A small murmuration of starlings.
A small murmuration of starlings.
I lost my father in World War II before he ever saw me, I remember where I was the day John F. Kennedy died, and I watched the events of 9/11 in disbelief.  Still and all, I consider last November 8 my country’s darkest hour in my lifetime.  At sunup on November 9, The Morning After, I was at my Local Patch, binoculars around my neck, tripod with camera and telephoto lens over my shoulder.

Unlike many who proclaimed they would leave the country if Trump were to win (and the probably apocryphal ten percent who then answered “Alaska or Hawaii” when asked where specifically they would go), I needed only to drive ten minutes to escape the post-truth world of social (inane) media and raving (insane) megalomaniacs.  Local Patch—close to home, oft visited, always emotionally restorative, the place you go when you don’t have time to go someplace else, the place you go when you have no place else to go.

By its very definition of proximity, one’s local patch will be the place birded, or perhaps photographed, most frequently.  That being a given, my Local Patch (MLP), has provided me over the years with a broad diversity of birding experiences and a nice portfolio of photographic images.  My species list there, loosely kept, numbers 77, only slightly more than our meager twelve year yard list which stands at a surprisingly low 69.  This attests to the low habitat diversity at MLP but belies the many “firsts” and fascinating sightings I’ve had there.

Best species at this overly loved and under kempt city park hard by the city zoo and a botanical garden are Wood Duck and Lesser Nighthawk, both unexpected, both seen but once, neither as “good” as Gray Catbird which we count as our “best” yardbird.  Given its three fishing ponds, wide open spaces, and proximity to the artificial food sources in the adjacent zoo, the MLP list is heavy on ducks, raptors, and typical birds of the Sonoran Desert, but devoid of families such as shorebirds and wanting in birds “of color,” warblers, tanagers, and orioles.

The vibe at MLP is such that I never go there on a shoulder season weekend (fall and spring bring perfect daytime temperatures and dozens of picnickers) or on weekends when there is a special cultural event at the zoo or the gardens (art exhibit, cancer walk, etc.) which spills over into the park.  Two complicating factors at MLP are its landmark physical feature, Hole in the Wall, which draws nature photographers, sunrise enthusiasts, and “convergence” nutcases, and its reputation as a pickup spot amongst promiscuous male homosexuals.

Neither of these factors really bothers the birds, but the second one added an odd asterisk to the main reason I love going to MLP—every day is different.  Let me explain.  I consider Belted Kingfisher one of the hardest North American birds to photograph well.  By nature, their hunting technique dictates frequent perch changes, plus they do not suffer human presence gladly.  It has taken me years to get decent images of this species.  The first of these was at one of the MLP ponds under circumstances that, indeed, help define “every day is different” there.

I had taken our cargo van, which has no windows on the sides or back, and I was excited to see a female Belted Kingfisher on a snag near a parking area.  I coasted noiselessly into an end spot where I had a perfect view of the snag, and I very slowly and noiselessly succeeded in cracking the side cargo door ajar just wide enough for my lens to “see” the bird without exposing my movement to be seen by her.  Alas, I had snapped only one frame when she precipitously flew off, mocking me with the notorious kingfisher rattle call.  I realized immediately what had spooked her when there was a knock on the side door.  When I angrily yanked it open all the way, it was my turn to be spooked.  There stood an expectant young man with an inquiring smile on his face.  It’s hard to say which of us was more surprised as he looked at me sitting there in the doorway of a windowless van behind a tripod with a large telephoto lens.  It was the closest I have ever come, as an adult, to punching another human in the face.  He hurried off without an apology.  This is what “trolling” meant before it came to mean being anonymously rude on the internet.

My second strange experience at MLP involved a well- intentioned lady in an SUV.  This one, though less unexpected, was the less believable because of the capacity of the shopping cart involved.  Again, let me explain.  Feeding ducks in city parks is now widely discouraged, if not prohibited, due to potential disease and nutrition issues that come with repeatedly drawing large aggregations of birds together into a small area by enticing them with what is basically avian junk food.

I remember as a child feeding ducks at the park, you probably do too, and I still frequently see families engaged in this free and fun way to introduce little people to wildlife with never a thought whether that life is still wild as it becomes dependent on handouts.  So . . . one weekday mid-morning shortly after I had arrived at MLP a lady pulled up nearby up in her SUV, opened the rear hatch, and pulled out a full size shopping cart.  In the cart were three large watermelons, several packages of vegetables--carrots, celery, broccoli—loaf upon loaf of presumably stale white bread, muffins, both hot dog and hamburger buns, and multiple huge economy size bags of popcorn.  I am not making this up.  The cart was full to overflowing.  Next came the box cutter, scissors, serrated knife, and scoop.

