Riparian Preserve at Gilbert Water Ranch, Maricopa County, AZ

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Sunrise; Gilbert Water Ranch
Arriving at first light at Gilbert Water Ranch always seems special to me.  At 5:40 this morning, with temperature in the mid-80’s (F), I found myself looking at numerous Snowy and Great Egrets lining the remaining S curve of water in mostly dry Pond 7. At the turn of the 20th Century these birds had been hunted almost to extinction to decorate women’s hats.  The demand for the mating feathers of the Great Egret were in such demand, it is said that they were worth twice as much as gold.  There is a good article in the summer issue of National Parks magazine about the man who found a feather in the Everglades and followed it to the rookery and on to women’s hats. Having recently read the article, I stood looking at the Great and Snowy Egrets knowing that PEOPLE had saved them from the greed of the marketplace that would have led to their extinction.

Snowy Egret whose breeding plumes were also harvested 
Not only were egrets fishing, about ten Black-Necked Stilts paraded around searching for breakfast. Two Black-crowned Night Herons perched in shrubs beside the thirty-foot wide sinuous strip of water that flowed beside and beneath them. 

Black-crowned Night Heron
One Great Blue Heron, standing at the south end of the curve, looked like a sentry. A Green Heron flew in and landed out of my sight.  As the sun rose higher, I noticed Least Sandpipers and Killdeer at water’s edge while voices of Curve-billed Thrashers and Verdin filled my ears. 

As I walked toward Pond 1, a bird in the mesquite limbs above me caught my attention.
European Starling

As I understand it, we have Shakespeare (and his American enthusiasts) to thank for the European Starling, our most numerous "invasive" North American songbird. This one above already has its white winter spots. Cavity nesters, many of them roost in saguaro holes at Gilbert Water Ranch. The bird is adaptable, tough and intelligent.  If you've ever seen a murmuration of starlings in the spring or fall as they gather together and fly in great swathes of synchronized rhythm, you will know you're looking at something special. 

Anna's Hummingbirds are abundant at the water ranch. Although they are often way too quick for me to photograph, this young female posed for quite some time. Note its green neck spots and overall grayish color.  As it matures the green spots turn red (as in the adult Anna's female) and the gray feathers on the back grow greener.

Juvenile female Anna's HB with green spots on neck
Same bird showing its overall grayish feathers

From recent eBird reports, I knew that many migrating warblers were visiting this rich riparian area and someone had reported a Solitary Sandpiper, a bird I haven’t seen in quite a while.  So, I moved on to Pond 1 to see what birds I might find there.  What I found was a dry pond recently plowed. But farther along, water flowed in between the furrows and shorebirds were stepping through them. When I found both Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, I was sure I’d find the Solitary Sandpiper nearby - but it was not to be - here or at any other pond today.

Lesser Yellowlegs with straighter bill than the Greater
Greater Yellowlegs with slightly upturned bill

I moved slowly not only because I’m still not quite 100% strong following foot surgery, but because the fully leafed-out Cottonwoods had warblers and other birds flitting about. While I’m confident identifying resident birds, I’m just now, after two years of serious birding, feeling better about naming the migrant warblers when they come through. If it’s a difficult one, I try to find three good ID marks for it: tail length, head shape and distinguishing markings such as full eye ring or a broken or very faint eye ring. It might take me twenty minutes with one warbler as it moves quickly through a tree foraging before I find enough to put it together. When I see high counts by other birders, I'm aware that they know the birds' chips and songs better than I do and get really high counts that way.

While I didn’t walk all the paths and ponds (missed Pond 6 and the Fishing Pond), I identified seven (7) warbler species:  Orange-crowned, Lucy’s, Nashville, MacGillivray’s, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow and Wilson’s in the 3 1/2 hours I meandered around the riparian area.

Most exciting sighting for me was an unexpected SORA that walked out from the low reed grasses beside survival Pond 5 very close to where I stood. There was an additional Sora at the base of a shade tree hanging over the water about ten feet south of the bird I was photographing.  Before leaving that area, I heard the whinny of another Sora a short distance across the water.

First three photos are of the same Sora

The Sora was within 10 feet of me at this point
Second Sora a bit farther along the shore line than the one above

Although the temperature had reached into the low 100s by my 9:00 departure, I felt rejuvenated rather than wilted as I headed for home.

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