Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Beware! These Birds Are Seeing Red!

The Phoenix birding scene has been buzzing lately with reports of a very uncommon Red-Necked Grebe in Tempe Town Lake. The  lake itself is actually an engorged canal, fed both by the Rio Salado river and other canals that run through the Phoenix area. It hosts impressive numbers of waterfowl including Ruddy Ducks and Shovelers, and regularly pulls in unusual visitors like Eurasian Teal.

The Red-Necked Grebe had been seen and photographed throughout the week, so I decided to investigate and maybe add a new bird to my list. The Red-Neck didn't show, or rather, the Grebe. My neck got plenty red while scanning the water. There were plenty of other birds to observe, including Pied-Billed, Western, Clark's, and Eared Grebes, as well as Coots and Redheads. There was also a solitary Canvasback, a less common and more noticeable diving duck.

I made one bad miscalculation however, in failing to appreciate the size of the lake and the distance between the pedestrian bridges and the waterfowl. I'm getting too used to the little city ponds where everything is nice and close, relatively speaking. But you know, it is probably good I was so far away. As you can see from the pictures, these lake birds have rather evil looking red eyes, eyes of killers, eyes of relentless carnivores. Truly, I worried that every time one of the red-eyed predators dove underwater, it would reemerge and launch an attack...

This Eared Grebe is probably the smallest bird you'll find on the lake. But do not let down your guard. The apex predators--lions, tigers, bears--have killed far less humans than the little organisms in this world. No one will ever know how many lives the Eared Grebe has claimed.

Slightly less lethal but far more numerous is the American Coot. Compact and coal-colored, this red-eyed water-chicken descends upon the Phoenix area waterways in vast hordes, like the barbarians amassing outside of Rome.

The Clark's Grebe's and the similar looking Western Grebes (not photographed) keep well away from the bridges, but are definitely the bosses of the lake. Grebes are known for eating feathers, supposedly to help cushion their stomachs from fish bones. But really they do it to get a taste for other birds, which they eat by the baker's dozen, just for fun.

Redheads are beautiful birds and, as evidence by their not-blood-red-eye, are of a gentler breed. That doesn't mean you want to put your hands anywhere near that pastel blue beak though...I've lost 11 or 12 fingers making that mistake (I learn slowly).

But when it comes to the similarly colored Canvasback, forget about it! The largest of the diving ducks, this red-eyed ravager commands the utmost respect and distance. It is rumored that the U.S. government had to take a restraining order out on the Canvasback so it's not allowed within 500 feet of anything dangerous is this bird.

Imminent danger aside, it was a lovely bit of power birding in the afternoon. With no sign of the Red-Necked Grebe I decided to head out and try beating the rush-hour traffic. It would've been too costly and lethal to stick around and catch the red-eye flight later on...