Finding Community at the Sewer Ponds Whilst Looking for a Wagtail


Confessions of a Wanna-be Birder

I confess, I might classify myself as a birder. Although I don’t hope to join the birding legends (yeah, birding has ‘legends’) who seek out 700-plus bird species in a single year, I do have a life list. I can’t drop everything and jet off to the corners of the United States when a rare bird happens by. Fortunately, I live in Arizona, a state that gets its fair share of rarities.

This weekend I added two species to my list (I’d like to reach 500 species by June 9, but I don’t think that will happen). We had planned on camping somewhere warm this weekend because the weather forecast snow for northern Arizona. So when I got a report of a White Wagtail in Ajo, AZ, I suggested to Pedro that perhaps we should camp in the desert.

Pedro and I have discovered a prime camping spot only two miles from a five-acre lot that my parents and sister bought earlier this year. Pedro can explore for miles on his quad, and I can wander around the desert looking for birds. Ajo lies two hours south of ‘our’ campsite—a win-win situation.

I left before daybreak and made my way south—enjoying the sunrise over the saguaros and the distant mountains. As an introvert, I always feel a little shy about showing up in strange places where more knowledgable and experienced birders hang out. A kind birder had answered my list-serve question about the exact location of the White Wagtail. Yep. I may belong to a list-serve just for people interested in birds. I may also get daily email reports from eBird about bird sightings. But I digress.

What’s the Big Deal About a White Wagtail, Anyway?

At some point last fall, the White Wagtail made its way from either Eurasia or northern Alaska and decided to spend the cold months in warmer climates. Last Wednesday, an observant birder by the name of Doug Backlund identified the bird at the Ajo Waste Water Treatment Plant. That’s right. The sewer treatment plant.

Believe it or not, water treatment plants provide excellent birding opportunities. In fact, some cities, like Henderson, NV, have incorporated environmentally friendly aspects to their waste water treatment plants and turned them into birding preserves. Another win-win situation.

Since the White Wagtail doesn’t show up in the lower 48 very often, I knew I wouldn’t have to bird alone at a remote (and weird) place in an out-of-the-way town in the middle of nowhere. When I pulled in about 8:30, a small group of eight birders stood near the fence.

white wagtail
A very poor shot, but it’s clearly a White Wagtail. Can you find the bird in the photo at the top of the post?

I grabbed my glass (binoculars and a camera with a telephoto lens) and joined them at the locked gates. Most waste water treatment plants consist of a few ponds, some equipment and high fences. Birds get in free. People have to stay outside. A friendly fellow birder pointed out the White Wagtail, and I took a few photos. Unfortunately, the bird had traveled all the way from Alaska (or Eurasia) but didn’t feel like moving any closer to the gate.

By 9:30, the crowd had swelled to about 30 birders. About this time, the White Wagtail decided to change positions—he found a pipe running in the middle of the far pond from which to forage for food. This put him out of sight of all but the tallest birders for most of the time.

I walked over to my truck and stood in the bed, hoping to get a better view (wagtails are entertaining in their busyness, and they actually wag their tails).

In Which My Big Red Truck Helps Form Community

“Is that your truck?” a birder asked me.

When I nodded, he said, “Why don’t you back your truck up to the gate and we could use it for a birding platform?”

“As long as no one else minds me moving it there,” I said.

Various birders called out, “We don’t mind at all,” or “We’d love to get a better view.”

Roger, the one with the bright idea, guided me as I backed the truck up to the gates. I let down the tailgate, and within two minutes my truck looked like this:


For the next two hours I helped people in and out of the back of the truck. The younger birders hopped up on their own. The middle-aged birders sat on the tailgate, swung their legs around and heaved themselves upright.

The octogenarian with the cane required a team of three to assist him into the back. As two strangers pulled him to his feet, he quipped, “You should carry a ladder with you next time!” Everyone laughed.

I discovered that people had traveled from as far away as Loma Linda, California and Las Cruces, NM to see the bird. The group from England claimed they had traveled the farthest (although they didn’t come specifically to see the this bird).

People with scopes shared them with people who only had binoculars. For a while, I perched on the truck rails and gave a play-by-play birdcast of the Wagtail’s movements. Some of the birders with weaker eyesight had a difficult time locating a grey, white, and black bird that wandered up and down a silver pipe with black stubs set in a flat grey pond of water.

Birding Behavior

I started people watching once I’d seen the bird. As each new birder arrived, a look of intense hope and concentration covered his or her face. Invariable, someone who had arrived earlier would turn around and reassure the newcomers, “It’s still here.”

If finding a community has you worried, maybe you need to concentrate on BEING community for someone else.
A Le Conte’s Thrasher–my other new bird of the day.

The new arrivals would set up their equipment, feast their eyes on the bird, and then relax. Conversations ebbed and flowed as birders exchanged names. I recognized some of the names, and some people recognized my name (much to my surprise).

We chatted about how far we had driven, told horror stories of arriving one day, or even one hour too late, and shared information about other birding hotspots in the area. Laughter flowed and the birders seemed interested in making sure that everyone got to see the rarity.

The crowd thinned out to just five birders by 11:30, and I needed breakfast. I helped the last birder down from the truck bed, waved goodbye to my new friends and headed back to our campsite.

I should have known that I had nothing to worry about. In fact, I learned an awful lot by hanging around experts and local legends all morning.

As I drove, I couldn’t help but wish that my church community acted more like the birding community. Perhaps the fault lies with me—maybe I need to incorporate my birding behavior when I attend church. Maybe the fault lies with the church structure—all pews and pulpit and less conversation and interaction.

Whatever the case, I found community at the sewer ponds this weekend. What did you do for church?

If you want to find #community, maybe you need to BE community. Click To Tweet

You can also find the #InspireMeMonday link up over at Blessed (but Stressed).

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  1. Of course I adore this tale – is it a tale if it’s true? Not sure of that. We have a bird that twitches its tail and she has managed to, once again, wreak havoc on our front porch nest building – meet Mrs. Eastern Phoebe! Bring your red truck, leave the tripod – not difficult to spot her. You can enjoy a cuppa on the porch and reach out and touch!!!
    I had to post twice to the linkup. One, a book review; two, my Robin and the String tale (it is true so perhaps that makes it a story?)
    Love your bird posts, Ms A!!!
    Susan Shipe recently posted…Book Review: The Women of Easter by Liz Curtis HiggsMy Profile

  2. You have such a spirit for adventure. As I began reading this post I thought back to your comment last week about the tournament for birds and your bracket that involved different kinds of birds. I hope the best bird won. How fascinating to hook up with so many other birders who share your passion.
    Mary Geisen recently posted…Beautifully In Over My HeadMy Profile

  3. This is an amazing story! I love the picture of everybody perched on the Beast. I also just love how you highlighted how we can find community outside of our comfort zones (our denominations/churches).

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Anita Ojeda

Anita Ojeda juggles writing with teaching high school English and history. When she's not lurking in odd places looking for rare birds, you can find her camping with her kids, adventuring with her husband or mountain biking with her students.

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