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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