Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sweetwater Wetlands

While we are definitely not serious birders, I've developed an interest the last couple years since astronomy isn't easy in the Chicago area. Living near the Fox River and all the local forest preserves there make a new kind of observing a challenge. And thanks to some friends that introduced us to Whitewater Draw a few years back, we enjoy watching the annual return of Sandhill Cranes and other favorites there.

Today a group of friends introduced us to the Sweetwater Wetlands. Interestingly, it is less than 5 miles from our house, and consists of 17 acres of constructed wetlands, built about 15 years ago that is part of the City of Tucson's waste water treatment system. With the wealth of plant life, there is also an incredible variety of birds. It is amazing how a semi-permanent body of water in the desert will attract wildlife. Since it consists of treated effluent, sometimes the odor is less attractive than the name implies, but the birds don't seem to mind!

Melinda and I met our photo expedition at 8am this morning - a chilly clear day with snow visible in the nearby mountains from our winter storm late in the week. Never having been there, we weren't sure what to expect, but we had heard of a wide variety of birds there, and have seen some of the photos in the reader galleries in the morning paper. One of our guides, Steve, a former Midwest resident and hunter, gave a detailed description of many of the wetland birds we were seeing - many of them new to me. The first one he pointed out to me was the Pied-billed Grebe that he spotted halfway across one of the lagoons. It didn't come very close, but it was so cute...

Another that he IDed for me was the American Wigeon, which I had never heard of, let alone seen. It seemed pretty common here at the wetlands, and was strikingly beautiful through optical aid. The first photo shows a male and female together, and the second taken a little later that shows the brilliant iridescent green patch behind his eye.

The last of the water fowl I'll post about now is a Common Moorhen. Steve thought it was unusual to see them in Arizona, though my Internet reading indicates it is one of the most common of the rails, behind the Coots in some areas, which were quite numerous at Sweetwater and Whitewater. This one was very shy and only revealed himself and his bright beak rarely. But he was easy to follow through the undergrowth with the bright flash of red.

Melinda and I left the photo crew about 11am, and headed back into town to catch the Spanish movie "Broken Embraces" - we highly recommend it! Melinda works tonight at UMC, so after the movie we returned home to get her a nap. With 90 minutes or 2 hours to kill, I went back over to Sweetwater to see what was out later in the afternoon when a little (very little!) warmer.

There was a steady stream of birders, and interestingly, I didn't see any flycatchers in the morning, but they were quite numerous in the afternoon. Steve had warned me in the morning to be on the lookout for an albino Vermillion Flycatcher, and sure enough, pretty much the first bird I saw, attracting a steady small crowd, was the very one! The Vermillion is my absolute favorite Arizona bird, and the albino version had the characteristic shape of course, even without the colors. There was the slightest bit of pink under his butt, otherwise the feathers were absolutely white.

One of the things I like about photographing the Vermillion Flycatchers in particular and the flycatchers in general is that while they don't tend to perch for very long, they take off on their little bug-catching orbit and more often than not, return to the same branch. So you can focus precisely on the branch (which takes time with my manual focus telescope) and the bird will likely return to the same branch for the photo. Besides the albino Vermillion (which seemed to have a normally drab female mate) there was a busy swarm of flycatchers, mostly Black Phoebes and a couple varieties of warblers I've not identified yet. And just as I was leaving the little encampment of flycatchers, I ran across a "normal" Vermillion Flycatcher, and after walking after him, he approached and almost dared me to get a closeup, so I obliged. You can see why they are one of my very favorites!

I think we'll have more to post - Melinda's pics are still in her camera, so look for more later. But with the walking trails and wide variety of birds, we'll be coming back here frequently! Oh, and by the way, all the above were taken with a Canon XSi, and except for the first wide shot of a lagoon, all were taken with a Meade 80mm F/6 triplet APO (480mm focal length).

Additional Note: I forgot to mention that we got another sign how small the word really is! As we were leaving Sweetwater in the morning to go to our movie, We happened to see a couple birders walking away from us, the fellow wearing what appeared to be a "St Charles" in big orange letters on the back of his black jacket. I asked after him "that wouldn't be St Charles, Illinois would it?" whose school colors are orange and black. They turned, and sure enough, it was John and Joy Duerr, who were not only long-term St Charles residents, but he has a forest preserve named for him, right across the Fox River from Tekakwitha Forest Preserve, only a mile from our house there! I guess if you spend a career administering the forest preserve system in Kane County, you get a forest preserve named for you. They are visiting Tucson for a month, and they are SERIOUS birders - they hired a professional birding guide (who knew you could do that in Tucson?!), and had already hit a dozen or more of the local hotspots, and were on their 5th or 6th trip to Sweetwater (don't forget it was our first, and we live here!). Small world, eh!


Anonymous said...

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David A. Harvey said...

Awesome stuff Dean. Good to see you there.