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Beach in the Desert

Updated on August 20, 2014

Sand But No Water

You've undoubtedly heard the expression, "All hat and no cattle." That would seem to fit the idea of having a restful day at the beach, in the middle of the desert. But hold on a minute! If your definition of a beach is sand near ocean, then we'd have to admit that the nearest ocean is a long walk from here. However, if you look at other characteristics of the beach, maybe we don't fare too badly.

We have LOTS of sand. Oodles and oodles of it. Isn't sand an indication of beach? We have lakes with beaches. Is that the same as a beach by the ocean? People sun themselves there. And we have PLENTY of sun. What about birds that like water? We have plenty of those, too.

In fact, would you believe seagulls in the middle of the desert? We have them! How about pelicans? We have those, too. And we have shorebirds and wading birds.

Birds likely to be seen at the beach are also most likely to appear at Arizona lakes that have beaches. Some have beaches, and some don't. But I have photographed at least one gull next to a small lake with no beach. I will show you that one.

The photo on the left is a Ring-billed Gull, Larus delawarensis. This is our most common gull. In fact, this gull ranges widely across the continental United States.

I found this one in Willcox. It was standing in Cochise Lake, which has a beach.

All photos by me.

What Would I Rather Do at the Beach?

Go Birding, of Course!

In fact, I would probably never have discovered we have gulls in Arizona, if I hadn't started birding seriously.

I can't fathom spending the day on the beach doing nothing but lying around. How boring!

The thing that really started me thinking about beaches in Arizona was when I started seeing seagulls here. I saw my first seagulls at Lake Pleasant, which is northwest of Phoenix. I saw two species there: Ring-billed Gulls, and Franklin's Gulls. I called home. Guess what! I said. I saw some seagulls! Really? Yes, really. I even got pictures (though the pictures I got there weren't all that great). But I was destined to get better pictures later.

If your favorite thing is birding, you're better off among the beaches of Arizona than along the ocean. The United States has approximately 800 birds that tend to visit or stay, and Arizona has 600 of them. Southeastern Arizona by itself has nearly 500.

The gull below I like best of the ones I have seen. It's a Heermann's Gull (Larus heermannii), and its distinguishing characteristic is that bright red beak. This bird spent one day at Lakeside Park. Some of the lakes in Arizona have beaches and some don't. This one does.

Heermann's Gull - Larus heermannii

My favorite gull.

I like his red bill. It seems to be unique among gulls.

This one was standing on the beach at the lake at Lakeside Park in Tucson. So yes, he's a beach bird.

When this was reported to the bird email list, the message noted he would probably be a one-day wonder. He would be gone the next day. So I hoofed it on over there within 24 hours of the report, and he was still there. As you can see, he was very cooperative. In fact, when I came over the hill, he was right in front of me, and stayed there a long time. The next day, he WAS gone.

Wood Duck - Aix sponsa

Ducks are also water birds, and they inhabit not only inland lakes, but locations along the seacoasts as well. I talk more about ducks in my lens on Arizona birds, so I will touch lightly on them here.

The Wood Duck and his similar "cousin" the Mandarin Duck are probably the prettiest of all ducks. Wood Ducks were hunted almost to extinction for their beautiful feathers, but are making a comeback. I saw my first Wood Duck on a sand spit (a form of beach, I imagine) in the middle of a river which is kept flowing with the processed water from the sewage plant. Quite exciting! In subsequent years, I didn't see any more until the path of the river moved (by itself, I imagine) to the other side of a stand of trees, where I could no longer see them. At that point, however, they showed up on the other side of the bridge (unfortunately in a dark area not very close, where photographs were difficult), both genders. That was my first opportunity to view and photograph a female. There would be up to 8 Wood Ducks there at a time.

As you can see in this photo, due to recent rains, the spit is covered with all sorts of delicious-looking salad greens.

Osprey - Pandion haliaetus

Some raptors eat fish instead of things running along on the shore (desert, sand, wherever, under bushes). The Osprey is such a bird. This Osprey is about to dive for dinner. Seconds later, he went. He got a nice fish.

