to leave. I just KNOW there are more birds to be counted beyond the next bank.

I get in my car and drive back to the office to sign out. Then, on my way out I scan the trees and fences again. I stop by the mesquite tree near the pond when I hear a sound. I see movement and pull out my binos once again. A yellow-rumped warbler is my reward. On the utility wires I spot a kestrel, then on the fence I see the shape of a flycatcher. I have to get at a better angle for the sun, and once I do I can verify a Say’s Phoebe. Enough already! I roll up the windows and drive to the store where I walk around aimlessly thinking of birds.

Once at home I check the Tucson Audubon Rare bird alert. It is here that I read about the Ross’s geese seen at the Green Valley Waste Water Treatment Plant. One is a purebred Ross’s goose, and the other is a hybrid that hangs out there. Reading this verifies what I suspected. I am learning to trust my observations even more.


New today: 46. Ross's Goose, 47: Gadwall, 48. Ruddy Duck, 49. Bufflehead, 50. Green-winged teal, 51. Lesser Scaup, 52. American pipit, 53. Red-winged blackbird, 54. Least sandpiper, 55. Prairie falcon, 56. Red-winged blackbird, 57. Brewer's blackbird, 58. Great-tailed grackle, 59. American Kestrel, 60. Rock pigeon.


Larry said...

Wow! You had a great day of birding.-I would be excited too-I've never seen a Ross's Goose. If I ran in to one unexpectedly I would really be fired up!

Mary said...


You are doing great. It sounds like you are in a great area!

I particularly feel connected with how you described yourself, getting tired, but not wanting to leave for fear you'll miss something. "Oh, just a few more minutes" I think to myself, knowing very well that sometimes life gets in the way of fun.

Good post.

Kathie Brown said...

Larry, I was fired up. I couldn't believe my eyes. I was so glad to have the camera and though that photo is cropped and expanded, you can still see the bird. I think it has the cutest face! The goose at the bottom is the hybrid and his face isn't as round and cute. That was my first time going to the GVWWTP by myself. It certainly paid off!

Mary, It's good to know I'm not alone in those feelings of not wanting to miss anything. Thanks for your feedback.

Amy said...

Sounds like a great day! Especially since you saw a new species. That's always exciting. Your list is amazing!

Kathie Brown said...

Amy! A new picture I see! I love Red-breated nuthatches! I have to go up to the mountains to see them around here though. I read an article by Ken Kaufman once where he was trying to deside what his favorite bird was. He finally decided it was whatever species he was looking at at the moment. I tend to agree! I'll stop by to visit your Twelve Acres soon!