American Birding Podcast



Introducing the Rosy-faced Lovebird

It’s official. The iconic Rosy-faced Lovebird, Agapornis roseicollis, has been admitted to the ABA Checklist. The lovebird counts! You can put it on your ABA Checklist!

Birding 12-6 cover - front onlyThe obvious question: How? Where? In this essay, those questions are answered by ABA member Cindy Marple, who photographed the Rosy-faced Lovebirds that appear on the cover of the November 2012 issue of Birding magazine. In particular, Marple tells us about the Water Ranch, a splendid urban birding hotspot in the metro Phoenix area. If you’re going to be in Phoenix, see if you can get over to the site. You’re sure to see desert birds aplenty, and your chances of seeing the lovebird are high.

—Ted Floyd


I live in the Phoenix area, a city in the middle of a desert. Within a few minutes’ drive of home is a real birding—and bird photography—hotspot, the Water Ranch in the Phoenix suburb of Gilbert. (Click here for a map.) Outside of the hot summer months, when species diversity is at its lowest, one can reasonably expect to find 50 or more species in a few hours’ visit.

With any craft, practice is of course essential to improving your skills, and this is true  for both birding and bird photography. When it comes to photographing wild creatures, more time spent in the field translates into more opportunities for those moments that result in special photos. This gem of a location is a perfect spot for spending time in both pursuits.

The Riparian Preserve at the Water Ranch is actually a ground water recharge facility for the surrounding community. Established in 1999, the facility is managed for wildlife and wildlife viewing, as well as for its formal purpose. It is also a multi-use park with a fishing lake, picnic pavilions, and about four miles of wide gravel paths suitable for walking, biking, and horseback riding. The entire preserve is well planted with native riparian vegetation, which provides food and cover for Sonoran Desert breeders as well as passing migrants. There are seven large, shallow basins for the ground water recharge. At any given time, the different basins may be totally try, totally full of water, or mudflats. All this water in the desert is of course a magnet, and a large variety of shorebirds and waterfowl make use of the resources both on migration and for overwintering. The Water Ranch  was designated in early 2007 as an Important Bird Area.

For birders, this park is a wonderful place to bring binoculars and a spotting scope and spend a morning studying. You can work on those difficult winter-plumage shorebirds, as well as the fall warblers that migrate through. A dozen species of waterfowl arrive in their dull alternate plumage in the late summer and molt into to their breeding finery (their basic plumage, strangely enough) during the fall, allowing observation of the transition of plumages. There’s a resident Peregrine Falcon that likes to hang out on the transmission towers, and Ospreys take advantage
of the fishing pond. Various other raptor species are present, too. Sparrows are abundant in the winter, and numerous swallows pass through in migration. In addition to the many common species, the Water Ranch has become known as a place to find rarities. The ranch’s reputation was cemented in the winter of 2005, when a Streak-backed Oriole spent the winter, returning again in 2006, bringing birders from near and far. Now that it is a heavily birded area, unusual birds are found fairly regularly. The site’s checklist is up to 270 species and includes such goodies as Baikal Teal, Wood Stork, Roseate Spoonbill, American Redstart, Purple Gallinule, and Eastern Phoebe.

I love spending time at the Water Ranch for bird photography, and I try to spend some time each week during the peak seasons. It’s different every time you go. The water levels in the various ponds are always different, and unpredictable. As the park has matured and has become heavily visited, the birds now tend to be more accustomed to humans’ presence and somewhat less skittish than they are in other places. This means you have a little better chance at having subjects within range for a photo. I’ll often pick a spot at the side of a pond where there is activity,
and just sit there while the birds go about their business. Staying low and quiet, I’ve had shorebirds—including the usually wary Wilson’s Snipe—forage so close to me that I could no longer focus the camera on them. Herons, egrets, and even cormorants will also forage or fly by at close range. There’s a good variety of our local desert birds, and the saguaro stand at the entrance can be a wonderful place to find them. Other times, I’ll walk the trails to see what will pop up in the bushes and trees.


One bird I usually hear well before I see it is the Rosy-faced Lovebird. There is a loose flock of a dozen or so birds that can be found just about anywhere throughout the park. When the mesquite beans are mature, the birds gather in and under the trees, where they pick up the pods and eat the seeds. For such bright and noisy birds, lovebirds can be a bit shy, often sitting deep within the branches. This pair was photographed on a New Year’s Eve day when there were few leaves for them to hide behind. I focused in on them as they snuggled and briefly preened each other, resulting in an image that says to me: “This is why they’re called LOVE birds!”

Cindy Marple • Phoenix, Arizona •

Click here to see how to get to the Water Ranch in Gilbert, Arizona.

Click here for access, events, and hours of operation at the Water Ranch.

Click here for an overview of the biology of the Rosy-faced Lovebird.