by Magill Weber
It’s almost unfathomable to those who have not been to Phoenix, Arizona, but we have water here. A lot more water than you might imagine. Each year, on the third Saturday in January, every Phoenix birder who can walk more than five feet gets dragged out of bed to cover every single one of these urban and suburban ponds, some barely bigger than a puddle. Permission is wrangled from hundreds of golf course superintendents, gated community homeowners associations, and other private landowners. Birders ogle waterfowl that bred on a remote prairie pothole in Saskatchewan now sitting at arm’s length next to a parking lot. For most of these ponds, you definitely don’t even need binoculars, let alone a scope.
Last year’s Greater Phoenix Aquatic Waterfowl Survey tallied more than 62,000 waterfowl and other water-related birds. Not bad for an urban area, let alone one in a desert. Over the years, the survey has produced some notable finds, including Pacific Loon, Long-tailed Duck, all three possible scoters, and Maricopa County’s first record of Least Grebe, found in a pond the size of a large Jacuzzi tub behind a suburban retirement condo complex. Every year survey bragging rights go to whomever can find one of a handful of Eurasian Wigeons that inevitably turn up with the almost 20,000 American Wigeons counted each year.
This year, as per usual, I got up at 5:30am to cover Tempe Town Lake, a man-made concrete pipe of water wedged between two major freeways, the Arizona State University football stadium, and North America’s tenth busiest airport. Tempe Town Lake is my regular patch, and I cover it by boat four times a week, mostly while I’m coaching rowing.
Right on cue for the start of the count, the three resident Brown Pelicans soared past our fleet of rowing shells. These directionally challenged birds blew in on a summer monsoon storm in September of 2013 as first summer juvies, and have hung around since that time. At the lake’s East Dam where most of the waterfowl like to hide, I added a few dabblers, a trio of Western Grebes, and a small raft of Ruddy Ducks and Eared Grebes, along with a large flight of Neotropic Cormorants. Neotropics were formally locally rare, but in recent years, a large colony at a private water company recharge pond in suburban Chandler is cranking out multiple nest cycles a year, and Tempe Town Lake is a popular foraging spot for the colony several miles distant. A Spotted Sandpiper and several Least Sandpipers rounded out the lake tally.
After Tempe Town Lake, I headed to Encanto Park, just north of downtown Phoenix. The number of eBird reports from Encanto Park has skyrocketed since 2012 when the Rosy-faced Lovebird was added to the American Birding Association (ABA) list, and has since become a mandatory stop for any visiting birder. Saturday afternoons at Encanto Park are a classic urban birding experience—dodging loose dogs and stray children while a substantial number of the Phoenix area’s 4.3 million other residents enjoy giant birthday parties featuring mariachi bands and inflatable bouncy houses for the kids. The lovebirds seem to love it as much as their native Namibia. Along with the ubiquitous Rosy-faced Lovebirds and no less than six rental bouncy castles, this afternoon’s tally included 64 Ring-necked Ducks, some Mallards, a Pied-billed Grebe and 32 members of a growing resident flock of moffitti Canada Geese. A wintering Lewis’s Woodpecker on a palm tree in the parking lot and a pair of Harris’s Hawks flying around were nice birds for the middle of the city.
I finished the survey off with stops at two golf courses, where I added a few Ring-necked Ducks, some American Wigeon, Mallards, a few Pied-billed Grebes, and a surprising male Canvasback. The last stop of the day was the pond at Steele Indian School Park, which had a female Common Goldeneye (another great find for a downtown park), a single Ruddy Duck, some Ring-neckeds, Northern Pintail, American Wigeons, and one odd molting male Northern Shoveler.
My hot streak with the survey continued—for the ninth year in a row, I found no Eurasian Wigeons.
Magill Weber lives and birds in downtown Phoenix, Arizona. Her favorite bird is the American Dipper, and if one turns up in Phoenix, she will declare the Urban Birding Challenge officially won.