Higley Ponds at Ocotillo Road, Maricopa County, AZ

Friday, December 30th
With a group of five birder friends, we arrived at 9 a.m. to see what we might find at the five water-treatment ponds usually full of waterfowl at this time of year. By the time we made our U-turn at Ocotillo so we could access them going north on Higley Road, it was apparent that the pond fronting Higley Road was drained and contained piles of stones. Although we found a couple Killdeer in that dry pond, the pond in front of the parking area had some good water. 

GREEN-WINGED TEAL swam in two large tightly knit flocks -- probably to protect themselves from the NORTHERN HARRIER that flew over several times. Water appeared to be shrinking in the pond, too, revealing lots of mud strips that attracted LEAST SANDPIPERs and a few LONG-BILLED DOWITCHERs. The only other shorebird was the BLACK-NECKED STILT, three of which were busy foraging individually at various places. Lots of MALLARDs occupied the east end of the pond finding shelter under shrubs.

Somehow, YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLERs were everywhere else we looked: in the road, in the grass, in the trees. What? No pipits? No Orange-crowned Warblers? It was always Yellow-rumps! Well, not always, but the other few species we saw you can find from the eBird link below.

When we reached the eastern end of the dirt road and turned left, we all spied some ducks at the far end of the canal. Two of us, using spotting scopes were able to single out, among the dabblers, a couple diving ducks: one was a female COMMON GOLDENEYE.

Female Common Goldeneye

Obviously, we needed to walk closer very slowly to get photos, so, to keep the ducks settled, we stopped several times to bird the cottonwoods along the road.

Northern Pintail (pair); also note the piles of stones in empty ponds (?)
Drake & Hen Northern Pintail
A pair of male REDHEADs were the first birds we had identified from a distance and I was hoping they wouldn't spook before we got within camera range.

Drake Redhead
Hen Common Goldeneye on left [note yellow tip on bill]; Drake Redhead on right
Male Redhead [Scaup have much whiter sides & different color head)
Today, was one of those times when I birded by photograph, too!  Two female Redheads were on the water as were a pair of GADWALL, the male of which I did spy walking up from the water.

So, by the time we moved in for the best close-up shots we could get of the species above that were in the canal, they flew off.

By then, the sun had burned off some clouds and the temperature climbed. Time to shed some layers.

Disappointed that only one pond of five contained water, we were particularly grateful for the good species we found in the canal.

Good-humored birding friends: L-R: Shaun, Yvonne, Marsha, Linda, Kay & Hinde
The adventure was a good way to close out the year (rain forecast for tomorrow). But I expect we'll be doing more birding together in 2017!

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Twas the Day After Christmas and Time for another Christmas Bird Count (CBC)

Monday, December 27th:
Using circles fifteen miles in diameter, Audubon birder volunteers go out each year between December 14th and January 5th to take a census of the birds within the proscribed circle.   The circle might be evenly divided into pie-wedge shapes (Areas) that are further broken down into specific locations to provide coverage throughout the entire circle. Last year there were nearly 2,000 circles in our country.

This event has been happening for over 100 years, this being Audubon's 117th Christmas Bird Count in the USA. When you realize that counting the birds replaced shooting them as a Christmas past-time (known as the "Side Hunt"), it gives even more meaning to the event than just the census.

It can also be a lot of fun. That is, if it isn't raining, snowing, windy as the dickens, or just plain freezing outside. This being Arizona, we felt the cold but at 42°F, we could hardly call it freezing. Dressed in many layers, I joined two birding friends, Lois Lorenz, our organizer, and Julie Clark to check out the birds in Queen Valley, east of Superior, in Pinal County. 

Our count started on a high note when we stopped first at one of the golf-course ponds: a female COMMON MERGANSER was swimming back and forth.

Common Merganser (female)
Normally, we find a Mallard or an American Coot or two swimming around so THIS was a really good find.  There were also a few Ring-necked Ducks and a Great Blue Heron at the pond.

Scratching hard at the base of some tall cypress trees next to the pond was a NORTHERN FLICKER. In the West, we see the Red-shafted Flicker as opposed to the Yellow-shafted Flicker of the East.

The color beneath the wings when the Flicker flies is the easiest way to ID this bird. But, here in the two photos above, you can see the shafts of red feathers under the tail area.

Another bird was flitting around the tops of these same trees -- a SAY'S PHOEBE, a small flycatcher that I think is particularly attractive.

We would see lots of this species throughout the day.

Trying to cover the golf course ponds prior to the golfers getting on the course, we parked and started walking to the second pond. Lois headed directly to the pond; Julie spied some birds scratching around in the pebbles by a wall. I took a quick glance at them and realized they were INCA DOVES. Julie counted four and I said, "Look at that one!" It's not an Inca; its darker and more stout. Whoop! Whoop!  
Lois is waving her arm for us to catch up with her at the pond so she must have something good. Julie is finding something else new right where we were standing; and I'm trying to get a photo of the chunkier dove...when all our birds flew off.