This was at the lake in Kennedy Park. It has a beach. They keep most of the recreational lakes in Arizona stocked with fish. This is another reason a lot of birds that like the ocean and the ocean beach spend a lot of time here.

This was my second Osprey. The first was at Patagonia Lake. Patagonia Lake is actually quite large. There is a lot of motorboating there, and also parking spaces for motor homes. People also kayak, fish, swim, and engage in other interesting activities. On the west end of the lake is a dam. You can walk out on top of the dam. There is beach on either side. The water is shallow, though there is a place not far off where it is deep enough, and I have seen a boat go in there and circle around and around and around for the heckuvit, disrupting the birds I wanted to photograph.

My first Osprey caught a fish, too.

Gulls with No Water

One time I was driving up the highway from Oracle to Florence, and I was about halfway there. The nearest lake, as far as I can determine, was at least 50 miles away. Suddenly a gull flew across the road. I didn't get a good look. But when I reported it to the birding email list, one other participant said he didn't believe I saw a gull there. I guess a lot of people still don't believe there are gulls in Arizona. And you know, they DO have to get from lake to lake somehow!

Ring-billed Gull - Larus delawarensis

Gulls often like to perch on piers. Well, we have very few piers, so this young gull found the next best thing: an old metal drum.

This lake, at Kennedy Park, has a beach.

Sabine's Gull - Xema sabini

This gull was in the recharge basins near Columbus Park lakes. The lakes have beaches, but the beaches in the recharge ponds are rather iffy: the sides are rather steep. It was difficult to get a good picture of this gull because he often sat closest to observation points where he was hidden by the steep sides. It was almost dark when I got this picture, and it was the only time I saw him.

Another Ring-billed Gull

There are two lakes in Reid Park in Tucson. This is the larger; it has no beach. The smaller one does. He was more interested in what resembled a pier than he was in a beach. This piece of concrete is square, and juts out into the lake. The rest of the concrete walkway is in the shape of an ellipse, and this sticks out from that.

This makes the fourth time I was able to photograph a Ring-billed Gull.

Brown Pelican - Pelecanus occidentalis

Yes, we have pelicans!

I have actually seen and photographed pelicans three times. The first time was at Patagonia Lake, which has some beaches. The pelican was diving in the lake that is next to the beach where people go who want to swim in the lake, where it is shallow, and wading is possible. The second time was at Lakeside Park, and it was threatening to rain. But I walked around the lake on the beach for awhile, and just as I was as far away as I planned to go, it started to pour! So I hoofed it outta there. Even though I got pictures at both locations, the one I am sharing with you is from a set of pictures, which were my best.

This is at Reid Park on the larger lake with no beach. This pelican was not the least concerned about people being near. In fact, there was a girl standing not three feet away from him, and she couldn't have been more than 5 or 6 years old. He didn't care. I could kick myself for not photographing the girl near him. As you can see, he also preferred the "pier". It always amazes me to watch how a bird with such a big and awkward bill can so delicately rearrange his feathers!

As far as I know, this was the last day he was seen there.

Except for spotty records throughout the Lower 48, eastern coastal areas are the only place, other than southern Arizona, where this bird is seen frequently.

The only other American pelican is the American White Pelican. Although they have been reported in Arizona, I haven't personally seen one yet.

Beachfont Property for Sale

My husband just said that because this article is about the beach in Arizona, someone will accuse me of selling beachfront property.

OK, I'll just head that one off at the pass. I have a beautiful piece of land right on the beach to sell. Cheap. Cactus included at no extra charge. I can use the money. Please contact me if interested.


Pelican with Neotropic Cormorants - Phalacrocorax brasilianus

Neotropic Cormorants aren't particularly common anywhere in the United States, but we get them frequently here. They are becoming increasingly common. We also get Double-crested Cormorants, which are common allovertheplace.

