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Close Encounters of the Bird Kind

Updated on August 20, 2014

Wild Birds Up Close and Personal

Sooner or later it had to happen: a wild bird approaching within six feet of me. These are stories of the birds who came to me or let me come to them. I am not good at estimating distances, but at least these birds were no further than ten feet away at the time I took their pictures. But I am sure they were closer than that. These are their stories.

The bird on the left gets first prize for bravery. He came within three feet of me. I didn't even notice him until I turned, and there he was. It is a Great-tailed Grackle. He was picking up little tidbits to eat. He was so close I had trouble focusing on him with the lens I had on my camera at the time. In fact, this happened yesterday, and gave me the idea for this Lens.

Please note: I never feed the birds. So that is not why they come to me, or tolerate my presence. I am also not a bird-whisperer, though occasionally I will pish. Pishing means making a sound that resembles the bird's song or call, to get them to respond. Just so you know, it is considered to be a serious ethical breach to pish during breeding season, especially around breeding birds. But I have no problem having a conversation with a Gambel's Quail. I have only talked to males, and they weren't that close to me.

All photos by me.

What I Won't Be Showing

Domesticated birds don't count. Neither do birds in enclosed spaces. I will stick to wild birds in the wild. I may show a bird or two that has become feral, and I may not. Haven't decided.

I also won't show you birds I got while sitting in a blind. That would be cheating. I'll show you those some other time.

Brown Pelican - Pelicanus occidentalis

The little girl standing not six feet away from this bird needs to award him HER first prize for bravery. I was more like ten feet away, I think.

I should have photographed them together, but I didn't think of it at the time. Darn!

Found at Reid Park, Tucson, Arizona.

Great-tailed Grackle - Quiscalus mexicanus

This is the same bird in my introduction photo. I took this picture when the bird was almost as close as he came. I couldn't focus on him when he was closer. Notice my shadow on the right. You can see my head and the left arm and hand which was holding my camera. There was a pole behind me also casting a shadow. I missed his tail in this photo because he was moving a lot, and getting the camera centered on him up that close wasn't easy. Found at Agua Caliente Park, Arizona.

We see lots of Great-tailed Grackles at Costco, and there are people coming and going constantly. They don't seem to mind us at all, and often are less than 3 feet away from me.

Eared Grebes - Podiceps nigricollis

This little flock stayed in the middle of the lake most of the time I was there, and I did my best to get good photos. However, eventually I wandered down to a place where I could sit just barely above the ground, and they were about six feet away from me. These are in breeding plumage, and you almost never see them in breeding plumage in Arizona. So it was a real find as far as I was concerned.

These birds stayed close together like this. They flew together and dived together.

Found at Kennedy Park, Tucson, Arizona.

Sora - Porzana carolina

This one was a real surprise. Soras are normally VERY shy. I hear them often, but I have only seen them twice. The first time, the Sora was too far away to get a decent picture.

This was the second occasion. I was walking around, and a couple of birders walked up to me, and we had a conversation and one of them told me where to find this bird. So I hastened over there, and was rewarded. I was standing on a metal grate platform which was a foot or so above the surface of the water. The bird was maybe three feet from the platform. I don't know if he was ignoring me, or thought he was hidden and didn't worry about me. There was no way I could have gotten to him. Maybe he knew it.

Anyway, I was most happy he posed for his picture!

Found at Sweetwater Wetlands, Arizona.


Maybe it's a little unfair of me to show you this picture. I don't feed these hummingbirds, but Tom Beatty does.

I was sitting in the first row of a set of bleachers, and there is barely enough room for feet in front of the bench, and then there is a fence, and this hummer was 3-4 feet away, between me and the fence.

Another Hummingbird

Same location, another foot away. She was sitting on a hoop that is maybe a foot and a half in diameter.

I don't know the species of either of these hummingbirds because there are no distinguishing field marks I recognize. They are either females or juveniles. Judging from the beak of this one, and lack of color, this was a juvenile Black-chinned Hummingbird.

Great Horned Owl - Bubo virginianus

Perhaps it's not fair to show you this one, either. It was daytime, and he was sleepy. Owls don't seem to worry about people when they're sleepy. And he was a juvenile, and juveniles seem to be more tame than adults. He was up in a tree, higher than I can reach, but I was only a few feet away from the tree.

Found in Sweetwater Wetlands, Arizona.

Brewer's Blackbird - Euphagus cyanocephalus

The beach here is about 4 or 5 feet wide, and there is a curb right next to the beach. I get as close to the curb as I can. Found at Lakeside Park, Arizona.

Great Egret - Ardea alba

This bird was so close, this is all of him I could get in my lens. I don't know why the egrets are so tame. Nobody feeds them, because they eat fish. The birds that do eat things like potato chips and stuff like that are obviously tame, but that sure doesn't explain why the fish-eating birds don't mind people.

Found at Reid Park, Tucson, Arizona.

Another Brewer's Blackbird

This one was at the Arthur Pack Golf Course, at my outer limit: six feet.

