Thursday, August 15, 2013

Caution! These Birds are Seeing Red.

Last March (2012), the Phoenix birding scene was buzzing with reports of a very uncommon Red-Necked Grebe in Tempe Town Lake. The lake itself is actually an engorged canal, fed both by the Rio Salado river and other canals that run through the Phoenix area. It hosts impressive numbers of waterfowl including Ruddy Ducks and Shovelers, and regularly pulls in unusual visitors like Eurasian Teal.
The Red-Necked Grebe had been seen and photographed irregularly for a couple of weeks, so after enough titillating listserv messages, I decided to investigate and add a new bird to my list. The Red-Neck didn't show immediately, or rather, the Grebe. My neck got plenty red while scanning the water.

In the mean time, there were plenty of other birds to observe, including Pied-Billed, Western, Clark's, and Eared Grebes, as well as Coots and Redheads. There was also a solitary Canvasback, a less common and more noticeable diving duck.

I made one bad miscalculation however, in failing to appreciate the size of the lake and the distance between the pedestrian bridges and the waterfowl. I'm getting too used to the little city ponds where everything is nice and close, relatively speaking. But in the end, it was probably safer to be so far away. As you can see from the pictures, these lake birds have rather evil looking red eyes, the eyes of killers, the eyes of relentless carnivores. Truly, I worried that every time one of the red-eyed predators dove underwater, it would reemerge and launch an attack...

The Eared Grebe is probably the smallest bird you'll find on the lake. But do not let down your guard. The apex predators--lions, tigers, bears--have killed far less humans than the little organisms in this world. No one will ever know how many lives the Eared Grebe has claimed, but as Macchiavelli said, "It is far safer to be loved than Eared."

Slightly less lethal but far more numerous is the American Coot. Compact and coal-colored, this red-eyed water-chicken descends upon the Phoenix area waterways in vast hordes, like the barbarians amassing outside of Rome.

The Western Grebes and similar looking Clark's Grebes keep well away from the bridges, but are definitely the bosses of the lake. Grebes are known for eating feathers, supposedly to help cushion their stomachs from fish bones. But really they do it to get a taste for other birds, which they eat by the baker's dozen, just for fun.

Redheads are beautiful birds and, as evidence by their not-blood-red-eye, are of a gentler breed. That doesn't mean you want to put your hands anywhere near that pastel blue beak though...I've lost 11 or 12 fingers making that mistake (I learn slowly).

But when it comes to the similarly patterned Canvasback, forget about it! The largest of the diving ducks, this red-eyed ravager commands the utmost respect and distance. It is rumored that the U.S. government had to take a restraining order out on the Canvasback so it's not allowed within 500 feet of anything governmental, so dangerous is this bird. The name Canvasback comes from the habit these birds have of wiping their hind feather with the blood of their enemies. It's gruesome stuff.

As much as we humans may like to think we're at the top of the food chain, when we get in the water it's a different story. In the water, chains only weigh you down after all. Sometimes birders have to risk it all, for the tick, for the glory, for the Grebe.

All photos by Laurence Butler
Butler's Birds

9 comments:

  1. I enjoyed the drama, but as an overseas birder, really appreciate the images of the Redhead and Canvasback which clearly differentiate between the two, some not quite as obvious in the field guide!

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    1. Thanks Wanderer.

      That's a good point, especially with the hues and proportions of the two birds, which are quite different in person and less so in the guides, especially guides that use painted plates.

      When you come to see them, be careful crossing that see! All manner of blood thirsty auklets and razorbills will bar your passage.

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  2. Beautiful shots with all of the details. Love the red eyes!

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    1. Thanks Dinas, but now I feel like none of my words of foreboding caution have gotten through...

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  3. Fantastic Laurence!!!! It makes me want to see our waterbirds again. I miss them. It's also a Grebe I have yet to see. Great post and hope you're having some fun again out in the field. Chris

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    1. Thanks Chris. I'm looking forward to winterfowl too : )

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  4. Enjoyed your post and your beautiful images!

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    1. Thanks Sheila, glad to have you stop by.

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  5. Great series of waterbirds, Laurence! It's especially fun to observe the grebes. I love your beautiful Western Grebe photograph, as I have yet to view one in person. The other images are stunning, as well. It's always a pleasure to read your wonderful, entertaining posts!

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