When the Adventure is More Than The Birds! Pinal County, AZ

Saturday, February 17, 2017
Forecast of clouds/sun for Santa Cruz Flats sounded fine with Marsha Wiles and I as we set off at 6:30 a.m. for a decent start at birding a portion of this 350 square-mile scrub/agricultural land east of I-10 beween Phoenix and Tucson.

All birding adventures are not equal. Although we spotted some very good birds, this trip created indelible sensory experiences that were tangential to birding.

Choosing a Saturday for a run south on I-10 usually meant a fairly open highway.  Soon after we entered the 75 mph stretch, though, we were surprised to find traffic slowing considerably.  Uh-oh!  

No accident; we entered a fog bank . . . that completely shrouded us. Traffic slowed. I pulled into the right lane behind a tractor trailer, keeping good space between us. At speeds between 25-35 mph, we moved forward. Fog was extensive and thick, not just a blanket of it at one spot. Driving, I could see just our immediate three lanes of traffic about three cars forward and three to the rear. Beside the road, I noticed water accumulated in low-lying areas.  Uh-oh! 
I’ve heard tales of the “slip and slide” that the dirt roads in the Flats can become in wet weather. It became immediately obvious that this area (approx. 1700’ elevation) had received significantly more rain that we had had in the Phoenix Valley.

We came upon a pretty bad accident with police already present but had no need to slow down any further; we were already crawling. What did not occur to me as I stayed very alert with driving was that we couldn’t see beyond the edge of the highway. When the sun showed for a few minutes, the curtain of roadside fog lifted enough for us to see that Exit 203 was upon us. Yikes! What happened to Exit 200? No exit signs showed; no gas station or truck stop signs were visible. We had been socked into our three lanes headed stressfully south for at least 30 minutes.

Exiting at #203, we drove back into the fog northward to our intended Exit 200 to stick to the planned itinerary that might provide more paved roads in the Flats than exiting at 203.  At the next exit north, we could now see the gas station where we took a rest stop before continuing south on Sunland Gin Road. 

OMG!  Heavy, dense fog continued on this two-lane highway where we inched forward on our own, finding our way into Arizona City and Paradise Lake—also fog-covered. Parking along the road, we found some solid footing in the muddy empty lot to reach the edge of the Lake. Fortunately, there were a few ducks (Ruddy, Mallard and coots) close by.  Across this channel of the lake, we could make out only the shapes of the houses but not the feeders where we heard mixed bird sounds. Having come this far, we checked out the other arm of the Lake at Maui Circle where we could see out as far as the docked boat, but not past the center where sounds of domestic geese came through the fog. Was there a Snow Goose with them?  A White-fronted Goose, perhaps?  We’ll never know.

Having mapped out our route through the Flats, I opted to continue south on Sunland Gin to its end at Aries where, in past years, I’ve come upon Crested Caracara.  Not today.  Some of the fog seemed to be evaporating; instead of seeing just one utlity pole at a time, several consecutive utility poles were now visible through the windshield. And, at Aries, we could see at least 25 feet into the agricultural field but saw no birds whatsoever.

Returning north, then, on Sunland Gin I opted for turning east on Pretzer where the deep churned mud was packed down into two tracks: one going east; one going west. Except for my small car’s frame not exactly wide enough to fit the truck tracks, it worked out well enough with little slippage.

After several long blocks, though, Pretzer continued with only one track. Hmmn.  Well, anyone else coming toward or behind me would likely be bigger than my little Honda so they could pass me; I would stay in the track. We were alone with the mud. Still one track as we reached Tweedy and the Evergreen Sod Farm lots, visibility had improved; we could see birds out on the turf from our car but  straying from the track would have been a bad move.

When we reached Curry at the east end of the farm plots, I was able to turn north and park. Curry Road hadn’t been traveled much and had dried fairly hard. Finally, our birding began. We stretched our legs walking north on Curry birding the turf along Curry up to the pond where we found only Killdeer, but also an Osprey overhead.