In my experience, Brewer's Blackbirds tend to be pretty tame. I have been able to observe a number of them up close at Lakeside Park. I also see a lot of European Starlings up close, there.

Heermann's Gull - Larus heermanni

I imagine gulls are pretty tame, or maybe aggressive is a better word. Again, 4-5 foot wide beach, with a curb, and me up against the curb. He was directly across from me, and stood there a long time, and I got lots of pictures.

Found at Lakeside Park, Arizona.

Great Blue Heron - Ardea herodias

This is all I could get in my lens. I had to back off to get him in focus. This was at Parker Canyon Lake, which is in extreme southern Arizona.

Another Great Horned Owl

This is an adult. I imagine he was further than six feet, but he sure wasn't worried about me. He was too sleepy to care. He'd peek at me with one eye occasionally. I could walk up to directly underneath him. The only reason he is outside my limit is because he was up in the air about ten feet.

Found in the rafters of the pole barn at Whitewater Draw, Arizona.

You see a wild bird really close by

What will you do?

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Black-crowned Night Heron - Nycticorax nycticorax

Neither adults nor juveniles are afraid of people. They eat fish, so feeding them is not the explanation. This one was too close for me to get all of him in my lens. This is an adult...

and this is a juvenile.

Both found at Reid Park, Tucson, Arizona

Barn Swallow - Hirundo rustica

Another situation where I had to back off to get him in focus. I was using a 90mm lens at the time. I am sure he was quite accustomed to people. This was at the visitor's center at Buenos Aires Wildlife Refuge in southern Arizona. This is the porch, and he's sitting on a lamp.

Canada Goose - Branta canadensis

Gilbert Water Ranch is a place where you can routinely get close to birds. This goose was eating greens a few feet away. I was on the same beach, just a little further from the water.

Red-necked Phalarope - Phalaropus lobatus

Same beach as the last picture. People were sitting about 3 feet from the water, and the phalarope was a couple feet off shore. He caused quite a stir (pun intended) because we don't see phalaropes very often. Red-necked Phalaropes only have red necks during breeding season.

Phalaropes feed by swimming in tight circles, stirring up the water to bring food to the surface. I like to call a group of them, a "dizziness of phalaropes".

There are often dozens of shorebirds equally close, when there are human beings in plain sight. There is a blind further back, but people still go down on the beach.

Found at Gilbert Water Ranch, east of Phoenix, Arizona.

Vermilion Flycatcher - Pyrocephalus rubinus

I think this fellow felt a responsibility and a duty to guard the sign. I was quite close. Eventually he did fly off, but not before I got within six feet of him. Found in Reid Park, Tucson, Arizona, USA.

Desert Spiny Lizard - Sceloporus magister

Yeah, I know he's not a bird. But he was so fearless, he deserves to be honored here.

He was resting on a concrete bench at Sweetwater Wetlands, and I gradually moved closer, taking pictures all the while. He eventually got nervous enough to move to the other side of the bench. This photo was on my way going, and when I came back, he was still there, back on the original spot. At that point, I was able to approach him within 2 1/2 feet, and he didn't budge, just watched me, still all sprawled out, totally nonchalant. He didn't care. I didn't try to get closer, because the lens I was using would no longer focus any closer.

Northern Cardinal - Cardenalis cardenalis

Cardinals tend not to be very approachable. This particular one probably thought he was adequately hidden in the tree. I got this back in my film days at Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. I was sitting on a bench just below the tree.

Mallards and Sparrow

This Mallard pair and their friend the House Sparrow were about five feet away from me, and only wandered off slowly. Gilbert Water Ranch, east of Phoenix, Arizona.

House Sparrows may tend to be tame, and so may Mallards, but it still surprised me when I looked around to my left and saw them. Maybe they thought the grasses provided enough cover so that they disappeared from my view.

The One That Got Away

Painted Redstart

I was up in Madera Canyon looking for something else when I noticed a Painted Redstart was sitting about two feet away from my foot. He left before I got a picture.

People always have fish stories. That's mine. :)

I have another Cardinal I want to show you, but I have to find it first. I also have a photo of a white duck on my shoe. Maybe I shouldn't show you that one. It was obviously domesticated in the past. I'll think about it.

In the meantime, I wish you close encounters. Be nice to the birds. They are beautiful and wonderfully designed.

Until next time...

Black-chinned Hummingbird - Archilochus alexandri

Female or immature. Found in the Golder Ranch area NW of the Catalina Mountains.
Female or immature. Found in the Golder Ranch area NW of the Catalina Mountains.

Curious Hummingbirds

The other day, I spent part of the afternoon at a home that maintains a wildlife sanctuary on the premises. There were hundreds of hummingbirds. I had some hummingbirds come within a foot of me, look me over, and then go about their business. This particular hummingbird was feeding only about three feet away from me. I wasn't able to capture a picture of the one that came closest, because my lens won't focus that close, and he didn't stay long enough.

This little female Allen's Hummingbird was the first I have seen in the wild. When we see a bird for the first time, we can add it to our life list, which is the list of all the birds we have seen in the wild in our lifetime. I went specifically to catch this species, so I was happy.

Other comments also welcome.


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