So, we walked out to this second golf-course pond where Lois was pointing at yet another treasure: three HOODED MERGANSERS. They appeared to be three (3) females but I recalled Cindy Marple (birder/photographer) at Gilbert Water Ranch a couple years back showing me how to discern the juvenile male. And, we discovered that one of these three was a juvie male. The secret is in the color of the bill. The center bird in the top photo and the one in the second photo below is the juvenile male. 

Juvenile male Hooded Merganser
As we checked the remainder of the pond, we heard and then saw a BELTED KINGFISHER fly over headed north perhaps to the next section of the golf course.

When we returned to the area of the parked car, we walked along the road to search for the small flock of doves and whatever else had flown out from the base of a tree.

A  VERMILION FLYCATCHER distracted us...and why not?  

After a short while, we came upon some birds in the grass on a slight rise. Ah! These were the ones that had flown from the base of the tree; they were now foraging in the grass:
WESTERN MEADOWLARKS. The trees created shadows so this is the best photo I managed.

We walked slowly forward checking left and right into some work equipment areas on one side and grassy edges on the other.  Then, there they were: the Inca Doves plus one not an Inca. In this light I got a good look that made me really excited. Definitely, this had to be a RUDDY GROUND DOVE...not a common sighting at all. First one for me this year (a Year Bird!).
Ruddy Ground Dove

After completing the census of birds on four ponds, we drove the streets of the community searching for birds at feeders and counting those on wires and roof tops. We walked into some desert areas where we found CURVE-BILLED THRASHER, GAMBEL'S QUAIL, VERDIN, NORTHERN CARDINAL (male), and BLACK-THROATED SPARROW. 

We followed the fight of a dark hawk as it flew over our heads and landed high on the hill upon the railing of someone's deck.

HARRIS'S HAWK [above and below]

Having signed up for just a half day, we had only one area left to cover and that was walking the stream eastward. We walked the south road first; the north road back. And the stream, filled with recent rains was music to our ears --  not a frequent desert sound at all!  And to see water coursing along over rocks and down little depressions made Lois exclaim about a "waterfall".  

Breezy enough for me to retain all the clothing layers I had started out wearing, the sun did come out to make our day very briskly pleasant. We put in five hours total. There are lots of rules surrounding this CBC and we were just one small part of a much bigger census of birds that is used by not only Audubon but other organizations to measure, among other things, health of species and habitat variations.

From left: Julie Clark & Lois Lorenz
It was wonderful to catch up with two of my earliest birding friends (I started doing this about five years ago) as we worked as a team to submit data for our wee portion of a gigantic Audubon Christmas Bird Count.

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Santa Cruz Flats, Pinal County, Arizona

Saturday, December 17th:

Winds howled and rain continued to fall throughout the night. It did not bode well for a pleasant bird outing the next morning at Santa Cruz Flats with its acres and acres of dirt roads. Who wants high winds and muddy roads for a day’s outing on a Maricopa Audubon field trip?
Located in the general area of the town of Eloy (west of Picacho Peak), we used Exit 200 from I-10 East to continue on the access road to Arizona City. 
Still in the 40sF when eleven of us in three cars stopped at the ponds in Arizona City at 7:30 a.m., we spotted 27 species in half an hour. Best bird there was a Snow Goose that lifted off upon our arrival.

Best photo I managed as the SNOW GOOSE flew up and away
Also of note were 83 female Common Mergansers that Dr. Dave Pearson (ASU) (our leader) counted through his spotting scope. All of us could view the handsome waterfowl with our binoculars and/or scopes. 83 is a huge flock but way too distant for my camera.

Continuing on the access road, then, into the Flats, west of I-10, we found that it hadn’t rained there so the roads were as sandy and dusty as usual and we were able to access all the birding spots without problem.

Looking at the desert comprising the Flats, it's hard to believe that this scrubby wasteland was once part of the Sonoran Savanna Grassland up until about 100 years ago. With the Santa Cruz River at its southern border, floods kept the grasslands and ironwood and acacia trees growing there. A century of farming and grazing seem to have swallowed up the grasslands so that, today, we are birding in the Sonoran Desert. There are still farmers who irrigate their cotton fields and sod farms throughout the Flats. We travel on public, but dirt roads, covering many miles but stopping for birds wherever we spot them.
Known for its raptors, we tallied 27 RED-TAILED HAWKs plus a rare species of Red-tailed, HARLAN’S HAWK, a  darkish bird with white tail.