Got good looks at the distinctively-colored MOUNTAIN PLOVER, some on the plots, many as they lifted into the air and/or came in for landing. HORNED LARKS were abundant as were AMERICAN PIPITS and KILLDEER. It felt good to be birding!!
We maintained a Travel Count as well as several hot spots including the Evergreen Turf Farm, Baumgartner/Wheeler and Red Rock Feed Lots. 
On our Travel Count, we observed this RED-TAILED HAWK making sure we didn’t name it something other than what it was.  

Also found this pair of GREAT-HORNED OWLS not far from the above RTHA.

Beyond Baumgartner/Wheeler as we continued on Baumgartner toward the feed lots, we passed an agricultural field with at least ten (10) GREATER-YELLOWLEGS, three (3) CINNAMON TEAL, one (1) GREEN-WINGED TEAL and eight (8) MALLARD. I wondered if the waterfowl are as surprised by these circumstances as we are at seeing them in a farmer’s field.

CINNAMON TEAL (left); MALLARD (right); GREEN-WINGED TEAL behind left of Mallard
At the Red Rock Feed Lots, we were looking for the Ruddy Ground-Dove. With no traffic, we drove on the left-hand side of the road close to the front of the house. No doves at all were in the yard or flower garden. So, we continued along the easement to search the feed lot. When I looked up, coming toward us were hundreds of cows being herded by adult cowboys/girls into the scrub land across from the feed lots. Not all of them were turning as expected.

End of the herd, these cows aimed to check out the cattle in the feed lot instead of going to the empty field
Herded cows having a moment with those in the feed lot that came running to see them
At last, all of the herded cows headed to the empty scrubland lot

A few photos of some of our birds at Red Rock Feed Lot:
Male BREWER'S BLACKBIRD above; female, below (by the hundreds at the feed lot)

Another one of many RED-TAILED HAWK throughout the Flats
Across the feed lot from Sasco, I couldn't resist trying for these LARK SPARROW
Distant, striking birds: LARK SPARROW

Birding-wise, Marsha, having gotten some close views of the MOUNTAIN PLOVER chose that as her bird of the day. I preferred the GOLDEN EAGLE.

So ended our six hours of birding in the Flats; two hours of which were socked-in with fog.

* * *

Seven Springs Recreation Area, Maricopa County, AZ

Monday, February 12, 2018
Since my trip to Seven Springs Recreation Area (less than two weeks ago), I’ve visited some good local spots including Goldfield Rec Area along the Salt River with Hinde; Saguaro Lake with the neighborhood group of birders; Gilbert Water Ranch, and Coon Bluff Rec Area along the Salt.

Spring Cleaning, imprinted upon me by my mother, hit me this month so on the days I didn’t go birding, I power washed the exterior of my house (at least part of it) and cleaned out and organized my shed. Amazing how “junky” a space can become in just a year’s time.

With no overriding “to-do list” accompanying me, then, I was more than ready to lead my friends to Seven Springs Recreation area north of Cave Creek/Carefree. Why return so soon? — Because I hadn’t done sufficient homework to locate the precise place to enter Lower Camp Creek from Seven Springs Road on my last visit January 31st.

Until the recent (2017) publication of the third edition of Birds of Phoenix and Maricopa County Arizona, I hadn’t realized its location and hadn’t noticed other eBird users posting from that location. But now, reports of great birds flowed in from Lower Camp Creek.
[For detailed directions, also see: birderfrommaricopa.com]

My good friends, Kathie Story and Lynne Eaton, visitors from Ontario in the winter months, were responsible for re-igniting my interest in birding early in 2011. As you can fathom from my blog, that interest has developed into a passion for the birds. Recently, I managed to pull Kathie and Lynne away from their deep participation in our resort activities and volunteer efforts to schedule a day to visit the birds at Seven Springs. The only caveat: they had to be “game” for me leading them to a place I had yet to “find”. Birder friend, Glenda Jones (also from Ontario) joined us for the day.

