Feature Story – Fall 2017

Winging It

Start your birding adventure in Greater Phoenix | By Jackie Dishner

My first inclination to try birding came several years ago, when a trip to southeastern Arizona happened to coincide with the region’s famous annual sandhill crane migration. Curiosity led me to follow a growing flock of the shadowy figures gliding through the sky to the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area south of the town of Willcox.

Here, the three-foot-tall birds landed en masse, upright, in ponds already filled with hundreds more. Around me—behind binoculars, scopes, and camera lenses—birders from around the world had also traveled to this part of the state, known for its many birding habitats, to witness this sight. Inspired by the encounter, I recently donned my own binoculars and got my start as a birder in a lesser-known birding locale: Greater Phoenix.

As it turns out, this area is rich in bird life. Of the 10,000-plus bird species in the world, about 500 of them have been spotted in Arizona, says Kathe Anderson, a local birder who leads guided tours for regional chapters of the Audubon Society, state parks, and other organizations. And 400 of those can be seen in Greater Phoenix and its surrounding communities in Maricopa County. Birders can spot common Sonoran species such as the cactus wren or Gila woodpecker, and also elusive birds such as Le Conte’s thrasher.

“If you liked collecting things as a kid,” explains Kurt Radamaker, a founding member of Arizona Field Ornithologists, “you’ll probably like birding. You’re basically collecting bird sightings.”

I test this theory on my first outing with a local birder, Aubrey Jackson, who has agreed to act as my guide at Tempe Town Lake. The best birding times, she tells me, are early morning or late afternoon, when birds are most active. I choose afternoon, because she says we may catch snowy egrets flying off the lake at dusk to roost in the marsh.

To prepare, I fill the many pockets of my travel vest with a field guide to Western region birds, a notebook, a pen, my smartphone for photos, two bottles of water, and a small pair of binoculars that fit snugly in one hand. I also bring sunscreen and a hat.

“Oh, you don’t really need all that,” Jackson says before we take off by bike near Scottsdale’s Indian Bend Wash toward Tempe Town Lake.

On a later trek, Kathe Anderson mirrors Jackson’s advice. “Some of the best birding happens when you just sit quietly and use your senses.” It’s a lot easier, too, not having to juggle equipment. But I want to see the birds up close.

“Birding taught me mindfulness,” Jackson says, pedaling up ahead. “You don’t have time to pay attention to worries when you’re outside focused on looking for birds.” You’re automatically prompted with questions, which “makes your brain light up,” she says: “Where is it going? What is it doing? Why is it squealing like that?”

Jackson spots our first find—birds perched in some mesquite trees. She calls it “getting on the bird.” I can’t see them, so she helps me use an imaginary clock face to direct my eyes on one. “It’s at 2 o’clock. Oh, now it’s moved to 9 o’clock.” I clumsily lift my binoculars to zoom in on a bird smaller than my palm. Too late.

“Listen. What do you hear?” she asks.

“A whistle sound,” I say.

She helps me use “field marks” to identify a red head, a stubby nose that blends in with a gray face, a red neck, and long gray tail feathers.

“What is it doing?” Jackson asks me of the bird, now forcing its bill into the ground.

I guess: “Looking for food?”

We use my field guide to verify it’s a house finch. Satisfied, I’m happy to watch it dig for seeds and bugs.

Birding takes patience, I learn. You wait to see what happens.

For the next two hours, we ride and stop, ride and stop, spotting birds along our route. Cliff swallows zigzag overhead, scooping up insects, returning to mud nests underneath the bridge. Flocks of geese and their babies, cormorants, and coots gather on a lake island. A red-winged blackbird engages in a mating call and dance, flashing a bright burst of red and white plumage. A European starling takes off, cottonwood fluff stuffed in his bill. And just before sunset, as we’re heading back, Jackson calls out, “Oh, look!” She points to an arrangement of white spots on the branches of cottonwoods in the riparian area below our bike path. I lift my binoculars.

“The snowy egrets!” Just like us, calling it a day.