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Birding - Another Quiet Adventure

Updated on August 19, 2014

Stalking the Target Bird

Dateline mid March, 2014.

Here I come with another quiet adventure! Adventures don't have to be noisy. They don't even have to be exciting. And a quiet adventure can be very exciting anyway.

I currently have 282 different species of birds on my life list. The life list is the list of all the birds I have seen in the wild in my lifetime. When you get that many, you usually do a lot more of what they call "target birding". This is when you are birdwatching, looking for a specific bird, and you get a report that the bird is located a specific place, so you go there, and you look for the bird. As I will write in another place, I have been going after Rufous-capped Warblers. That and the Virginia Rail are my two current nemesis birds. A nemesis bird is a bird you simply cannot find to your satisfaction, after numerous attempts.

But this one is about the Virginia Rail.

Virginia Rails and Soras are classified closely together, for good reason. Both like to live in reeds and bulrushes. Both are extremely shy. For this reason, actually seeing one or the other is a bit of a feat. This is especially true when you can't bird in the morning (and I can't). Up until the last couple of weeks, I had gotten good photos of a Sora ONCE. The rest of the time, I would often hear them, but could never see them, for they were deep in the reeds. There is a certain noise I can make (I won't describe it here) that would sometimes prompt a Sora to sound off. I will present this information later. And sometimes when I cough, the Sora will also sound off.

Coughing is very annoying. It disrupts the quiet you are trying to establish so that shy birds will approach. Sometimes it bothers them, and sometimes not. I occasionally get a tickle in my throat and have to cough. A sip of water will drive the tickle away for awhile. But when you are trying to find an elusive bird, absolute quiet and very little movement are essential. And as I have mentioned, for SOME people, being quiet like that is an adventure in itself!

So I go and I sit and wait. No real exercise for me today!

Normally, when I do this, the peace and quiet and the waiting are very invigorating. Sometimes I pray. Sometimes I just let my thoughts wander. These days, because of difficulties with someone very close to me, it's actually dangerous to sit and think too much, so I do the best I can.

All pictures by me.

Soras Are Normally Elusive - so what happened?

Sweetwater Wetlands is an area near Tucson, Arizona, which is maintained by Tucson Water. It is part of the system that recharges the groundwater from sewage. After the sewage is treated, it is released into the Santa Cruz River, or some of it is diverted to Sweetwater Wetlands. This area is a beautiful place with ponds and trees, and lots of birds. I think people have seen about 287 species there, if I am not mistaken.

I would go to Sweetwater, and I could often turn up about three different Soras on a given day, but I only heard them. I never saw them. Other people would report seeing them, possibly because they bird in the morning. I can't bird in the morning, so I usually go in the late afternoon, and by that time, the Soras are pretty well hidden, and they stay that way.

One day when I was wandering around, I ran into some other birders, who told me they had just seen a Sora, and it was a life bird (first time he saw one in the wild) for one of them. They told me where the bird was, and I went there, and he was still there. He wasn't aware of me because I was standing quietly on a platform above him. I got about 40 good pictures. This is one of them.

In the picture above, notice his feet. He's not a duck. He has feet suitable for walking on lily pads and mats of vegetation on the surface of the water. He likes to eat little tidbits on the surface of the water or mud. To give you some idea of his size, he will reach a length of not quite 9 inches as an adult.

But recently, Tucson Water opened up a new processing plant, and closed the one across from Sweetwater. For about six weeks (or two months) after the closure, no water was pumped into Sweetwater at all, and the ponds began to dry up. This left a lot of damp muck out in the open, and for some unknown reason (go ask a bird), this meant the Soras were coming out into the open to feed.

There were reports on the bird email list about the Soras and Virginia Rails people were seeing, so I decided to go over and see what I could find. I made several trips.

Sora's Call

Not quite a minute in, you can hear the distinctive call.

I Was REALLY Looking for a Virginia Rail

If anything, these birds are far more shy than the Soras. And their call isn't all that distinctive, which makes it more difficult to know if one is around.

I only saw a Virginia Rail once, and that was two days ago. And in fact, having been there several times, I had almost concluded that the Virginia Rail was a fignation of someone's imaginement. And I sat there until sundown, and that's when I saw ONE Virginia Rail. The picture above is one of two passable ones I got, and it's not sharp. So I'll be going back, and back, and back, until I get a decent one.

Exact Location

When I heard there were Soras and Rails at Sweetwater, I made sure I knew exactly where they had been seen. I often forget to ask specific questions, but gradually I am doing better. The sound of the Sora in the reeds also let me know he was around, and if I waited, I might see him.

The first day I went, I saw Soras in two different locations on either side of the concrete viewing platform at the Gazebo Pond. The Gazebo Pond has a hexagonal gazebo in the middle, with benches, so you can sit in the shade. Unfortunately, like all the viewing platforms, the perimeter of the viewing area has a handrail which is EXACTLY the right height to obscure most birds from a camera lens, if you are sitting on a bench. I can't stand still for a long time, so I need to sit. So I took my walkstool and put it where I REALLY wanted to sit, and waited. And waited.

I occasionally saw a Sora, and when I did, I took pictures. The rest of the time, I waited.

You have to be pretty serious about birding to wait like I do sometimes. And other serious birders might come around and stay for ten minutes, and then move on. But I sit there for two to three hours, contemplating my navel, er, my innoermost thoughts, peaceful or disturbing, while watching intently for the bird I want to see.

Usually I first locate the bird by seeing movement. If it's a windy day and the bird is most likely to be found in a tree, I am able to distinguish the TYPE of movement of a bird from the TYPE of movement of the vegetation. And I have learned that if I notice a single branch moving a certain way, there was probably a bird sitting on it, and he's probably flown to a location close by. I often locate birds that way.

