Birding Santa Cruz Flats, Pinal County, AZ

Sunday, January 31, 2016
With another day of moderate temperature, sunshine and clear sky, birder friend Glenda Jones (from Toronto), and I started birding when we reached Pretzer Road in the Santa Cruz River adobe flats.

With a count of five raptors for the day, we got photos of only one - the Red-tailed Hawk.  It perches up nicely on utility poles (saw 22 of them) but I preferred taking its pic in the tree.

Red-tailed Hawk - above & below

When a Crested Caracara flew across the road in front of us, Glenda was quick with her camera and got this photo:

If you've never seen the bird, here are two photos I took of one in 2012, also at the Santa Cruz Flats.
Crested Caracara (top and bottom photos)

But we weren't really seeking these very nice big birds; we wanted to get close-up views of some Life Birds for Glenda -- most especially, Mountain Plover and Sprague's Pipit.

From Curry Road, we were able to find nine (9) Mountain Plover at Evergreen Sod Farm.  When we returned to Pretzer Road, we discovered another plot of green sod and there we found thirty (30) Mountain Plover. The spotting scope brings the bird so close you can see its feathers even when it is at a distance. A handful of the plovers was close enough for Glenda to get a decent photo.

Mountain Plover
These plovers are uncommon winter residents here but if you're from Montana, you probably know the Mountain Plover well since it breeds there as well as in other Plains' states. In winter it feeds on plowed fields and grasslands, both of which are abundant in the agricultural fields of the Santa Cruz Flats.

We came upon two other birders that confirmed their sighting of the Sprague's Pipit in the burned cells (plots) along Tweedy and Pretzer Roads. Following their directions, we drove two cells north and on another dirt road, two cells east. Couldn't find it. So, we turned around right where we stood midway down the cell dirt path and birded cell #3 behind us (east). As luck would have it, we found not one, but two Sprague's Pipits moving back and forth along the far edge of the cell away from the many Horned Larks also seeming to like the green shoots sprouting in the black burn. After confirming the sighting with the spotting scope, I walked south and then east again to reach the far side of the cell for a photo attempt. The pipits weren't close by, but I managed some photos that simply identify the bird that we saw for entry into eBird. It's big eye is distinctive.

Sprague's Pipit

With many miles of dirt-road driving to cover within Flats, we headed next to the Red Rock Feed Lots where several hundred blackbirds were hanging out. Also liking the feed lots were Lark Buntings that are rather rare here but many were on the split rail fence, on the ground beneath it and on trees in desert scrub across the road.
Lark Bunting (male), still in winter plumage

A light breeze turned a bit windy as we headed for the Santa Cruz River crossing - mostly dry where it crossed the road. After parking, we went looking for the continuing rare Louisiana Waterthrush located along the river not far from the road. I went to the spot I had seen it last year; Glenda continued south along the river. From where I stood beneath dry brittle black mesquite and tall cottonwood trees, the wind was rubbing tree trunks together with an eerie squeaky sound. Small tree limbs occasionally dropped to the ground. But I heard the bird!  Just not where I was standing. When Glenda returned, we retraced our steps. Glenda, who knows this waterthrush well, spotted it in the mud where a tangle of branches crossed the narrow channel not far from the road. 

Full success for our target birds!  Mountain Plover -- Sprague's Pipit -- Louisiana Waterthrush. A Very Good Day In The Field.

Although we had intended to stop at Arizona City to check out its ponds, winds were so bad on I-10, we got off at Exit 200 and returned home, stress free, on Route SR 87.

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