What a delightful surprise - Lower Camp Creek!  Before we even walked around the gate, we began taking photos of birds that left the security of the adjoining shrubs to peck in the dirt road: HERMIT THRUSH (2) in the road; SPOTTED TOWHEE; WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW (3); CRISSAL THRASHER.  

HERMIT THRUSH (above and below)

SPOTTED TOWHEE  [Photo by Glenda Jones]
WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW [Photo by Glenda Jones]
CRISSAL THRASHER (above; below, showing its throat pattern)

Kathie Story, Lynne Eaton & Glenda Jones
Birds scattered, of course, once we walked around the gate, but the creek (spring fed?) was a marvelous surprise. Althouth the Louisiana Waterthrush did not show up at its appointed time and place, we were thrilled with the number and variety of birds here. Some, like the many (7) BROWN CREEPERs were foraging like mad. Their voices were obvious the moment I got out of the car and suggested we all stay alert for those very camouflaged birds against tree bark. Here, working their way up skinny white-barked tree trunks, the bird's belly could be seen when it went to the "back" of the tree; they were not camouflaged at all. They were moving quickly, furiously--like a rat running up a tree. Had never seen so many in one place! Nor, moving so fast.

Most of our birds were gathered in one big tree.  

RUBY-CROWNED KINGLET  [Photo by Glenda Jones]
Before leaving Lower Camp Creek, we saw eighteen (18) species of birds, including this beautiful CANYON WREN, a bird known for its pleasant song, that is more often heard than seen.

CANYON WREN  [Photo by Glenda Jones]
As we left that green oasis of riparian habitat, rain sprinked the car.

By the time we reached the "sparrow spot" along Humboldt Mountain FR562, the temperature had dropped to 9°C. On a mission to find a Grasshopper Sparrow coming into breeding plumage, the four of us scoured the grassland. It may have been elsewhere! But we refrained from anymore wet grass ventures and happily settled for the BLACK-THROATED and VESPER SPARROWS. Although I frequently run across VESPER SPARROW, I don't know that I've ever had such a good photo opportunity (except for the dark sky).

We didn't want to leave without checking out the Group Picnic Site where we stayed in the car to eat lunch. By then, the drizzle had returned to a light mist so we walked the loop trail picking up just a few birds, with AMERICAN ROBIN, being the most frequent.

Despite less-than-favorable weather, we were all thrilled with the experience at Seven Springs Recreation Area. My friends decided a trip later in spring would be great!

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View this checklist online at https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S42711831
View this checklist online at https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S42712159

View this checklist online at https://ebird.org/view/checklist/S42712375

Seven Springs Recreation Area & Gilbert Water Ranch, Maricopa County, AZ

Wednesday, January 31, 2018
One of my favorite semi-wilderness areas to bird is the Seven Springs Area north of Cave Creek. Setting out this morning with three birding friends with Woody, my neighbor, driving, we skipped Rackensack Canyon and the Upper & Lower Camp Creek areas in favor of Humboldt Mountain Road FR562. That was an area I had never explored.

L-R: Woody, Linda, Marsha
Good birders all, we had a delightful day of it among the hills, valleys and ravines of the area. 

Male (top) and Female (lower left) NORTHERN CARDINAL
CANYON TOWHEE - higher elevation bird than our desert Abert's Towhee
The WOODHOUSE'S SCRUB JAY (formerly Western Scrub Jay) was among many other birds in the scrub area of this high desert.

It seemed the higher we drove on Humboldt Mountain Road, the better the birds. We came upon large flock of WESTERN MEADOWLARKs that stayed ahead of our camera view each time we thought we might be able to snag a photo.

The flocks of WESTERN BLUEBIRDs eventually perched up as we waited to see what they would do.