Fortunately with Soras and Rails, the wind makes no difference, so any movement I see at ground level is worth my attention.

Here is one picture I got of the Sora.


In my email box yesterday morning (or the previous night, I don't remember which), there was a report that someone had seen 22 Soras in the Keyhole Pond. Since I hadn't found any Soras at all at the Gazebo Pond the day before, I decided they must have moved because the water level was higher in the Gazebo Pond, as Tucson Water is now finally pumping in water once more.

How wrong I was about the Gazebo Pond, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

So I went yesterday afternoon, and another birder told me he had just seen a Sora there. So I went onto the platform, and set up my Walkstool next to the railing, and I sat. It wasn't long, and out popped a Sora very close by. I took pictures of him, and then it seemed like he moved a little further away, and popped out again, and I got more pictures, and he went back into the reeds and popped out a little further down. At least, it seemed like it was the same one. But I then heard another one behind me, and this one would have had to have flown across in front of me to get to that location, so now I had two.

And as I watched, another Sora popped out a little more distant, and another quite far away, and sometimes more than one at a time. I figure that I had six Soras at that location. I got photos of five of them, and only heard the sixth.

But no Virginia Rail.

So at the last minute, I went on back to the Gazebo Pond, and I had about 15 to 30 minutes of reasonable daylight left. There I heard three and saw one. But no Virginia Rail. So that made it a TEN Sora day! Wow!

Do You Watch Birds?

Do you like to go birdwatching?

Another Wonderful Find

Don't forget to look for other things to take pictures of. There are often many surprises, and I never know what I'll see. Yesterday, I got reasonable pictures of a bird I've been wanting to photograph for several years. I first saw the Common Yellowthroat at Arivaca Cienega, and I got only one picture, and it was a lousy one. After that, I would often HEAR them, but I never SAW them. Their song sounds like "wichita, wichita, wichita" to me. Very distinctive.

So here I am waiting for Soras to show up, and this little fellow suddenly appeared very close. I had maybe 3 minutes altogether, if that, to get his picture. And I did. Yippee! :)

Colorful fellow, isn't he?

And Sometimes You See Other things

This was from a few days before my first Sora day.

People have dumped their Red-eared Sliders in local ponds when they get too big for the aquarium, and I see them often in certain ponds. But I never saw one with a shell THIS orange!

Don't ask me how he got up there. I have NO IDEA! But it's not the first time I've seen them in strange places. Notice that NONE of his feet are resting on anything!

Did you ever hear the story of the Post Turtle?

Well, this guy is driving along the road in the countryside and he sees a farmer. The farmer is standing next to a fencepost, and there's a turtle on top of the post. The traveler asks what that is, and the farmer says, "That's a post turtle." And the traveler asks, "what is a post turtle?" Now here's where it gets interesting, because the farmer inserts the name of his "favorite" politician, you know the one who never should have been elected, and all that. I'll leave the identity of this politician to your imagination. The farmer says that like this politician, the turtle is on top of the post, and he doesn't know how he got there, or what to do while he's up there, or how to get down. :)

The Biggest Surprise

I'm drifting off topic for a little bit, but I just HAD to show you this one!

I was looking for Northern Parula, another rare bird, and I was about 3 miles away from Sweetwater when I saw this not-so-little cat.

I have posted this picture several places, and it's interesting the comments I get. People ask me if I was scared. Of a Bobcat in the riverbed 30 feet below me? Nope! But I sure wanted a photograph this sharp, and I got one! Isn't she beautiful?

There are bobcats living in Sweetwater. People tend to see them by the wall and building close to the recharge ponds. One evening, I had pretty much finished walking the entire trail, and I was tired. I got to talking to another birder, and I realized I didn't have my glasses. I didn't have a flashlight with me and it was getting dark. So I said something, and he said he would go looking for them. Because I was tired, I didn't go with him. He was gone a long time, and when he got back, he said he couldn't find them, but he DID find a bobcat, and he had a really good picture of him, which he took with flash.

Later he found my glasses, but someone had stepped on them, so they weren't usable anymore. But that's OK. I don't use driving glasses anymore anyway.

Since that time, I have looked for the bobcat in vain. The only thing I see there is a cottontail rabbit who tells me the bobcat isn't there that day.

A Common Bird But...

Getting back to my Ten Sora Day, I should mention that Red-winged Blackbirds are VERY common at Sweetwater, but I rarely see them drinking, and when I do, it's usually very far away. This is the only time I can recall seeing one up close, who was drinking. So I took his picture.

Red-winged Blackbirds sing a LOT, and when they do, they often sing with their whole bodies, spreading their wings away from their bodies. These colorful and noisy birds often gather in flocks to roost in tall trees at night. They like the ones that are bare of leaves. And I've seen up to 100 at a time. So they're common, but for me, they're always a delight to see.

When You're Out Anyway - don't forget

to stay and watch the sunset!

Will I get a good picture of a Virginia Rail? If I do, I'll let you know right here. Stay tuned!

Went Back the Next Day

I was looking for Virginia Rails again yesterday, and couldn't find any. *Sigh!*

But I did find this cottontail rabbit. Cottontails are common, and I have many photos of them. This one was eating some kind of fuzzy stuff. It looks like it came off one of the cattail seed heads.

And of course, I got more photos of Soras. Never again will I consider this bird hard to approach and photograph, even if I never see one for the rest of my life! I had barely sat down on my Walkstool when this fellow popped out and started feeding!

Coots are Common

and their feet fascinate me!

And I got another lovely sunset!


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