Roadrunner. Quail. Red-tailed hawk. White-winged dove.
I don’t recognize very many birds in the Sonoran Desert where I live in Chandler, Arizona–a lack I want to rectify, so on an early morning in June, I show up to the Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix wearing proper birding attire: khakis, a long-sleeve cotton shirt and a broad-rimmed hat. Around my neck are binoculars that I scavenged from the bottom of a camping bin underneath first aid supplies, water bottles, a hot pink fanny pack, and mosquito netting. The thin strap is already cutting into the skin of my neck.
As a newbie, I am welcomed and handed a tri-fold official birding checklist with the names of 102 birds commonly found on these weekly jaunts in the gardens.
“All the brown birds confuse me,” I admit to Annie, a talkative regular who comes to the gardens at least three times a week.
“LBJ’s,” she says, “Little Brown Jobs.” Annie sports a harness-type strap for her binoculars so the weight is removed from her neck. I make a mental note.
New lingo. New equipment. I have more to learn than just bird names.
A man joins the group who just returned from a quick tour of one of the garden loops.
“Mallard with six babies,” he proclaims, “over on the pond.”
“Whoaaaaa!” the entire group exclaims in unison. If this was a vote for homecoming king, I am convinced he would be awarded the crown.
“Also saw a bullfrog nearby,” he admits.
Heads shake. Tongues click. Eyes lower.
“Maybe there will still be four or five babies when we get over there,” says a heavy-set woman in a droopy hat. People nod hopefully.
Bullfrogs eat baby ducklings? Who knew?
“Puffin at ten o’clock,” says a man attired in denim.
A puffin! In Arizona? All eyes swing to the spot in the sky where he points.
An untethered metallic balloon floats among the clouds. “Happy Graduation” adorns the silver front.
A puffin. Birding humor.
For the next ninety minutes we explore the various trails. Official birders make check marks on their lists. I make notes in my small journal as I stick close to Andre, a white-haired gal with deep tan lines and a deeper knowledge of Arizona birds.
We see a Gila woodpecker taking a dip into an organ pipe cactus bloom. We count twenty-one white-winged doves looking for food under the palo blanco trees. A Gambel’s quail duo keeps an eye on seven young chicks. We focus our binoculars on a baby curve-billed thrasher in its nest in a cholla cactus, the long thorns warning off intruders, but not deterring its mother who returns with red fruit from a neighboring saguaro cactus.
Binoculars aim. Cameras focus. Pencils record.
“Listen,” Andre instructs. “Do you hear that?”
“A Eurasian collared dove,” she says. “The second syllable is the longest. Not native, but it has spread across the United States since it was introduced to North America.”
“How is the call different from a white-wing and a mourning dove?” I ask.
“A white-wing sounds like ‘who cooks for you.’ A mourning dove has a different rhythm to it’s call, usually five syllables. Coo-OOO. Coo. Coo. Coo.” Andre sings the songs of the doves while I take notes. A cactus wren scolds us from the branches of a mesquite tree.
“Look!” I point to a roadrunner lurking beneath a succulent.
“Good eye,” Andre says. The sun glints off the bird’s feathers as I get close enough to snap a photo of the blue and bronze skin near its eye. Several people pat my shoulder as they mark “roadrunner” off the list.
For a moment I am one of them. A birder.
“Who cooks for you?” a white-winged dove asks as I gather my four pages of notes and head to my car. A LBJ flies over head. I am determined to learn his name the next time I return to the gardens.
Where are you learning new things to add depth to your writing?
Lynne Hartke’s first book, Under a Desert Sky, was released in May with Baker/Revell Publishers. When she is not writing or blogging, she is out hiking desert trails.