With the road to Mt. Ord in tough shape for my vehicle, I was happy to find a Black-chinned Sparrow at this location. A juvenile, it does not yet have the black face/chin of its name.

We didn't follow the mountain to the peak, but turned back as birds dwindled. We had a timeframe that I thought was easily met, but once we got birding, time flew. Thus, we visited just one other place, the group camp site.

Much quieter this time than my earlier visit with Jeanne a few weeks ago, our biggest thrill here was when a flock of CEDAR WAXWINGs flew in and landed briefly in one of the leafless trees. Their very high flight calls announced their arrival. I consider them a very handsome bird and was glad they dropped down for a few minutes.

CEDAR WAXWING - close up. Note yellow tip on tail.
With the one and a half hour drive to the location, we managed to bird six hours to double our three hours in the car. We all enjoyed our time together seeking out every bird we could find.

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Friday, February 2, 2018
Just twenty minutes away is the Riparian Preserve at Gilbert Water Ranch. So, I postponed household chores to catch a few birds early.  The herons/egrets I photographed:


Mature BLACK-CROWNED HERON -- often, this is how we see the birds, behind lots of sticks
Juvenile BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT HERON - staying well-hidden
GREAT BLUE HERON - seldom hides
Lately, I find myself focusing on the female of each species. Not as colorful as the male, but in subdued colors to protect nesting, its markings can be subtly beautiful.

Who would guess the bird below is a female RED-WINGED BLACKBIRD? (Seasoned birders, of course.)



On Pond 5, I spotted just two HOODED MERGANSERs of the several reported there.  Disappointed that I missed a portion of the female on this photo:

HOODED MERGANSERs--drake, left; hen, right
Both were spending much of their time preening, so it was diffcult to catch them with heads up.

Having spent two hours without covering a whole lot of territory, I noted some INCA DOVEs by the front restroom as I was leaving the area. Note their overall scaly appearance. Not showing is their beautful red-rufous underwing.


Always energized after spending time outside, I felt a little more ready to tackle home-side tasks!
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Four Good Days of Birding, Maricopa, Santa Cruz, and Pinal Counties, AZ

Friday, January 26, 2018
In the wee hours of the morning, I felt rested and wide awake. What better to do than check out the birds at a spot I haven't visited for quite some time?  
Arriving at Bushnell Sheep Tank (a bit past Sunflower on Route 87 to Payson) at 7:15 a.m., was not the best plan in the world. It was 31°.  

Dressed in layers plus a wool pull-down hat, I was warm enough to start out on the road beyond the gate to watch the sun rise over the hills and into Sycamore Creek's cottonwoods, sycamores and willows. The only birds active were NORTHERN FLICKERs, but I heard DARK-EYED JUNCOs (the orignal snowbirds) in the weeds and under shrubs.

NORTHERN FLICKER - RED-SHAFTED  - a bit fluffed up on this cold morning
Where the road ends at Sycamore Creek, I discovered the hiking path on the other side of the dry creek had been cut into a road, too. This morning, that was a plus. To keep warm, I hiked up the road for a good stretch so that birds would no longer be backlit. When I turned back, I'd have the sun behind me.

One mile later, after a brief uphill climb, I stood and enjoyed the view.  The hill was sunlit and I caught a small flock of bluebirds come into a tree. As my cold fingers got my camera ready for a shot, most of the flock took off, but two remained - a male and female.  As it turned out, they were the EASTERN BLUEBIRDs prevously reported from this location -- a bit out of range, but putting some spice into the still-cold air.

Male (bottom) & female (top) EASTERN BLUEBIRD

Soon I was seeing other birds, including WOODHOUSE'S SCRUB JAY, BRIDLED and JUNIPER TITMOUSE, HERMIT THRUSH and other expected birds for this habitat. The sun had finally warmed the creek area; it was a beautiful day. WESTERN BLUEBIRDs came and went; several AMERICAN ROBINs showed up individually and briefly and a tree full of CASSIN'S FINCH caught my eye. My hands were slower, but there was one left in the tree for a photo good enough for the ID.

