Nikon D300, 300/2.8 plus TC20E III (2x), ISO 1600, 1/160th second at f/5.6, tripod
The thrill of birding for most people is the chance to see rarities – birds with a limited range and/or small numbers that aren’t seen every day. Vagrants are birds that show up far outside their normal range and are the cause for great excitement within the birding community.
A Least Grebe (Tachybaptus dominicus) discovered on Saturday 1/19/2013 in the Sun Lakes community of Chandler, AZ is such a bird. Birders wanting to add this species to their Life List normally need to visit the far reaches of the Rio Grande Valley in extreme south Texas where this primarily Mexican species breeds. So a report of one on the southeast edge of Phoenix brought out active birders at dawn the morning of Sunday 1/20/2013.
I was among them, following the standard procedure of chasing a reported rarity as soon as possible to maximize the chances of seeing it. There is no guarantee that a vagrant will stay around, and there’s also a worry that access to the place where a rarity has been seen will be lost when someone does something stupid to anger whoever controls the place.
Lucky for me the bird was still there, and the local residents were friendly and inviting of visitors. We learned from one of the residents that “this little duck” as they had been calling it had been around since before Christmas. (This reminds me of the Northern Jacana that had been hanging out at a gold course in Casa Grande, AZ for months before a birder discovered it and spread the word).
Least Grebe and Mallard
Nikon D300, 300/2.8 plus TC20E III (2x), ISO 1600, 1/125th second at f/5.6, tripod
This shot showing the grebe confronting a drake Mallard is a good comparison of size. The Sibley Guide to Birds gives 9.5″ length, 11″ wingspan, and 4 ounces as the size parameters for the Least Grebe – those dimensions are smaller than those of the ubiquitous Mourning Dove!
The pond where this grebe is hanging out has no covering vegetation along the edges which is surprising. The other places this bird has occurred in AZ over the years have all had lots of edge cover that made viewing difficult. The open conditions meant clean photography, but the small size of the grebe and the size of the pond made it difficult to get much of an image even with my 300mm and 2x optics. I also had to deal with low light levels because the pond is shaded by buildings and large trees. SO, I was shooting at ISO 1600 with the lens wide open to get even modest shutter speeds like 1/160th second. And I still had to do some severe cropping to come up with these images.
Nikon D300, 300/2.8 plus TC20E III (2x), ISO 800, 1/320th second at f/8, tripod
By waiting for a higher sun to put more light on the pond I was able to reduce the ISO 800 and stop down one stop, but that also put the grebe in harsh light.
This is the third Least Grebe I’ve seen in AZ since 1994, and the farthest north in the state. When I recover from the cold I’ve been battling since this day I plan to return for more photos – if the bird is still there and if birders and photographers haven’t worn out our welcome.