Thursday, September 26, 2013

Gas Station and Fast Food Birding in Utah and Arizona

My wife and I logged about 1500 miles in our car over the weekend by driving from Utah County to Gilbert, Arizona for a special family event. We had my mother in law with us. She is living with Alzheimer's Disease and "enjoying the moment" in a very literal sense. It is sad that she doesn't remember all the fun family times we have, but the current state of her disease doesn't keep her from living in the moment. For example, she loves the Bee Gees and asks to listen to them every day. We listened to them during our long drive and we listened and danced to "Staying Alive" Sunday evening at our daughters house in Gilbert. Four generations, from our nearly three year old grandson to his great grandmother (my mother in law), were clearly proving that the dancing gene did not exist in our gene pool. The cut-loose gene, on the other hand, was unrestrained. Good family times were had by all.

Anyway, we were making great timing during the first three hours of our drive last Friday until my mother in law announced, "I need to go to the bathroom soon. That's all I'm saying." Nature was calling. I was able to pull off the freeway at Washington City, just minutes north of St George. I decided to top off the gas tank while waiting for my wife and her mother. After about 15 minutes of waiting I wondered if we had a problem. My wife finally emerged from the restroom and said, "It's not working. This might take a while." After she went back into the restroom to help her mother I did what most birders do with a few minutes of free time. I scanned the area with "nature eyes" and noticed some standing water across the street. That was my nature call to see what life was being sustained by the small puddle of water.

First Sign of a Watering Hole Near Washington City, UT
Once I got closer I read the directional sign near the water. I think we should call this the "Which Way Water Hole" of Washington City.

"Which Way" Water Hole Near Washington City, UT
Just as I stepped onto the sidewalk near the water I saw a Say's Phoebe fly from a tree to snatch an insect from the air above the standing water. "Camera time!"  I went back across the road, retrieved my camera from the trunk of the car and began a short photo shoot with an expert flycatcher. The bird would alternate its perch between a tree and a bush as it continued to fly catch over the water.

Say's Phoebe Near Washington City, UT
Say's Phoebe Near Washington City, UT
Say's Phoebe Near Washington City, UT
I glanced back toward the gas station and, forty-five minutes after stopping for our first bathroom break of an all-day trip, my wife and her mother were finally exiting the gas station and heading toward the car. At that moment I accepted that it was going to be a long day with some long breaks so I would put a positive spin on the stops and try to see what birds could be observed and photographed with each stop thereafter.

We stopped in Wickenburg, Arizona to get sandwiches at Subway. Minutes away was a mecca for birders, the Hassayampa River Preserve. I couldn't visit that spot, and never have despite passing by it about four times already. It has either been closed for the season or I've had not birding passengers.  My consolation prize this time around was discovering the largest Turkey Vulture Roost I've ever seen, right across the street from the Subway and above an RV park--stuff's gotta be fallin' over there.

I first noticed several large kettles of vultures high in the sky before I saw birds descending toward us. I went to get my camera and my wife put me back on task to secure food first and then play with the birds. After providing needed sustenance for my travel partners I retrieved the camera and captured a few images of the roost from across the street and birds coming in for the night. I stopped counting after seeing more than 100 vultures, all were Turkey Vultures despite hopes of spotting a vagrant Black Vulture.

Small Section of a Large Turkey Vulture Roost in Wickenburg, AZ
It was late afternoon/early evening so the sun was very low in the western sky. With the sun lighting them horizontally the undersides were often in the shadows until they would tilt to turn and circle the roost before landing. I like the images below because they emphasize the shape of the bird while showing enough to be easily recognized as a Turkey Vulture. You can also see how the underside can look light or dark depending on the lighting. In reality the flight feathers in the wings and tail are light in color despite the tail looking dark when in a shadow.

Turkey Vulture Over Wickenburg, AZ
This one was flying southward toward the roost so the horizontal sunlight lit up the western side of this bird.

Turkey Vulture Over Wickenburg, AZ
Turkey Vulture Over Wickenburg, AZ
My fifth time passing through Wickenburg was on the way home on Monday afternoon. Again I missed the opportunity to bird the Hassayampa River Preserve. The consolation prize this time was watching a Great-tailed Grackle drink from a dirty water puddle next to a no-parking curb. Like most birds, the grackle had to get low to the ground to get water into its bill and then raise its bill to the sky so the water would go down its throat. This is because they can't suck the way people and other mammals can. The first image shows the bird getting water into its bill and onto its tongue. The second image shows it looking skyward to allow the water to run into its throat.

Great-tailed Grackle Drinking From Puddle in Wickenburg, AZ
Great-tailed Grackle Drinking From Puddle in Wickenburg, AZ
Not unexpected was a Rock Pigeon that landed next to the car as we were leaving the parking lot in Wickenburg.

Rock Pigeon in Wickenburg, AZ Parking Lot
Our last food stop in St George, Utah Monday before the sun went down provided the most expected bird of the trip, A House Sparrow. These guys, like the grackles and pigeons seem to congregate near high-human traffic areas. Apparently, we are messy creatures and leave our leftovers and scraps abundantly enough to sustain these opportunistic bird species. I guess its a good thing someone is cleaning up after us.

So the Say's Phoebe and the Turkey Vulture Roost were completely unexpected for my "bird at gas and food stops" plan. I actually could have spent more time observing and photographing those guys had I been alone because fly catching and vulture soaring were somewhat fascinating. I love nature and enjoy discovering and observing any creeping, crawling, slithering, running, swimming, or hiding thing, but birds are so pervasive they provide opportunities no matter where I go or what I'm doing. I could be pumping gas or walking into a restaurant and see a bird. Who hasn't seen a House Sparrow flying around inside a local department or grocery store.

While the birds provided some diversions during the quick trip to Arizona, it was the time spent with family that I will remember the most.

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