The only other decent bird photo there was one I identified as a young GRAY FLYCATCHER. 

The place was peaceful, beautiful and challenging. After 3.5 hours, I convinced myself to get back into civilizaton.

Saturday, January 27, 2018
Having caught up on necessary chores after birding yesterday, I was free to head out again in the morning. Today, Jeanne Burns and Hinde Silver joined me for a trip up to Lake Pleasant to see how many of the rarities being reported we might be able to find.

Ooops! Although it was a toasty (!) 49°F when we arrived at Ten Lane Boat Ramp, white caps on the lake told another story. WIND...WIND...and more WIND.  Jeanne and Hinde got out and birded for several minutes before heading back to the car. I scanned and scanned and scanned. AMERICAN COOT and MALLARD were not on our "treasure hunt" list. Neither was the next bird we saw, but it was a good one: a 3-year BALD EAGLE with white head and tail just beginning to feather up to replace the black.

Land birds began to get our attention. Two ROCK WRENs were not shy and perched up for us.

Driving over to Scorpion Bay gave us somewhat better waterfowl.  In addition to COMMON MERGANSER and COMMON GOLDENEYE, we had another BALD EAGLE (mature) fly over, and we found several RING-BILLED GULLS perched on buoys.

Boat traffic was picking up on this weekend day.

So, we drove to the Yavapai County portion of Lake Pleasant where we did pick up some birds that pacified us for the long drive and way-too-windy conditions.

A huge flotilla of CLARK'S GREBE appeared to be out in the distance.  Most appeared to have a black cap with white face and neck down to water's edge, but with so many out there and beyond our scope views, we decided it was mixed flock of CLARK'S and WESTERN GREBE.

One of the grebes within camera range was a HORNED GREBE, shown below.
More and more people and boaters arrived, so we headed home around noontime. It had been awhile since either Jeanne or I had visited the Lake, so it was a worthwhile trip to just reacquaint ourselves with the different coves and bays for birding. I'll try again--on a weekday--probably late in the day!

View this checklist online at http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S42290096

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Photo by Glenda Jones
When Glenda Jones picked me up at 5:15 a.m., it was to drive approximately 3 hours to this location -- Davis Pasture within Las Cienegas National Conservation Area in Sonoita, Santa Cruz County. Although the birds we wanted to find were few among the many, it was a challenge I wanted. There was the possibility of seeing three longspurs here--birds that are very casual in Arizona: CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPUR, McCOWN'S LONGSPUR and LAPLAND LONGSPUR. The LAPLAND was my target bird, but it was a no show. 

We began birding at 8:20 a.m. among the thousands of birds up early to feed in these beautiful grasslands. Straw-like grass is all over the place, so that a bird that is seen one moment is out of sight the next. We planned to stay for several hours as we knew this was difficult birding, especially when it's for less common birds. We had chairs; we had our spotting scopes, binoculars and cameras. 

My goal of "studying" the longspurs defaulted to learning a great deal about HORNED LARKs that were present in great numbers.

Cattle walking past Glenda's car to the tank for water
Each time the cattle came in, birds scattered but slowly returned. 

Glenda, sorting through sparrows, larks and longspurs
Soon after our arrival, Homer Hansen, renowned for his sparrow family expertise, arrived with a group for which he was conducting an American Birding Association Workshop. I've heard him before when he volunteered at Audubon meetings or festivals and I was overwhelmed with his knowledge but challenged to better myself on these "little brown jobs" that include longspurs. So, you might say that my presence for the longspurs went back to hearing Homer's previous talks. Book learning just doesn't cut it for me. The bird in the field is the one to get to know even if it means putting the chair next to cow pies.

I was actually taking a photo of some birds when he called out that it was a nice BAIRD'S SPARROW.  Well, thank you, Homer, I should have known, but lighting was not showing its yellow. I was taking the pic because it was bigger and different!