The other day, I counted 14 Cormorants at this location (Reid Park), and 80 by the recharge lake behind the probation building at Sam Lena Park. Another birder found 115 at that location. We couldn't decide for sure whether they were predominantly Neotropic or Double-crested. I favored the latter while he favored the former. The side of the lake at Sam Lena is a fairly steep slope of concrete. No beach there, but I imagine the slope is a close enough facsimile, because I see Cormorants there often.

In this photo, you can see that my Brown Pelican had five friends that day. Their antics were amusing.

Shorebirds and Wading Birds

We have oodles of shorebirds in Arizona. You think of shorebirds as birds that like to wade in the water near the beach, and scoop things out of the water from that vantage point. I would have to stop and think seriously to count up the number of different species of shorebirds on my life list (the list of the birds I have seen in the wild in my lifetime). Shorebirds can be a bit tricky to identify, so when an experienced birder isn't sure, he just calls them "peeps". I am almost always able to identify the ones I see. This is helped by the fact that my Very Big Lens (1300mm) is a good way to make a record I can study later.

I will show you a few of these below, and add to it from time to time as I have the opportunity, since I have literally a few thousand photos of shorebirds.

There are all sorts of wading birds. They come in many different sizes and shapes.

Gilbert Water Ranch

Gilbert Water Ranch is a water recharge area east of Phoenix. It has some of the best riparian birding around, mainly because it is designed so you can get very close to the birds. It also has beaches. There are always dozens (or more) of shorebirds in the lakes, which are very shallow. This is when it is the season for shorebirds, of course. Like everything else, they migrate.

This photo shows a gathering of shorebirds, so you can get an idea of what kinds of flocks might be in the water. The light wasn't very good, unfortunately.

Canada Goose with Shorebirds - Branta canadensis

I have seen close to 10 Canada Geese at Gilbert Water Ranch at one time. Naturally, there are always plenty of shorebirds around. We also have one Canada Goose that lives at Kennedy Park year round.

Killdeer - Charadrius vociferus

A Killdeer is a type of Plover. The scientific name "vociferus" means "vocal". Yep. I can hear them from a long way off, and often that is the ONLY evidence I get they're around. But they're commonly around. This is probably the most prevalent shorebird in southern Arizona. They are fun to watch; they have some real antics. I see or hear them most often at Sweetwater Wetlands, where they prefer to hang out in the large recharge basins, which means you have to look a distance to see them. This one was at Gilbert Water Ranch.

And this one was at the Glendale Recharge Basins. He wasn't at all afraid of me; I was quite close.

White-faced Ibis - Plegadis chihi

These birds are very colorful when in breeding plumage. Their feathers glint with rust and dark green iridescence. This one is NOT in breeding plumage, but he's pretty anyway. White-faced Ibises are the only Ibises commonly found in Arizona. I have seen more than 30 of them in a flock flying overhead. This one was at Gilbert Water Ranch, but they also come to Sweetwater Wetlands sometimes.

Least Sandpiper - Calidris minutilla

This is the smallest of the sandpipers, or the birds some experienced birders sometimes call "peeps". He usually hangs out with Greater Yellowlegs, Long-billed Dowitchers, and other shorebirds. This one was in the Santa Cruz River.

These two were at Sweetwater Wetlands. They caused quite a stir. You rarely see shorebirds where these were, very close to people. They prefer the recharge basins.

Wilson's Snipe - Gallinago gallinago

Found at Gilbert Water Ranch.

Ever heard of a snipe hunt? That's where a group of men hazes a newcomer by inviting him to go on a snipe hunt. They really "know" that snipes don't exist, and it's a wild goose (um, a wild snipe) chase. However, I get the last laugh. Snipes really exist. This is a picture of one. :)

Black-necked Stilt - Himantopus mexicanus

Easy to spot and identify, and fairly common. You'll usually see Stilts and Killdeer even when there are no other shorebirds present. This one was at Gilbert Water Ranch, but I often see them at Sweetwater Wetlands and the Santa Cruz River as well.

