How I Got Back into Serious Bird Watching
Written Fall Semester 1998
By Tom Cole
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I was at the Priceless Too Saloon on Alma School and Elliott hoisting a couple of brews with my friend Larry when I suddenly began to get back into serious birdwatching.

It was Thursday night and the assembly we were attending was euphemistically called the “Educators’ Meeting.”  It is a happy hour for the high school teachers that I hang out with. Some of them can’t wait for Friday to drink and they say, “Why wake up feeling like shit on a beautiful Saturday? You’re better off being hungover at work. The day’s a bust anyway.” These people are pretty serious about their teaching, but just the same I still somehow believe that they are also serious when they say these things.

The “Educators’ Meeting” was always best for me when Larry was there because he is a closer friend than the other teachers and he always has something interesting and educational to say -- and he doesn’t talk shop.

The funny thing about Larry is that he makes numerous lexical mistakes when he talks fast. He often misspeaks by substituting a somewhat similar word for the word he really means. He knows he does this, I think, but he simply doesn’t have time to go back and mop up the mistakes as he goes along.

But Larry, who has a Ph.D in history, is hardly a dummy. You’ll say, “You know, when I lived in Mexico, I never even saw any decent huiztlacoche and he’ll know exactly what huiztlacoche is and refer to it in passing as “corn smut,” a translation that you’ve never really even thought of. On this particular evening I said, “You know, I haven’t seen a long-billed dowitcher in ages.”
“Why don’t you go over to Elliot and Cooper Roads?” he said immediately.
Two days later I did and there were about a hundred of them there. And that is how I got back into serious bird watching.

At Elliot and Cooper Roads, only four miles from my house, the city of Gilbert put in a water recharge station. The area is a bird sanctuary and there are numerous ponds just perfect for wintering shorebirds. Because of this recharge station and Larry’s suggestion, I began to keep a notebook on birds as I used to do.

I kept Larry informed about my progress and it wasn’t too long before the telephone would ring at 7:00 AM on a Saturday morning and I would hear Larry’s wife Nancy saying, “Hey, Tom we’re going to the Arboretum. Want to come?”

“Oh, yeah. Okay.” I’d mumble, still half asleep. “I’ll meet you there in an hour and a half -- I’m bringing my dog!”

On one of these early outings, I remember seeing some movement on a shore and saying, “Hey what’s that?” I watched Larry scan the shoreline with his Elite roof prism binoculars, locate the bird in question, and say almost with distain, “Spotted sandpiper.” He panned away with the binoculars almost immediately, but I focused in with my Swift Audubon porros.

I had made the diagnosis at the same time he had; the bird teeter-tottered and just by that behavior alone I knew that it was a “spotty.” The difference for me was that I hadn’t seen one in quite a while and wanted very much to get a good look.

It was March and the sandpiper had its winter plumage -- no spots at all and no hint of yellow around the beak. I looked at him for a long time and watched how he favored the rocks when  he walked, teeter-tottering almost continuously -- classic spotted sandpiper behavior. There was also only one of him -- another clue to identification as spotted sandpipers are usually seen singly. We saw about forty-five species that day and many of the sightings stand out in my mind as clearly as that of the sandpiper.

Spotted Sandpiper in Winter Plumage
When I got back home, I entered the birds we had seen into my new BirdBrain database. I bought the database because I wanted to bring the old hobby back to life. The database would transfer the hobby into my new, modern world that now practically revolves around my computer. I also made text searches of the journal I have kept since I bought my first Mac in 1989 and found many references to birds that I could enter into the database.

A couple of weeks before, I had taken all my old 3 X 5birding notebooks out of mothballs and painstakingly recorded all of the bird notes into my Macintosh. The notebooks went back to 1971.
When I ran some queries, I was surprised to see how seldom I had seen the spotted sandpiper over the years -- only five sightings recorded, the first being on August 15, 1971. I felt the same way about the yellow-headed blackbird and a number of other species. I must have seen them more often than that.  Perhaps I just didn’t write them down.

There were some surprises from my old records. I had no idea that I had seen a sulphur-bellied flycatcher, for example. But as I read the notes, the memories flooded back and I quickly remembered the day very clearly.

I noted that I had seen the Wilson’s phalarope only twice in the last twenty-seven years: on the same day as the first recorded spotted sandpiper: August 15, 1971 and then again on the 16th. I must have gone out to the sewer flats two days in a row.

The Wilson’s Phalarope is an unusual bird now classified as a sandpiper. It spins in shallow water and causes a vortex that lifts larvae and other food from the bottom to within reach of its needle-like bill. The scene from those two sightings has been a constant part of my memory and mindset: a wintering shorebird and its companions spinning like toy ducks in the still, brackish water of the Mesa Sewer Flats -- an almost magical vision of birds that had traveled thousands of miles and were just passing by Arizona on their way to somewhere else.

I would be on the lookout for that bird and I was finally rewarded at Elliot and Cooper Roads on May 2, 1998. Eight Wilson’s phalaropes were spinning in circles on the north pond. My seven-year-old nephew, Sonny saw them and when I showed him the picture in the book, he pointed to the phalarope with the red on its neck and said, “Well, this must be the male because the male is usually more colorful.”

Dang! Couldn’t miss. “Er, actually, Sonny, the female phalarope is the brighter of the two. Very unusual.”

I called Larry and Nancy on the phone and they came over the next day with me and the phalaropes were still there. The birds were gone the day after that.

I have kept adding to my bird lists. It is a game that birdwatchers play. In fact it is the game. How many species have you identified and where? Or when? How many are on your list? You decide what list you want to build. You can build your North American List and your Arizona List and your Mexico List and your 1998 list and even your Backyard List. I’ve got all of those.

My favorite is my Elliot and Cooper Road List. I have 82 species on it now. Some older guy came by and said he had 83, but I’ll surpass him soon. I’m waiting for a cardinal, or a black-tailed gnatcatcher, or a rufous hummingbird, or a green-tailed towhee, or a brewer’s blackbird or a whole host of others that could and should appear at any time. When they do, I’ll write them down in a new 3 X 5 notebook and then enter them in my computer.

Last Saturday, of all things a gigantic ring-necked pheasant walked out of the bushes at Elliott and Cooper roads and got himself a drink in the pond.  “Where am I anyway?” I said, kind of in shock. “North Dakota?” I wrote him up and then called Larry.