BAIRD'S SPARROW (top and bottom)

Considering the conditons, the above photos were the best from this location. Mostly, we were scoping through the muck next to the pond where all the birds and several longspurs gathered.  

In the fore-center of the photo above is a SAVANNAH SPARROW

Birds, including several SAVANNAH SPARROWs as above, were feasting on the bugs and tidbits offered within this shallow manure pile

Finding our longspurs in the scope became easy enough after awhile. But, moving from scope to camera and finding it again was a relentless frustraton.

One CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPUR was, at least, partially into its breeding plumage.

Poor quality photo of CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPUR transitioning to breeding plumage

Mostly, I was finding females of the two species.


With cool temperatures, it was a beautiful morning to bird in the middle of blonde grasslands; the excrement had no odor.

Winds began to pick up by our 3rd hour, so we hauled out without waiting for the LAPLAND LONGSPUR to arrive on the scene. But we weren't finished with our day.

At the Paton Center for Hummingbirds (Patons' Yard) in Patagonia, we spent an hour enjoying the renovated birding area, woodland area and back yard. Our most interesting sighting there were two humming birds in a tree appearing to do mating behavior.  The one was a VIOLET-CROWNED HUMMINGBIRD with some filament stuck on her beak (at first we thought it was her tongue).  With sunlight flicking off the filament, a male ANNA'S HUMMINGBIRD went into a dipping, stretching, swaying movement side to side; he could not get enough of this VIOLET-CROWNED HUMMINGBIRD. After thinking about it, though, it seemed the VCHU was in trouble as the edges of its beak were also worn.

We stopped a few other places on the way north on I-19 to check out the birding situation but decided to head directly to SANTA RITA LODGE in Madera Canyon. Instead of going hunting for birds, we would sit and let them come to us. What a good choice that became!

Spotting 21 good species there within half an hour was awesome. A young couple who found our knowledge helpful, couldn't believe they had just seen five (5) LIFERS in five (5) minutes!  RIVOLI'S HUMMINGBIRD (male and female), ARIZONA WOODPECKER, PAINTED REDSTART, RUFOUS-WINGED SPARROW, YELLOW-EYED JUNCO AND CANYON TOWHEE were among the best of the lot.

Altogether, a day not soon forgotten.

View this checklist online at http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S42336035

Monday, January 28, 2018
I've been enjoying some good birding with a neighborhood group of birders.  Today's outing at Boyce Thompson Arboretum began at 9 a.m. and lasted right up 'til noontime. In between, walking at least two miles of trail, we came up with 26 species of birds.

In the Children's Garden, we had a nice find: a Slate-colored FOX SPARROW. We would see another one later across from the herb garden.

FOX SPARROW - head cut off but clear sharp photo of face, throat, chest and belly

At Ayer Lake, we had a peculiar duck. This appears to be a hybred GREATER SCAUP X RING-NECKED DUCK.  To me, the duck below lacks the pointed head and black saddle of the Ring-necked Duck but its bill is obviously so marked. The e-bird reviewer had several experts conclude that it was, indeed, a Ring-necked Duck.

A big thrill for me was to finally get a clear photo of a WHITE-THROATED SPARROW.

WHITE-THROATED SPARROW (two above photos)
Strangest of all, I had just finished telling the Canadians in the group the way to remember   its song is, "O! Canada!"  Five minutes later, we hear that song coming from a bush across from the herb garden. Wonder of wonders! That's when the WHITE-THROATED SPARROW came all the way out for a visit, above. (Never heard it sing its song before!)

Back in the picnic area as we finished up for the morning, we found a RED-NAPED SAPSUCKER working a tree.


Four great mornings/days of birding in a row. Except for the sinus headache from winds at Lake Pleasant, the overall affect makes me feel really healthy.

Until next time, then.

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View this checklist online at http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S42348603