Santa Cruz Flats, Pinal County, AZ

January 24, 2015
Up early to meet Maricopa Audubon Society birders for a field trip to Santa Cruz Flats with Dr. David L. Pearson, Research Professor in ASU's School of Life Sciences, I was in birding friend, Susan's car when Dr. Pearson walked over to ride with us.  Yay!  That would make us the first car of three driving the mostly dirt roads throughout the wide expanse of agricultural fields between Phoenix and Tucson.  Twelve of us departed Tempe Library parking lot at 6:30 a.m.
Only two weeks prior, I had joined a Sonoran Audubon group birding the same area with Claudia Kirscher, as leader.  Birds can change considerably from day to day, so my blog will incorporate photos from both visits but will concentrate on today's trip.

Birding from the car, including stops and starts, began at 7:30 a.m.  We birded some desert scrub on Harmon Road searching for Sagebrush Sparrows.  They don't stay put at all!  If perched, they seem to know when they are spotted and mostly, they run on the ground for cover beneath the next bush.  To get good views of three (3) Sagebrush Sparrows felt wonderful.  They're not an easy bird to locate because of their furtive and quick behavior.  The other nice desert bird singing on distant Creosote and cactus plants was the Bendire's Thrasher, most easily identified by its song that differs from that of the Curve-billed Thrasher.  

Since the birds were quick and distant, I focused for a while on taking photos of some of the birders, including Dave Pearson who was lining up a Rock Wren in his spotting scope.  The Sawtooth Mountains in the background are part of the Ironwood Forest National Monument.

Maricopa Audubon field trip to Santa Cruz Flats
Finally, a bird stayed still.  This handsome little Loggerhead Shrike is not a bird you want to mess with - especially if you are a small lizard or an insect that it preys upon.  Fairly common in the west, it tends to sit out openly to hunt alone.  It sallies out for insects or drops down on unsuspecting prey that it will carry in both its bill and feet back to its perch for a meal.

Loggerhead Shrike
Other birds seen in various locations within the Flats were the ever-present Horned Larks and one of just a couple Burrowing Owls.  The Horned Larks' chirps and high-pitched song are usually heard prior to finding this large sparrow-sized bird in open fields.

Horned Lark (photo by David Kennedy)
Burrowing Owl (photo by David Kennedy)
Any trip to Santa Cruz Flats will test the strength of your bladder.  Even with a rest stop along I-10 right before entering the area, there are scant places for relief.  A single Creosote bush in a wide open desert - with birders carrying binoculars and scopes - is not the ideal situation.  I was definitely pushing my luck in that regard when Dave finally said we would head for lunch by the Tamarisk trees.  He directed the women to the east; the men to the west.  The only problem with the area is the obvious trash left behind by illegal border crossers who simply ditch their belongings when they, apparently, meet their ride out of there.  None of us cared!  We walked quickly to a place where we could squeeze under some branches for a speck of privacy to find relief.

Steve F. and Susan enjoying lunch at the rear of her car.
 Never have I been on a trip with Dave Pearson that his wife, Nancy, didn't send along a very large container of very large chocolate chip/nut/fruit cookies.   As always, we topped off our lunch with one of Nancy's delicious full-meal cookies.  

At the Wheeler-Baumgartner area, we saw what Claudia had identified on my previous visit as a partially leucistic (many white feathers, but not albino) Red-tailed Hawk.  Today, I mistook it for one of our desired birds, Crested Caracara, because of its white-ish wing tips.  In birding, we learn early on that feather colors are NOT the way to ID birds; it is about size, shape, movements, etc., and so it was in this case.  Birding, for me, will take the rest of my life to learn as fully as I want to.   

Partially leucistic Red-tailed Hawk
Photos by David Kennedy from underneath and when it banked

The moment of truth was upon us.  When Dave had asked what birds we wanted to see on this trip and we all responded, "Sprague's Pipit", we knew it was a very long shot.  It is a rare bird that Dr. Pearson had found several weeks prior on a trip to the Flats and only a handful of birders had been able to spot it since. As I recall it was only the third sighting of the Sprague's Pipit in Arizona birding records.  I did my homework so I would recognize it on the outside chance it would make an appearance.  No pressure, Dave; it would be a Life Bird for each of us!   Being in the first car gave us the awesome advantage of seeing a bird in the dirt road in front of us, fly up, revealing its many white outer tail feathers before setting down in the middle of a dead-grass field.  THE bird!  It stayed visible for about 5 minutes before skulking very low in the grass out of sight.
We celebrated our good fortune with another one of Nancy's healthy chocolate chip cookies!
Distant Sprague's Pipit aware of 12 birders observing it 
More Sprague's Pipit

After wrapping up a full day of successful birding at Santa Cruz Flats, we chose to explore a new location with our leader.  One car returned to Phoenix as it was after 3:00 p.m., but 8 of us continued on to sewage ponds on Casa Blanca Road off of I-10 (east) at Exit 175.
Among the first birds quite visible behind the fencing of the ponds holding water, one stood out; it was a juvenile Snow Goose.  Fencing is not kind to cameras (or to photographers who don't know the trick of shooting through it) so I settled on the fence.

Being short in stature was not an advantage here.
Even Susan stood on the car to view the ponds.
Dr. Pearson estimated 2500 waterfowl of 13 species on the water.

Back in Tempe around 4:00 p.m., Nancy (Dave's wife) took a photo of Susan's carload of birders.  Another beautiful day of birding with some impressive birders!

L-R:  Babs, Steve F., Dave Pearson, Susan Fishburn

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