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.
* * *