Going to the Birds

Reid Park offers a temporary home to many kinds of feathered friends.

I have had occasion to mention before that I spend a fair amount of time hanging around the dog park--the "offleash dog enclosure" in park-ese--at Reid Park.

I am there most mornings with my recovering streetdog, Lai Fu, who goes to meet his friends. When the weather was cool, the whole pet-enslaved world showed up mid-morning, and almost every day, there was a dog or two who was just Fu's speed. Most of the regular crowd started coming at the crack when the hot weather set in, but not us. God knows Fu is willing to drag me to the car anytime day or night, but if there's one thing I hate seeing, it's the sun coming up.

So we still get there between 9 and 10, but now the crew is thin and panting, and often there's no one--or no one remotely playable, anyway--inside the chainlink. Since a fact is not a fact for a dog until he's smelled it, Fu remains optimistic that there's somebody rowdy in there, someplace, until he's inspected the whole premises. Once that's done, he starts using his NBA-quality hangtime to speak to me face to face about squirrels, levitating so that his insanely grinning face appears inches in front of mine as many times as it takes.

I don't mind squirrel patrol. My interest in rodents has limits, but the dog enclosure is just north of the park lakes, which both of us find interesting. Slovenly picnickers and duck-smitten toddlers keep the banks strewn with edibles: Fu is delighted both by the critters this bonanza attracts and, of course, by the leavings themselves. (He likes pretty much the same stuff as the ants.) I like the birds.

By the standards of anyone but a native Southwesterner, the lakes are actually small, stagnant ponds, but in Tucson, we take what we can get. So do the water birds, who go about their business, dabbling about as if they were in a marsh in the woods.

This time of year, the swimming birds are pretty much limited to the swaggering gang of domestic geese that has driven generations of Tucson kids shrieking up the hill, plus nervous, communicative rafts of young mallards and the odd stray coot. In the winter, though, you're likely to spot just about any sort of water bird bobbing around, resting from its travels. Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest with a parent who braked for ducks only he could see, I have always vaguely resented waterfowl and never tried to identify them. But it turns out that in the cattail-free and mist-free conditions at the park, they're perfectly visible and not hard to tell apart. You don't even need binoculars. Not to brag at all, but last spring, I saw widgeons, a couple of pied-bill grebes, canvasbacks (my dad's favorites), ring-necked ducks and a cinnamon teal.

The bigger pond was allowed to dry up this last spring so workers could put in new machinery, creating yet another urban Wild Kingdom. The look and smell of the drying mud and artifacts ever so slowly revealed by evaporation were more than made up for by the avian predators who showed up for the all-you-can-eat fish buffet. (One day after the lake was dry, I heard a woman worry out loud about what had happened to the fish. Her companion assured her that "they" would have relocated them. Sorry. It was the egrets, herons, and, in the case of deceased fish, ravens who took care of that chore.) For several weeks, three or four egrets of different persuasions stood on rusty barrels and ooze-filled tires, ignoring one another and everything else as they stared into the filthy, crowded shallows. Toward the end, I saw a black-crowned night heron in the middle of the morning. This dour, heavy-bodied bird, who bears a startling resemblance to Richard Nixon, flew from the sinking lake into the greenery of the zoo, emitting a flight call, that, according to David Allen Sibley, is "a flat, barking quok or quark." It doesn't get any better than that.

OK, it does. Late in August, I saw a green kingfisher, perching and then flying around the leafy edges of the small, shady south pond, skimming over the water with exactly the "deep, rowing wingbeats" Sibley describes. (The poetry of birdbooks, like that of cookbooks, is underappreciated.)

And then there's the resident great egret (I think--the heron family is tough), so splendid and long-necked that dog-walkers often ask if you've seen "the swan." He stands impossibly white amid the muck and fast-food wrappers, minutely shifting his all-beak head on his ropey neck and waiting for the next snack to appear under his fatal eye. When disturbed--when a big dog comes a little too close, for instance--he rises on his great wings and with a beat or two is on the opposite bank, having for a moment brought a Japanese print to life, right here in the heart of the Sonoran desert and about a block from Broadway and Country Club.

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