American Avocet - Recurvirostra americana

"Recurvirostra" means his beak is curved the wrong direction. :)

I see these at Gilbert and Sweetwater. This one is in breeding plumage. The neck turns white for the rest of the year, and is white in the female as well. Their wing patters are beautiful when they are in flight.

Shorebirds in Flight

Here's a flock of shorebirds. You walk along the bank of the river (Santa Cruz) and startle them, and they might take off. They fly together, turn together, and stay close. Scientists who investigated believe that each bird keeps track of the 4 or 5 birds nearest him and what they are doing, and that's how they manage to do that. It's an awesome sight, no matter WHICH birds are doing it.

Red-necked Phalarope - Phalaropus lobatus

This bird created quite a stir when he showed up at Gilbert Water Ranch. The one that showed up at Sweetwater did, too. I never saw that one. They don't come when in breeding plumage, and they're rather nondescript the rest of the year. They're small birds by comparison to many others.

They have a very interesting way of eating. They swim around in tight circles to stir up the water. This brings edible tidbits to the surface, where they can grab them.

I have seen Northern Shovelers do this, too, but they do it as a group, and I haven't figured out why they do it. Phalaropes seem to do it in solitary fashion.

You have undoubtedly heard of a gaggle of geese. People like to coin phrases for a small number of a certain bird. Well, I recently thought up one for phalaropes. I call them a "dizziness of phalaropes." If you want to see why this is a good phrase, see the video below. :)

Example of a "Dizziness of Phalaropes" from YouTube

Here is a perfect example of why we get dizzy just watching Phalaropes. :)

Solitary Sandpiper - Tringa solitaria

This solitary shorebird showed up at Sweetwater Wetlands a season or two ago, and stayed the winter, and only left when the water company brought in a large piece of equipment and started making a lot of racket near the spot where he was staying. He was back this year.

He doesn't associate with anybody (though he will have to break that habit when he wants youngsters).

The only other record of this bird was several years earlier, so naturally there was a lot of excitement when he came and stayed.

Notice the thin eyering, which is unique among shorebirds, though common in some songbird species. Also, the pattern on the wings is different.

Eared Grebes - Podiceps nigricollis

This group in breeding plumage (!) showed up at Kennedy Park. They hung out tightly grouped together, dove together, and flew together.

Eared Grebes are not real common, unlike Pied-billed Grebes, which I see frequently. Pied-billed Grebes also don't hang out together. They like to be alone.

Six of the seven species of Grebes visit Arizona, and I have photographed five of them.

Common Mergansers - Mergus merganser

Common Mergansers aren't as common around here as Hooded Mergansers, but more common than Red-breasted Mergansers. Hooded Mergansers hang out behind the probation building most of the winter. These Common Mergansers were at Patagonia Lake. They were too far away for good pictures. Out of the nine, two were males. I have since seen Common Merganser females in a few other places, close enough for good pictures, but not as yet, a male. I also haven't managed to see the Red-breasted Merganser that visited.

Black-crowned Night Heron - Nyticorax nycticorax

This is a youngster. This lake has no beach, and this is proving to be a bit of a hassle. He wants a fish so bad, but they're several inches down, and he can't figure out how to grab one without getting wet.

I rarely see them catch anything, so I'm not sure how they do it normally. However, I have occasionally seen them swimming like a duck.

They're very amusing, especially the young ones. They all like to squabble over fish, young and old alike.

In addition to these herons, we get Great Blue Herons, Green Herons, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, and Cattle Egrets, all of whom I have been able to photograph successfully. We also get American Bitterns, and I'm still looking for one. It's one of my nemesis birds. The nemesis bird is a bird you have been chasing for a long time without success. I think I actually saw one once, but he flew off before I got a picture, and nobody believed that was what I saw, so I gave in.

Great Blue Heron - Ardea herodias

Flying past the setting sun.

For now, that's all, folks!

Purple Star

Thank you very, very much for the Purple Star!


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