Saturday, August 24, 2013

Sunset at the Sewage Pond - Willcox, Arizona Style

“As long as we’re passing through town, it would be silly not to stop at the sewage ponds.”

That’s the kind of sentence that makes perfect sense to birders and none at all to our friends with less eccentric hobbies.  Those of us who chase birds know that nutrient-rich sewage effluent leads to lots of aquatic life which in turn attracts a plethora of birds. It doesn’t always smell so great, but it’s not toxic and the trend these days is increasingly to create artificial wetlands with it. Nature does a phenomenal job of purifying water and birders get to reap the rewards if the wastewater authorities are friendly enough to allow visitors. I’m lucky enough to have the Muskegon County Wastewater Management System 90 minutes from my home. I think most birders in Michigan have gotten at least a handful of lifers at that massive facility. When you go into the office to pick up your visitor pass, you’ll notice the walls have framed photographs of birds from the property. How cool is that?

With all of that in mind, it made sense that the wife and I took time on our recent trip to Arizona to visit Tucson’s effluent, the cheekily-named Sweetwater Wetlands. There was plenty of good stuff there, but our best wastewater experience of the trip was yet to come.

Lake Cochise - Willcox, Arizona (Chiricahua Mtns. in the east)
At the end of a short week of extremely intense birding, we were returning to Tucson from the Chiricahua Mountains, ready to catch an early flight home the next morning. Our path necessarily passed through the town of Willcox, and with about 50 minutes of light left in the day, I suggested a stop at the effluent pond. It's a known spot to birders, and Willcox itself hosts the annual Wings Over Willcox Birding and Nature Festival every January. 

We turned the down road past the golf course and followed the arrowed “birders” signs to Lake Cochise (aka Cochise Lake). I’m not sure how the great Apache warrior would feel about having his name applied to such aromatic water, but after signing in at the guest book, I knew we were on some serious birding ground.
 Lake Cochise is what we’d call a pond back in Michigan, but in the desert I suppose “lake” is an apt title. I wasn’t expecting any earth-shaking birding. Our shorebird, wader, and waterfowl needs are minimal and highly unlikely to be filled in Arizona. I actually couldn’t think of a lifer we’d be likely to get there, other than maybe White-faced Ibis. That bird was rapidly approaching nemesis status for Sarah and me. We’d chased it multiple times in Michigan to no avail, and somehow managed to escape North Dakota and Texas without seeing one. We’d gotten a Glossy Ibis in Michigan, yet not the more commonly encountered White-faced. I figured Lake Cochise would be just a short change of pace from the desert birding we’d been doing, and a good opportunity to pad the Arizona state list.

Avocets, stilts, and phalropes
The first thing I saw was a line of American Avocets sprinkled with Black-necked Stilts, two of my top five favorite birds. This was an auspicious start and was already reducing my annoyance at the decidedly distasteful odor. The next thing my eyes were drawn to was the spinning. Lots and lots of spinning. The spinning of a few hundred Wilson’s Phalaropes. Phalaropes do this to create an upwelling that delivers food to the surface. The hilarious thing is that you can see them doing it in ankle-deep water as well. Check out the guy in the upper left of the first video.

Supposedly each individual will consistently spin in one direction only. There are clockwise and counter-clockwise phalaropes like there are right and left-handed people.

Seeing all of this spinning was so hypnotizing I almost missed the Black Tern standing by his lonesome on a rock and the two Long-billed Curlews that flew in. Light was fading fast. There was barely time to give the assembled peeps more than a passing glance. (Western and Least for sure…possibly others.) I wanted to snap a few sunset pictures before we left. The sun had just dipped below the Dragoon Mountains in the west.

Black-necked Stilts and sunset behind the Dragoons
It was then that my peripheral vision caught four blackish shapes coming in from the north. My mind ran through a few questions in the fraction of a second it took me to raise my binoculars. Geese? Herons? No, when I finally got on them I saw the long, decurved bills, not of more curlews, but of White-faced Ibis. Four of them landed in front of us and began their pre-slumber preening as phalaropes mindlessly spun in circles nearby. Our final lifer of a hyper-productive trip to Arizona – after sunset on our last birding day at a place we stopped at on a whim. A nemesis slain.

We watched until the darkness swallowed the peeps, the tern, the avocets, and the stilts. We drove slowly past the east side of the lake, admiring the last pink in the western sky. As we pulled away and said goodbye to Arizona, all I could still see were dozens of tiny spinning shapes and the silhouettes of four tall, dark waders with delicate, decurved bills. Life was good.