Harlan's Red-tailed Hawk [photo by Duane Morse]

Two (2) FERRUGINOUS HAWKs; three (3) NORTHERN HARRIERs; seven (7) AMERICAN KESTREL; two MERLIN (one a rare form for this location, TAIGA MERLIN) and a juvenile PEREGRINE FALCON got our adrenalin going. 

American Kestrel
Taiga form of MERLIN; slightly chunkier and whiter faced than American Kestrel above.
Taiga form of MERLIN [Photo by Duane Morse]

Juvenile Peregrine Falcon [both photos above by Duane Morse]

It was the CRESTED CARACARA that blew my mind. Usually content to find one to three such birds at this location, we came upon a field full of them.  And, then another location with a big flock. By day’s end, we tallied 65 CRESTED CARACARA.

Scavengers, the Crested Caracara are often found at carrion with vultures. Today, they were looking for grasshoppers and other insects in the ag fields along with many COMMON RAVENs.  

Known as the Mexican eagle, the Crested Caracara was on an ancient Aztec flag for Mexico but a Golden Eagle adorns the current Mexican flag.

Note the black crest, pink bill, long white neck and long legs of the Crested Caracara

None of the Crested Caracara were near the public roads, but the above photos give you an idea of this Mexican bird that has crossed the border, with its companions, to visit us this winter.

Burrowing Owls dig their homes in dirt banks. This one was out sunning but preferred not to look us in the eye!

One of the rare birds we hoped to find at the Flats today was a RUFOUS-BACKED ROBIN that many birders have reported seeing at the corner of Baumgartner and Wheeler. So we chose to eat our lunch while standing there watching for it. There were American Robins, Abert's Towhees, a single female Northern Cardinal and other expected songbirds while we ate. And, then we waited. Ah! Not in vain! Dropping down from a pomegranate tree to the ground at the base of what appears to be an unoccupied house, the RUFOUS-BACKED ROBIN appeared.

Quite distant, this was my best photo.  Duane's were sharper and added below for you to view better.

Rufous-backed Robin [two above photos by Duane Morse]

This is an abbreviated report of the 57 species I saw during our five (5) hours of birding over fifteen miles of the Santa Cruz Flats but you can view the full list at the eBird link below.

It was a great outing among birding friends, some of whom I hadn't seen in a long while and others, like Hinde who joined me, enjoying their first experience there.

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Fountain Hills Lake, Maricopa County, Arizona

Wednesday, December 7th

Great Blue Heron that couldn't go on my eBird checklist!

Fountain Hills Lake and Park are located in the center of this built-on-a-hill community with its winding roads and spectacular views.  Marsha Wiles and I were there to see what waterfowl might be visiting the lake today. Temperature in the low 50s and mostly sunny sky provided a perfect day for "civilized" birding. 

Reaching the lake's edge, I immediately spotted HOODED MERGANSERs way out on the water.

One male; two female Hooded Mergansers

Male & female Hooded Merganser came a bit closer when the fountain erupted.

The Fountain spouts up, up, up -- very high in the air each hour on the hour for 15 minutes. Water falling over itself is a beautiful sight. With no photos today, you can google to view it.

This small flock appeared to be EARED GREBES and as they came closer, we could confirm that.

Eared Grebes (above and below)

Two gorgeous male BUFFLEHEAD were swimming around together and came a bit closer. 

Along the edges of the lake we found a few shorebirds.

Greater Yellowlegs

Spotted Sandpiper in basic (winter) plumage [two above photos]


HOODED MERGANSER seemed to be in every cove as well as out on the open lake.

Drake Hooded Merganser
Two female Hooded Mergansers
Out on the lake and on the grass surrounding the lake, I estimated a count of over 500 AMERICAN COOT. Note their webbed feet, red eye and red plate above the white bill at forehead.

Two LESSER SCAUP were foraging out on the water.

Lesser Scaup

Red-winged Blackbird in basic plumage

Red-tailed Hawk Sculpture [Red Mountain's chimney-like peak in right background]
As we passed many retirees out walking the sidewalks, Marsha commented several times about the friendliness of the people. 

European Starling with sweet-potato fry

The starling reminded Marsha that breakfast had been a distant quick event so slowly we wrapped up our birding to visit the very healthy Farmer's Market set up (every Wednesday) beyond the lake.

Veterans, who had gathered to memorialize the momentous Pearl Harbor tragedy that led us into WWII, were about to start their ceremony.

So, after such a fulfilling morning of birding (an amazing 22+ Hooded Mergs on the lake), meeting friendly folks and enjoying abundant art work around the park, we moved on. 
Did they have decently-priced good food in this town?  Yes. Lunch at El Encanto de la Fuente hit the only thing empty - our stomachs.

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