Arlington Valley & Gillespie Dam, Maricopa County, AZ

February 15, 2015
Today, I traveled with a local Audubon group to the flat agricultural land that lies about forty miles west of Phoenix.  The wet muddy conditions that existed when I birded there on January 31st were dried up, for the most part, but some roads dried into deep ruts that still deterred our passenger cars from exploring spots along them.
Although it was not overcast with heavy dark clouds today, white clouds filled about 80% of the sky and the air was slightly hazy.  Haze has a way of eating its way into photographs by fuzzing lines that should be sharp and clear; I didn't realize the pictures I was taking would be so compromised. The haze appeared to be in the distance, but it was right with us all the time.

Lying out among all the large flat plots of alfalfa and kale and cattle farms are a few farm ponds.  Gravel is pushed up into berms around them.  We were surprised to find two of the "field" birds on one of the gravel mounds: an American Pipit and a Horned Lark giving us great views.  Interestingly, a half dozen American Coots were out of the pond foraging in the gravel beside the road.

American Pipit and Horned Lark 
 We saw a good combination of small birds and raptors.  A Red-tailed Hawk was close enough on a light standard that I was able to get a half-decent photo.
Red-tailed Hawk
 Red-tailed Hawks are numerous throughout the USA and our western population has the most variety or "morphs" of this species.  Below is a distant photo of a very uncommon Harlan's light-morph adult, showing its white tail.
Adult Harlan's light morph Red-tailed Hawk
 In Arizona, we can find both the Western Meadowlark and a Southwestern form of Eastern Meadowlark.  The photo below shows an adult Eastern (or Lilian's as the Southwest form is called) in breeding plumage.  It's very light cheek and stripes along the flank (instead of blotchy marks) help in differentiating it from the Western Meadowlark.  Songs of each species are also different.
Adult breeding Eastern (Lilian's) Meadowlark

Horned Lark 

American Pipit
While our group of six birders was busy looking through a lot of Black and Turkey Vultures in a leafless tree, one of our group spotted a different bird in another tree.  Wow!  For me, this was the best sighting of the day - a White-tailed Kite!  It's a small slender hawk with a pearl gray back and very black shoulders that contrast sharply with the overall whiteness of the rest of the bird!
White-tailed Kite
Among its preferred habitats, are open agricultural fields and grasslands.  I once saw one of these falcon-shaped hawks "kiting" i.e., hovering high for a long time over a single spot before it dropped down for its prey.  During the time we observed this Kite, it was emitting a thin, high whistle.  Soon, a second White-tailed Kite arrived and perched on a limb across from the one above.  The photo of the two of them together was too fuzzy to post. 

Several of us had never visited the Gillespie Dam area nearby so we finished up our day of birding there.  The concrete gravity dam on the Gila River was built by a local rancher for irrigation purposes in the early 1920s.  About six years later, the Highway Department constructed a steel-truss bridge over the river which is still in use and is how we crossed the Gila River.

Theona, Lois, Veronica, Claudia and Babs
The Dam is on the National Historic Register
Among the 46 species we saw in five hours of birding were some very awesome birds. A Ferruginous Hawk, our largest buteo, was the first raptor we sighted at the ag fields and the Harlan's light morph Red-tailed Hawk mentioned above was a rare find.  Our leader knew where to look and we were lucky that it was out and about.

We counted a total of sixty Sandhill Cranes foraging at the rear of some of the agricultural fields, with the adult cranes standing tall showing their red caps and rear "bustle".   This is not a destination location to see Sandhills, but there they were!

As we returned eastward on Fremont Road, we had stopped to scan some fields and mesquite trees when several very large flocks of White-fronted Ibis flew over.   With several of us counting the three separate flocks, we arrived at the grand number of 158 birds!!

Five Burrowing Owls were spotted along canals as we traveled the farm roadways, adding to my delight for yet another good day in the field.

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