Higley & Ocotillo Ponds, Maricopa County, AZ

Thanksgiving Day, November 26th:
In early-morning darkness while driving to the Gilbert Library to meet Lois, I recalled Thanksgiving holidays of past years — all of which memories were of family — from my  childhood when my Dad went pheasant hunting early in the day to bring home our “bird” for the table, to when my three boys would return from college to gather for feasting and fun. It wasn’t until recent years that my now daughter-in-law, Kelly, told me how shocked she had been when the turkey dinner she had anticipated turned out to be a vegetarian lasagna casserole! Today, my three sons, who live on the east coast, are celebrating the holiday with their father in Virginia. No longer a vegetarian, I was looking forward to enjoying a turkey Thanksgiving feast later this afternoon with my good friends, Jody and Rhoda, and others from my chosen family in our RV resort community.

As soon as Lois arrived just minutes after I pulled into the parking lot, she joined me for the ride south to the water-treatment ponds at Higley and Ocotillo Road to try our luck at finding several continuing rarities reported there over the past three days. Would the American Golden Plover, Eastern Phoebe and Black and White Warbler still be there?

Carrying my spotting scope always makes me grumble a bit but it would be needed to ascertain the identity of the rare plover. First birds observed were Killdeer and Least Sandpipers at 7:40 a.m. (44°), easily detected with binoculars. Having memorized the locations of the previous sightings of the birds we’d like to see, we checked out Pond #1 to the south of where we had parked. Many Northern Shovelers, Green-winged Teal and American Coots were quickly added to our list. The Eastern Phoebe was a no show in the cottonwoods or on the shrubs anywhere along that first pond or across its narrow end, but birds have wings and, although territorial, might be found elsewhere. It was our lowest priority.

A Black-tailed Jackrabbit brought smiles as we felt a bit of warmth from the sun trying to break through fairly heavy cloud cover. Two raptors in close succession (Cooper’s Hawk and Northern Harrier) sent birds upward until the sky was full of ducks.

What a view of the ducks for these low-flying balloonists!

The back ponds, even more full of ducks, Black-necked Stilts, sandpipers, dowitchers and killdeer were packed in and moving around. No ticket counter or security lines, the pond crowds could pick up and go at whim. That’s what drives me crazy using the narrow but magnifying lens of the scope. When I turned to show Lois a bird I was on, it was out of scope view by the time she looked.

Lois, with her bare eyes (recently free of cataracts) found the perfectly still  American Golden Plover in the middle of the mayhem. With her good directions, I was able to easily zoom onto it with the scope and WOWEE! - she had nailed it.  An unknown gentleman birder who earlier had stopped and chatted briefly with us before walking farther to the end of Pond 3 to take up the search himself, hiked back and admitted he didn’t expect us to find it. (Never under-estimate women on a mission!)

The rare plover was beyond my camera's range, but that didn't stop me from trying! Poor photos below for your enjoyment!

The distant view for us. Can you find the American Golden Plover?
My best photo: American Golden Plover

Size comparisons of the rare plover with other birds:

American Golden Plover with Least Sandpiper
American Golden Plover with Green-winged Teal

I continued to scope the pond to get a better handle on various sizes and behaviors of the sandpipers, stilts and ducks in constant movement. It was through this process that I located a Dunlin that, by the time I got Lois to the scope was gone due to another raptor fly over when all the birds lifted and shifted. Unable to relocate the Dunlin, we eventually moved on.

The sun flirted with the clouds but it wasn’t until we wrapped up that it decided to provide some desired warmth. We walked the trail along the north side of Pond 2 in search of the Black and White Warbler with no luck. So, I continued a bit farther for another look at Pond 3 from this perspective.  What I found delighted me — three Wilson’s Snipe blended beautifully with the weedy muddy island they occupied.

Wilson's Snipe (one with head tucked)
As we returned along the row of leafy cottonwoods, I was scanning the high visible limbs between leaves when Lois called, “I’ve got it!”  Wasn’t I surprised to find the warbler about two feet from ground level working the trunk of the tree nuthatch-style. Since we see the Black-throated Gray Warbler with some regularity, it was a no-brainer that this bird was, indeed, the Black and White Warbler - similar but still different in that it is black and white striped all over while the Black-throated Gray has a gray back and shorter bill.

Black & White Warbler above and below

We stayed on the bird as best we could as it moved to the rear of the trunk, flew a short distance to a low limb, dropped again to the trunk and back and forth until I finally managed a photo when it occupied a somewhat higher limb - at about eye level. Great fun to study its behavior and movements!

Our morning in bird land had proved wildly satisfying and something both of us greatly appreciated. Then, it was off to our respective homes and a celebration of the more traditional Thanksgiving.

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