A flash of wings in the woodland, interrupting a pattern of light and shadow. Your eyes follow the movement instinctively. Sometimes, you’re rewarded with the sight of a bird, and if you’re very lucky, that bird might be a hawk. It happened to me in September, when a Cooper’s hawk caught my attention at Mount Elden Springs. And it happened again a week ago, this time at a constructed wetland east of Phoenix.
The Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch uses reclaimed water from the city of Gilbert. Seven ponds are filled on a rotating basis with treated wastewater, which percolates down into the aquifer and is stored there for future use.
That all may sound quite clinical or, if you don’t like the word “wastewater,” even a bit yucky. The Riparian Preserve is anything but. The ponds are surrounded by lovely trails lined with vegetation that typifies various desert habitats. Informative signs along the walkways tell you about desert flora and fauna. A visit to the preserve can be quite educational.
It doesn’t feel like school, though. The place is entrancing. It’s a magnet for birdlife, and where there are birds, there are birders and wildlife photographers. Many of the best bird images taken in Arizona are captured here.
As I walked the trails, I could see what attracted them. One pond held scores of American avocets and black-necked stilts, tall and graceful wading birds whose reflections danced across the rippling waters. Another pond belonged to herons and egrets, and a third to half a dozen duck species. In all, I counted 37 species I recognized and another three I couldn’t despite the help of my friend David Allen Sibley (I’m sure he knows the warbler, swallow, and sparrow species I saw, but I still don’t).
My most exciting sighting, though, was the juvenile sharp-shinned hawk. Like the Cooper’s, these are woodland hawks, adept at maneuvering between trees. This one was hunting along a stream between ponds; at least, I thought he was hunting. Then I realized he was trying to take a bath, thank you very much. He’d been interrupted several times by people walking along the nearby trail, but his desire to be wet and cool and get his feathers in order eventually overpowered his shyness.
As I watched from behind a tree, he leaped down into the water and looked around in dignified fashion. Then he began to splash water up onto his back with his wings and duck his head down into the stream.
An older gentleman came up just then and asked if I’d seen any interesting birds. I was happy to be able to point him in the direction of the sharp-shinned, still splashing like a two-year-old in a bubble bath. We both enjoyed long looks through binoculars before he thanked me and moved on.
Once the bird was satisfyingly wet, he flew up into a nearby tree to shake himself out and preen. No longer was I watching an elegant hunter. His head feathers were dark and spiky and the down on his chest was in need of a blow-dry and comb-out. I left him to his work and walked on, happy to have shared a second moment this fall with one of our handsome woodland hawks.