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expanded horizons

A couple of weeks ago D rejoiced at recording his 900th bird. After an overwhelming spring, it was slow going for parts of the summer. The migrant species disappeared from our environs and D came close to tapping the potential of his regular birding grounds. With fall now in full swing, migrating birds are back, and D has even glimpsed a few early arrivals of species that winter in Arizona.

In addition to the change in seasons, D’s birding efforts have also benefited from an expanded map. We’ve made several trips to Willow and Watson Lakes in Prescott. S wanted to hike among Prescott’s Granite Dells, but D made sure to bring along his birding gear and succeeded in recording a handful of birds he had not previously seen.

D also recently snuck in a brief visit to the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch in Gilbert, outside Phoenix. The preserve boasts at least 300 recorded species — considerably more than our local wetlands, which top out in the mid 200s. D saw several new species there, as well as a great heron — a bird we saw with regularity in Africa, but hadn’t come across in the States until now.

On the flip side, D apparently missed a roseate spoonbill that has been spotted at the preserve — a rare bird for these parts and one we have only seen previously at the Tracy Aviary. D has been lamenting this miss ever since. He had also been hoping to spot a cactus wren — the state bird of Arizona, which lives at lower elevations — but here too he came up empty.

It frequently happens that whenever one finds a new bird, the first photographs of it tend to be barely usable: maybe one catches a blurry image of the bird in flight, or it is mostly obscured by foliage, or it is backlit and far away. That has mostly been the case for the dozen or so birds that were entirely new to D before he photographed them over the last two weeks.

The most prominent example of this was the Wilson’s snipe D found at Willow Lake. D was thrilled when he spotted the snipe among the raft of ducks thronging the shore — snipe tend to be inconspicuous, secretive birds. After getting a few shots at a distance that were good enough to confirm the bird’s identity, D spent the better part of an hour trying to sneak up on it to get a clearer photo, but with very limited success.

To get close enough to the snipe, D had to navigate the mudflats, and he mostly succeeded only in wrecking his hiking boots (though, admittedly, they were already falling apart and destined for the trash heap). The ducks would scatter whenever D got too close, and the snipe would cower behind odd branches, making itself appear small and blending in with surprising efficacy among its surroundings despite the absence of a proper hiding place.

On the other hand, early shots of a new bird simply serve as a baseline on which to improve. The best example of this is greater roadrunner, which we had glimpsed a handful of times on our road trip through Arizona and New Mexico a few years ago. At the time, D managed to get one far-off photo. He hadn’t seen a roadrunner since we returned to Arizona in April, until last week — when he saw two, both of which paused just long enough to provide D with two perfect shots.

Pictured above: greater roadrunner, northern pintail, great egret, black-necked stilts, yellow-headed blackbird, Lincoln’s sparrow, American wigeon, snowy egret. New birds below:

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