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January 27th, 2013
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Sweetwater Wetlands, Santa Cruz Flats

A lovely day of birding today with Debbie and Bill from Canada. We took in the classic SE Arizona winter birding combo of Sweetwater Wetlands and the Santa Cruz Flats.

Starting at Sweetwater Wetlands, Tucson’s birdiest birding site, we were straight into the action. The usual wide range of ducks was enhanced by a very smart male BLUE-WINGED TEAL. A NEOTROPIC CORMORANT was perched for excellent scope views, and a close EARED GREBE gave a nice contrast with a nearby PIED-BILLED. Plenty of SORAS were calling, and we had good views of a couple of them.

It was an interesting day to watch the resident HARRIS’S HAWKS as they were noisily mating on top of a telephone pole. Mrs. Harris didn’t sound overly pleased! The adult PEREGRINE was preening on one of its usual poles near Silverbell Lake on the other side of the Santa Cruz River.

Bill and Debbie particularly enjoyed watching ANNA’S HUMMINGBIRDS displaying, as well as close views of SOLITARY SANDPIPER, LINCOLN’S SPARROW, ABERT’S TOWHEE and a bright ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER.

Moving on, we took a quick look at the Santa Cruz River at Trico Road, south of Pinal Air Park. Scott Olmstead had found Ruddy Ground-Doves there the day before, but, apart from a brief flight view of a single ground-dove of indeterminate species, we were out of luck. There was a good selection of sparrows, though, and a female LAWRENCE’S GOLDFINCH dropped in to investigate my pishing. We also had nice views of LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE and COOPER’S HAWK, but a drive of some very muddy dirt roads didn’t turn up a Burrowing Owl.

After lunch we continued north to the Santa Cruz Flats. We opted for a southern entry to the area, via Red Rock. Having just watched a young HARRIS’S HAWK in the traditional spot on the corner of Cripple Creek Road, I was just explaining how we’d look for CRESTED CARACARAS when we flushed one from right next to Baumgartner Road, about a mile to the west. It only flew a few yards and joined two others for excellent views. They had been feeding on a dead Coyote by the roadside, and the initial sighting was the closest I’ve ever seen one. We saw another nearby, five in the general vicinity of their regular hangout further west on Baumgartner, and another along Picacho Highway, for a grand total of ten caracaras. That’s a decent proportion of the entire Arizona population of this somewhat strange and charismatic species.

Other raptors in the flats included NORTHERN  HARRIER, PRAIRIE FALCON and a smart dark morph FERRUGINOUS HAWK along Greene Reservoir Road. We finally caught up with a splendid BURROWING OWL, which popped out of its burrow right on cue.

At the ranch on the corner of Baumgartner and Wheeler we enjoyed great looks at a young male VERMILION FLYCATCHER molting into its first red plumage. These are always educational birds as the order of feather molt is vividly demonstrated. Also at this ranch we found a smart oriantha WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW among many of the expected gambelii subspecies.

I was pleased to tempt a ROCK WREN out of the same rubble pile for the fifth consecutive winter. A small number of Rock Wrens winter in the flats every year, and I’m always amazed at how they find and adapt to artificial rocky habitats, having seen them in piles of concrete, wood pallets and even metal irrigation pipes in the past.

Unfortunately, despite a concerted effort, we didn’t locate the Mountain Plover flock at any of their usual haunts. The star shorebird was a single GREATER YELLOWLEGS, and a flock of LEAST SANDPIPERS at Evergreen Sod Farm totaled more than 50. Also in this area were good numbers of HORNED LARK and AMERICAN PIPIT.

Finally, another ‘field guide’ moment along Pretzer Road, when a showy pair of BENDIRE’S TRASHERS were almost joined by a CURVE-BILLED for a neat side-by-side comparison.

Another fabulous day of birding in SE Arizona with 78 species in all. My thanks to Debbie and Bill for their delightful company.

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