In Search of the Ruddy Ground Dove
"Have you seen anything good?" the man asked in a British accent. There was a Rough-legged Hawk atop the shed 50 yards away, an American Bittern in the pond 20 yards away, Harriers skimming over our heads, blackbirds exploding out of the reeds, coyotes pouncing on yummy rodents, and 20,000 Sandhill Cranes pouring out of the wetlands immediately to the west. I was about to formulate an answer when he continued.
"Have you seen It?" I could definitely catch the capital "I".
"The Ruddy Ground Dove."
"My friend has come a long way to see one," his companion added in case the accent hadn't already tipped me off.
"I think I may have got some pictures of one this morning." The two perked up.
"Can we see?"
I started scrolling through the pics on the tiny LCD screen on the back of my camera. About 500 bittern shots later, there it was. "Is this the guy?" I asked.
Ruddy Ground Dove at Whitewater Draw, January 23, 2013. This bird, though common in Latin America, has only expanded its territory north of the border recently. The first recorded sighting of one in Arizona was in 1981. This little guy is the size of my fist.
Yep, that was the guy.
"Can you show us exactly where you saw it?"
I walked over to the tree where I shot the pic. The dove wasn't there. "It was only here for a few minutes, then it flew to that bush, then a second later flew away." The two thanked me then I went back to my Bittern who was proving to be a much more cooperative subject. I don't know if the Brit and his friend got to see the dove that day. I hope so. For the record, this individual was photographed in a tree midway along the south bank of the (currently dry) pond in the middle of the loop trail. Here's what led up to the shot above:
8:17:04 AM I spot the small dove and anxiously snap a poorly exposed pic. Five seconds later I have my exposure adjusted and snap this shot to record the encounter. I'd never heard of a Ruddy Ground Dove until a few days before at Patagonia Lake State Park where some had thrilled the birders there. I'm wondering if this is the bird all the fuss is about. If so, I'd better get some shots, even if this background is a mess.
8:18:05 AM Same bird, same branch, but a bit closer and now turned around to show off the ruddy color of the wings. About this time I'm talking gently to the bird saying, "You're one beautiful bird. Wanna get famous? I'll take real nice pictures of you if you can just move to a better branch."
8:18:40 AM Wow, it worked. The bird has switched branches in the tree, but I've had to change my position as well, slowly moving a dozen small steps to my left, avoiding eye contact, trying not to get too close, but also trying not to back away and lose ground. Every step I take I worry will scare the bird. I get to this position and take some pics, not just to record something from this angle in case the bird bolts, but to also keep the bird used to the shutter noise and my presence and hopefully not view those as cause for alarm. Cropped tight, this would be an acceptable ID photo. Still this background is awful. Maybe if I can shift right a bit and get the bulkier tree trunk behind the bird instead of those thin branches.
8:19:14 AM Ah, that's getting better. I like the light and pose in this shot, and the bird is standing out much better than in the other shots. This looks like I'm closer, but actually this was shot in vertical format and the top and bottom cropped, but not the sides. The bird was preening, which I took as a good sign that it was not overly concerned with my presence. I snapped a series here to make sure I got the preening action recorded, then cautiously moved my camera just a few degrees to the right and adjusted the height of my tripod to frame the dove's head against the the blurred out sky as seen in the opening shot of this blog post.
8:19:43 AM Here's the top shot again. Nice light from a "hazy bright" slight overcast sky kept the shadows soft and a conscious effort to maneuver around and line up the best available background paid off. Seven seconds later, the bird flew off.
In total I had 2 minutes and 46 seconds with my subject. It seemed a lot longer at the time, as my mind was racing with exposure and camera angle decisions. Furthermore, every movement I made seemed destined to flush my subject away. From first shot to last I probably only moved 20 paces total, but each real slow. Yeah, 2 minutes and 46 seconds is a very tiny slice of one's life, but for those yet to see a Ruddy Ground Dove, it might seem an eternity. Just ask that Brit.
Nice blog John. BTW I actually saw an American bittern at Lake Estes last summer. Rare sighting here per the local birders that had their large lens binoculars out.
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