I hadn’t been to the park for several months, but the parade of ducks that immediately left the water and the squadrons of Mourning Doves and pigeons that descended from the trees left little doubt this was not the SUV lady’s first visit here.  It took her a full twenty minutes to prep everything as all the birds milled and squabbled around her vying for the goodies.  The hardest thing about this scene for me to reconcile was the presence among the hoard of a male Hooded Merganser, a duck I consider to be North America’s most beautiful, and a species that to me evokes wildness and wilderness ever since I saw my lifer Hoodies on a backpack trip into a high country of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area of Washington state.  A male Hoody eating white bread at an urban desert park fishing pond!  I struggle now for an analogy and Trump’s election leaps to mind!  Though I’m not leaving any time soon for Alaska or Hawaii, I was so shocked and disillusioned that day that I left MLP without taking a single frame, the only time that has ever happened.

On a happier note, here is a partial list of some of the “firsts” that have happened for me at MLP and why it was the first place of escape on The Morning After:

The first time I found a Lesser Nighthawk in broad daylight and also the first time I found one not in the air—two, yards apart, sitting perfectly camouflaged amongst reddish brown rock rubble.  The perfect camouflage probably explains why this was a first and that they readily and often sit on the ground in rock rubble.

The first time I observed a Great Horned Owl nest, with babies, in a cliff grotto--all my previous nest experiences with this species had involved Saguaro Cacti or palm trees.

The first time I had seen, after hearing since I began birding that birds use snakeskin for nesting material, actual proof of this--a Cactus Wren transporting a streamer of shed snakeskin into a Cholla Cactus stick nest.

The first time I experienced a murmuration of starlings--dozens of European Starlings flowing together in perfect synchrony, first banking off to the left, then wheeling back to the right, as they frustrated a Harris’s Hawk which, due to the dynamic of the murmuration, looked like it was actually herding them through the air, all to no avail in the actual capture of a starling meal.

The first time I witnessed evidence of the infamous predatory strategy of Loggerhead Shrikes--a mouse carcass impaled on the thorn of a mesquite, and when the shrike returned I noticed for the first time the horny projections on the sides of its upper mandible, the tomial teeth, which allow this big-headed, small-bodied little predator to shred prey almost its own size.

The first time I realized species other than woodpeckers use their tails for stabilization on vertical surfaces--an Ash-throated Flycatcher, its beautiful rufous tail fully fanned and helping to support it, feeding insect eggs to its young in a Saguaro hole.

The first time I lured a wild bird in to a “set-up” situation to photograph it--I had noticed both Gila Woodpeckers and Gilded Flickers in the park investigating soda cans discarded on the ground rather than in the trash barrels.  You know how long and special woodpeckers tongues are, right?  Remembering the SUV lady, I was reluctant to use a soda can and instead set out a nearly emptied V8 juice can with its bright red tomato emblem, assuming salt would be less harmful than sugar.  I had a female Gilded Flicker in my viewfinder within an hour.

The first time I noticed Ring-necked Ducks, dabbling ducks assumed to pick vegetation off the bottom, come up with fish and snails.  Who knew!?

The first time I ever heard anyone call a Verdin an Olive Warbler, an understandable mistake for beginners going solely on visuals, but an egregious error for experienced birders who understand the ineluctable connectivity between species and habitats.

Unlike some listers, I don’t keep a “seen copulating” list but if I did, MLP would be well represented by these first and to date only times I’ve recorded this breeding season behavior in the following species:  American Kestrel, Gilded Flicker, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and White-winged Dove.

MLP has also opened my eyes to how well many individual birds with injuries or genetic abnormalities somehow survive in the wild--a Northern Mockingbird with its upper mandible bent nearly perpendicular to the lower; a roadrunner walking with an exaggerated limp caused by large, horny protrusion at the “ankle” joint of one leg; and a Gila Woodpecker, melanistic with large growths around the base of its bill and several black & white back feathers growing out of its head!

As anyone with a Local Patch soon discovers, the value of proximity to such a place is soon overridden by the delectable juxtaposition of the familiar and unexpected at that place.  Over the years I’ve discovered nests of twenty-five species at MLP, about a third of them with babies, and I’ve seen almost that many species bathing there, in the ponds themselves, in the irrigation canals, and in rainpools left in the depressions in the rocky buttes.  I’ve seen Least Bitterns discover the ponds’ reedbeds, then abandon them after two nesting seasons.  I’ve seen migrating Osprey catch fish in the fall, Common Ravens harass overwintering Cooper’s Hawks, and the resident Great Blue Heron capture a Tiger Whiptail two feet long one spring. 

On The Morning After, the highlight proved to be the arrival of the FOS (first of season) kingfishers caught up in aerial chases, accompanied by their prerequisite rattling of course, to determine who would prevail at the ponds through the winter.  So noisy at times they can be heard throughout the park, so silent at times they’re easily overlooked.  This is an analogy to political life in social media addicted America so prescient that it ambushes my fingers as I type.

Over the thirty-five years I’ve watched the kingfishers at MLP I’ve seen them capture both fish and crayfish, and I’ve often wondered how the sharp bones and hard shells go down.  On The Morning After, I caught myself wondering how events in America would go down through the next four to eight years.  An America which had already been great throughout my entire lifetime is now grappling with sharp voices and hard choices.  I figure I’ll be spending a lot of time at MLP to escape both the noise and silence IRL (in real life) which have both become too loud.

My Local Patch will become my real life.  I welcome and embrace that.
Loggerhead Shrike with mouse
Loggerhead Shrike with mouse