Arlington Valley Ag Fields: Birds & Mud

January 31, 2015

Mud - a rarity in the Phoenix area!
When I saw Gordon’s foot sink deep into the desert “dirt” road, I headed away from the trail to walk through drier scrub land.  A small group of us hard-core birders had set out to bird Arlington Valley agricultural fields (Phoenix’s West Valley) on our own after an Audubon trip had been cancelled due to a full day of rain yesterday and a bit more forecast for today.  Our hardy group included Gordon Karre, who drove us around all day, Susan Fishburn, Babs Buck and our 15-year old Leader, Caleb Strand, who lives in and birds that area frequently.  Not yet old enough to drive, he rides his bike around his “patch” of several miles or has his mother drive him to meet birders, as he had done this morning.  He knows well the location and even time of day of one of the birds that would be a thrill to see in this lowland habitat.  Hope the rain holds off.

Beginning at Thrasher Corner (known world wide for hosting some local-only thrashers), our first great sighting was a Bendire’s Thrasher singing from a mesquite tree branch across Salome Highway from us.  Rare birds we hoped to find in this corner of the desert were:  Bell’s Sparrow, Sagebrush Sparrow, LeConte’s Thrasher and any other sparingly-seen birds such as Sage and Crissal Thrashers and Green-tailed Towhee.  After seeing the mud slop up over the top of Gordon's sneakers, we headed off the trail into the desert in search of these species that are a thrill to see.  Not Life Birds for any of us, but birds to add to this year's Arizona list.  If it weren't for such a list, I wouldn't have made the trek to see these rare birds for my third time.  Each time, I get to view them longer so I can get better acquainted with their identification markers and habits.

Caleb, with an excellent ear, would point toward some shrubs and say, "Over there."  And, we would follow.  That's how we tracked down a rare Bell's Sparrow, recently separated from  the Sage Sparrow into two species:  Bell's being the darker Pacific; and Sagebrush being the paler more interior species.  Both are found in flat expanses of sagebrush or saltbush plants but both are skulkers and are hard to locate.  Within our two and half hours combing this flat desert land, we had the good fortune of getting good views of both species.

Bell's Sparrow - Photo by Gordon Karre

In addition to the Bell's Sparrow that I had seen only once before, the LeConte's Thrasher was high on my "want-to-see" list.  My only other view of this bird two years ago was fleeting.

LeConte's Thrasher
Caleb, who knew its song well, led us to two different sightings of the LeConte's and both times I was able to take multiple photos.  Both times I stopped photographing before the bird flew off - my preferred challenge. But of all the photos I took of this bird, the above is the best  of about 20 sucky pictures I kept.

It was time, then, to start driving the roads to check the ag fields for action.  Apparently it was too wet for most.  Great Egrets and a few Snowy Egrets were the usual sightings there.

L-R: Babs, Caleb, Gordon, Susan

After treating Caleb to lunch at Millstone Cafe in Buckeye for sharing his awesome birding skills and leading us to such topnotch birds, we continued through the Buckeye portion of the Arlington Valley.  When our destination pond or line of mesquite trees would ordinarily have been reached by a dirt road, we opted, instead, to avoid driving through deep mud.  We parked along paved roads and walked on berms or through muddy open land.

Low-hanging overcast skies were with us until late afternoon -- a killer for good photos from me. But that didn’t stop me from trying.  

We birded from 7:40 a.m. until 2:20 p..m.   Considering the wet and damp conditions, we had no rainfall to deal with and saw lots of birds.  

Burrowing Owl
Peregrine Falcon

The final sighting of the day was not a rare bird but the fact that we were seeing it in the lowlands of where we live and not, for instance, in the Pinal Mountains, made it very special, indeed.  Thank you, Caleb for a great day in the field.   

Greater Pewee

I saw 76 species in our 6 hours of birding.

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