Sunflower, Maricopa County, Arizona

March 31, 2015
Leaving the house before dawn, the outdoor temperature was already 65 degrees. So, I was headed for cool country, about 2000' higher. Saguaros thinned on the hills, the higher uphill I  drove. Then there were junipers and pines and lots of scrub land.

At Milepost 222 on the present Highway 87, there is a left turn lane to cut across over the west-bound lanes to pick up the "Old Highway 87"--a stretch that runs along Sycamore Creek, ranches and a few new houses tucked back from the remnant highway. I parked at a pull-off at the first big curve in the road where Cliff Swallows were swarming out from under  the Route 87 bridge, catching their insect breakfast on the fly. A glance at the temperature: 45 degrees! Brrrr. I pulled a windbreaker from the back of the car to slip on over my short sleeves! I was also wearing my birding vest and a CamelBak for water. 

Lucy's Warblers were the first songbirds up singing, followed shortly by Yellow-rumped Warblers. A few Violet-green Swallows arrived; European Starlings perched in the tall Arizona sycamores to catch some warmth from the rising sun; woodpeckers began searching for grubs; Bewick's Wrens began sounding off; and bird activity picked up. After 30 minutes of easy walking up the old highway from the car, my cold fingers could no longer get the 4-letter abbreviations down in my field notebook; they just wouldn't work!

Retracing my steps only slightly faster than the slow speed at which I was birding, I reached the car about an hour after my arrival. I checked the pasture to the northwest. I heard a sound I knew: Kingbirds - Cassin's, actually. With my binoculars, I was able to watch two of them fly into some mesquite below some juniper bushes. Their squeaky chitter chatter, to my ear, makes them sound like they are really excited. They did a few little playful fly-off and return patterns during which I was able to confirm that they were not the lighter gray Western Kingbirds but had very yellow bellies, darker gray chest up to the very minimal white throat, and long dark tail with no white edges like the WEKI. First of Year (FOY) species for me!

Inside the car, I cranked the heat to 85 degrees and held my hands over the vents until they lost their numbness and moved with ease. Then I shed my jacket and continued driving very slowly up the road stopping whenever I heard or saw a new bird. Cedar Waxwings, in my book, are always worth stopping to view. Handsome birds!

Cedar Waxwings

Later, when I started walking toward the research station, I counted a flock of twenty Cedar Waxwings fly into one tree. 

While close-up views of Turkey Vultures are rather odd-looking, several of them had just landed to catch the morning sun.   

Two Turkey Vultures

A Red-shafted Northern Flicker kept busy at various sycamore trees.

Reaching the metal gate was the end of the line for the car, so I parked, followed the path around the gate and started walking farther up the old highway.  In the distance I saw a large black bird (not a Turkey Vulture) perched on a limb. I thought it was a Black Hawk, but then it vocalized with a sort of scream that's rather unforgettable. The scream was returned from the other side of the road (my left) but I couldn't find the Zone-tailed Hawk there. "Scream" may not be the ornithologically correct description, but that's what I hear.

Zone-tailed Hawks have banded tails, barely visible in these photos. They also have more white on their bills than Black Hawks

The Zone-tailed Hawk was quite far out from me so the photo is not real good. Nor is the one of the Black Hawk below, even though it was quite close to me. It's looking directly at the camera and is showing off its single wide white band in its tail with the end tail feathers looking like they've dipped into some white paint.
Black Hawk

There are two more barriers across the old highway, with paths around them for hikers, walkers (met some fit-bit young women) and birders! After reaching and checking out the birds at the work station, I turned back toward the car thinking I would have nothing more to add to my list. But it was on this return walk that I finally saw the Black Hawk and saw it in the sky but I need a little more practice on aerial photography!

Another birder walked towards me. Although we didn't know one another, we exchanged birding news. She had seen the Zone-tailed Hawks and the Black Hawk (which I had not yet seen) as well as a Hooded Oriole. I searched for it while continuing my return to the car but never found it.

Instead I was enjoying the scenery of Sycamore Creek, the juniper/pine forest and in the distance, Mt. Ord, another great birding spot along the main Highway 87.  

Saving the best for last, it is not everyday a birder gets to see this bird. And, maybe, a birder might overlook it because it's just another dove. But take a closer look. My first thought was Common Ground Dove and that's why I took photos. Then I realized it didn't have the scaled  breast and nape. Looking in Sibley for a correct identification, I came up with female (Western) Ruddy Ground Dove. Neither photo is very good but serve to identify the species. The final photo was the first one I shot that does show some of its underneath rufous color. 

Wrapping up at 10:30, I had experienced a 30-degree change in temperature; it was now 72 degrees F.  Birding Sunflower was a very fulfilling four-hour day in the field. 

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