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The Magic Retention Pond

A few days ago I was alerted to the presence of a Red-necked Phalarope at a retention pond not far from my house. Being the eager county lister that I am I soon found myself in the parking lot of a featureless office park, looking out over the scummy surface of a small pond where a male Red-necked Phalarope was, as advertised, stepping carefully through the algae blooms and swimming unconcernedly through the dingy, turbid depths of this otherwise unremarkable body of water.

A very nice bird in a fairly ugly place.

For birders, this sort of experience is not unusual. We travel to landfills and water reclamation facilities (the modern euphemism for the sewage pond) on the regular. While birding can take us to wild, unspoiled places, it can also frequently take us among the effluvium of the very culture that this nature-based hobby would have us ostensibly avoid, or at least sidestep, for a few hours. And truthfully, retention ponds are actually a useful piece of engineering, preventing run-off from parking lots and other impermeable surfaces from overpowering waterways and stripping stream-side vegetation, even if their most significant contribution seems to be providing habitat for the ever-expanding population of urban Canada Geese. No, as a birder I’ve long since made peace with the paradox of seeking nature in unnatural settings. Gunk attracts bugs, which attracts birds, which attracts me.

What struck me though about this experience, was that I had been to this particular retention pond in this particular office park before. About 18 months prior I was standing at that precise spot looking at a Ross’s Goose, also a county first for me.

The Ross’s Goose in this photo is separated by 18 months, and about 10 feet, from the phalarope in the first photo.

Both of these birds are quite unusual in my part of the state, but why would they turn up at the exact same retention pond? Retention ponds are not at all unusual in my town–I have at least two of them within a very short walk from my house, though neither have produced anything beyond the odd Hooded Merganser or Green Heron. Birders are attuned to looking for patterns in the presence and absence of birds at certain times, but what kind of pattern is to be discerned from these two observations?

I haven’t figured it out yet, and it’s quite possible that the explanation I’m seeking isn’t anything more than this being all just a huge coincidence, but two birds now feels like a trend, even if that trend is not something I’m able to see at this point. In any case, I think I’ll be checking this retention pond out a little more often going forward.


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Nate Swick

Nate Swick

Editor, Social Media Manager at American Birding Association
Nate Swick is the editor of the American Birding Association Blog, social media manager for the ABA, and the host of the American Birding Podcast. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Danielle, and two young children. He is the author of Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.
Nate Swick

Latest posts by Nate Swick (see all)

  • David Rankin

    Perhaps you hit on the trend in your last sentence. A variant of the Patagoina Picnic Table Effect, in that this particular pond is now on the birding radar. And while you may not have been checking it more often yet, perhaps other people have been, and the accumulated man hours turned up another good bird.

    • Kirby Adams

      And now Nathan’s going to amplify the PPT Effect! Next step, eBird hotspot. Then the tour companies start showing up.

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