Friday, February 22, 2013

New Birds in Old Places

These last few weeks I've been forcibly trying to bird more on workdays. After school, I usually have about an hour and a half of good daylight, and even though rush hour (it's not just an hour...) traffic is always a bother, I've been able to fit in some brief but good birding throughout these last few weeks. Often times I leave the camera in the car, in part because I often run out of the necessary time and light needed to pursue photos, and also because there's something refreshing about not having any of the anxieties that come with missing a good shot or making sure to come away with some good photos for one's trouble. 
As such, I've been able to get a lot more birding in this 2013 year and see a lot more birds sooner than I have before. I'd be lying if I said that seeing my name so low in the eBird species lists after January wasn't a substantial motivating factor, but of course the satisfaction and refreshment of birding is reward and motivation in and of itself. One of my recent destinations, which is fortunately nearby, was the Rio Salado/Salt River Audubon Center on Central Ave. 

For being only ten or fifteen minutes south of the downtown (Phoenix is weird like that), this Audubon center is very nice and sits on a pretty piece of property overlooking the Salt River. This site hosts the monthly Birds and Beer get-together and, equally fun, has also hosted a Pacific Wren and Eastern Phoebe this winter. The birds themselves hang out about a half-mile away from the center, down near the trickling water. I used to go birding here quite often before I moved farther away, as it was one of the best places to see Black-throated Grey Warblers and Green-tailed Towhees in Phoenix. 

In addition to the lessened proximity, another one of the reasons I had stopped birding near this center/along this portion of the Salt River was that it's totally trashed. I've had some unpleasant run-ins with vagrants down in the Salt River wash, and the riverbed is strewn with garbage. 

Traipsing through this materialist quagmire, I was constantly looking over my shoulder for a large, one-eyed squid monster to pop out and grab me. You know, like the one living in the garbage compactor in the Star Wars movie? The accumulated trash stretches for miles along the river. It's bad in part because there are seldom any organized cleanups  here and this is where the Salt River dumps everything out, from old frisbees to plastic bottles, car parts, and 1990s-style sneakers (which is also why there's less demand to clean here than where people actually go fishing and tubing farther east).

The area wasn't exceptionally birdy--I only had the usual Herons, along with Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped Warblers and Black Phoebes for company--but the whole trek paid off when I spotted a conspicuously white-breasted Phoebe in the willows about half a mile west of the central avenue overpass (in the river bed). 

The Eastern Phoebe, a rare but regular vagrant to Arizona in the winter months, only stayed visible for a few minutes before it flew farther west. I had a hard time following the bird as I was looking into the sun, which was also reflecting off the water to form a dual-effect solar blind. I felt like I had to thread the needle, shooting manually through all the willow twigs, but given how short a time I had with the bird it was a very satisfying sighting. It wasn't a lifer, but it was my first Eastern Phoebe in Arizona.

Heading back towards the Audubon center I heard the Pacific Wren vocalizing a Kinglet-like buzz call and saw the bird very briefly, but being low down in the wash and with the sun falling from the sky, and also this Wren's typical behavior, further photos weren't an option. A handsome Cooper's Hawk served as a great consolation sighting at the end of the walk, and I left the Rio Salado area feeling very glad to have revisited this quintessential desert riparian birding site. 

The Birds and Beer event is hosted every third Thursday of the month. I haven't been yet, but I had a celebratory Sierra Nevada Torpedo IPA at home after this trip, and will try to make it for some hobnobbing next month.