Finding Birds in Unusual Places

January 3, 2015

Setting off with two bird-nerd friends to explore a new birding spot north of Tucson, Coachline Gravel Pit, I was fascinated by the prospect of birding for waterfowl at such a location.

In Pennsylvania where I grew up, we had quarries which, when abandoned and filled up with water, became rogue swimming holes.  In Virginia, we had “borrow pits”, that seemed a very strange name for a very large terraced excavated hole in the ground into which no dirt was returned.  My relationship with a private borrow pit near where I lived in Hampton was interesting.  While excavating the pit, owners, Mr. & Mrs. Rice,  had unearthed bones of a 60-foot prehistoric whale which they donated to the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum.  [Subsequently, the bones were discovered to be a new whale species, named “Balaena rice” after its donors.]  In the 1970s, when I lived nearby, the old borrow pit was known as Rice’s Fossil Pit.  Located within bicycling distance, it served as a great place to spend a morning or afternoon with my three sons who searched for whole seashells.  Most of the  fossil shells were the same as those that could be found on our local beaches but one, the Ecphora,  belonged to an extinct sea creature.  I’m guessing that Andy still possesses our treasured finds of that particular shell.

My digression leads to my being very “word-happy" to visit a logically-named Gravel Pit which, just a year ago, was being re-used as a disc golf course.  According to information from the Tucson Audubon Society, the pit can fill up with water during large rainfall events like the summer monsoon of 2014 plus overflow water from the adjacent Santa Cruz River.  Thus, it’s listed as a “New” birding spot that we are about to explore while the water lasts.  

The main birds we wanted to see there were a reported Snow Goose and a White-fronted Goose.  After reaching the top of the berm and looking out over the wide “lake”, I  was rather surprised to see “islands” that provided habitat for shorebirds, too.  Our target birds were not in view even with the spotting scope, so we decided to walk as much of the lake frontage as possible.  Frozen shoreline was thawing so we ended up lifting what felt like a pound of extra weight of mud on our shoes with each step as we continued to search.  Obviously, we saw other waterfowl, too, including three Canvasbacks that hadn’t been observed there for months.

Seeing a Sora swim a short distance between two small islands, was a first for me.  A small stocky marsh bird with a short yellow bill and chicken-like feet, the Sora lives secretively among reeds. It must have strong legs to have swum quite quickly the three-foot distance between the two islands of downed limbs. Too engrossed in watching the Sora, I neglected to take a photo!

Many Tree Swallows were finding insects above the water.  Northern Rough-winged Swallows were getting their share, too.  One of my favorite flycatchers, a distant Vermilion, was also enjoying the action.

After spending over an hour at this spot and not finding our large birds, we decided to continue on to the other birding spots we had lined up for the day.  As I sat on a railroad-tie-step of the berm to clean mud from my shoes, I heard Susan call out from beside the car:  “Here they come!”    Flying in together at 10 a.m. were the Juvenile Snow Goose and the White-fronted Goose.  We had already packed in our scopes, but Doug Jenness had arrived with his and gave us good views of each bird where they landed far across the water from where we stood.  Later, I was able to take some photos.

For now, the disc golf course remains under water.

Our next stop was at the Columbus Weed Patch in Tucson that did not reveal a Clay-colored Sparrow, but sharpened our ability to discern our sparrows!!   After an hour of cockleburs and muddy ground, we went to a more urban location, McCormick Park.  Again, we had specific birds in mind to find but I think our energy was sagging.  We walked the grassy tree area around the picnic ramadas without finding either the juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsucker or the Red-breasted Sapsucker.

Since our next destination was about twenty miles south of Tucson, we ate lunch in the car as we headed to a specific pond on the Green Valley Golf Course.  What bird would you expect to find there??  Certainly not a Pacific Loon that has that name for a reason.
But, sure enough, following specific directions, we walked up a cart path between two residences and found the loon swimming with wigeons and mallards.

 Pacific Loon
Finishing up in better time than expected, we returned to Tucson to check out Christopher Columbus Park.  In an area north of the two lakes there, we explored a wetland reedy spot that was new to me.  To our delight, Susan spotted two Lawrence’s Goldfinches there, both a male and a female.
Around the lake, we also spotted a Red-naped Sapsucker working a tree, and as luck would have it, we spotted a female Wood Duck to round out another very good day of birding.

Female Red-naped Sapsucker

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View this checklist online at

View this checklist online at

1 comment:

  1. Hello,

    I'm an intern at Tucson Weekly, I'm writing a story on the Columbus Weed Patch being destroyed and was wondering if you would have a few minutes to speak to me about your experience at the patch. Please email me at