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February 10th, 2013
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Santa Cruz Flats, Sweetwater Wetlands

I spent a very enjoyable day birding with Leslie Kehoe from Montana. Leslie is one of the sharpest birders I’ve had the pleasure of spending time in the field with in a long while, and consequently we found some good stuff. The theme of the day was ‘big numbers’ and I was delighted to break a few personal records.

The main focus of the day was the Santa Cruz Flats, and we arrived at Red Rock just after dawn. Heading along Baumgartner Road we found a CRESTED CARACARA in the same spot I saw three last month. Little did we know what was to follow…

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We spent a while enjoying the sheer number of birds at the ranch on the corner of Baumgartner and Wheeler, after which we headed west and out into the flats ‘proper’. My first record to be broken was seeing two, then another two SANDHILL CRANES flying north of Baumgartner. I’d only seen one Sandhill Crane in the Santa Cruz flats before, so this was unprecedented. Soon after, a MERLIN gave a brief and spectacular chase of a sparrow right in front of us.

Turning the corner of Baumgartner onto Picacho Highway, we spotted more caracaras. And then more, and more. We pulled over, got the scope out and began to count. My previous highest count in this area was 16. There are only about 25 pairs breeding in Arizona, so it was a number I was very pleased with. Amazingly, today we counted a staggering 31 CRESTED CARACARAS in the plowed fields either side of Picacho Highway, to double my previous high in the Santa Cruz Flats to an amazing 32 birds.

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A PEREGRINE FALCON was perched on a pole nearby and an oriantha subspecies WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW was with a flock of the more usual gambelii subspecies by a pecan grove a little further north.

Turning on to Pretzer Road, we stopped at my usual spot for Bendire’s Thrasher and I was just explaining to Leslie a few key ID points when a BENDIRE’S THRASHER popped up, right next to Leslie’s window for a perfect view. We spent a while watching this bird, and another two Bendire’s and a pair of CURVE-BILLED THRASHERS for a field-guide-style comparison. A dark morph RED-TAILED HAWK tussled with a pale morph FERRUGINOUS HAWK for another good comparison.

Our next goal was to find the wintering flock of Mountain Plovers. On the way we paid our dues to a friendly BURROWING OWL by the roadside.

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We began searching Evergreen Sod Farm for Mountain Plovers, finding a large flock of 150+ AMERICAN PIPITS and having nice views of HORNED LARK in the process. A lost and lonely male REDHEAD was on one of the canals but the plovers were conspicuous by their absence.

We checked out Western Sod Farm, which gave us three INCA DOVES and a very smart and tame dark morph RED-TAILED HAWK, but still no plovers.

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Nearby, a female GREAT HORNED OWL was hunkered down on a nest.

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A quick walk through the very sparse sage brush desert on the corner of Sunland Gin Rd and Harmon Rd produced at least five SAGE SPARROWS in a matter of seconds. We headed back to Evergreen Sod Farm for a last look for plovers. Driving the perimeter didn’t produce anything, so we took a final, forlorn drive along the ‘2750’ road, just in case. Finally we found our target, a huge flock of MOUNTAIN PLOVERS. We counted at least 90. My previous highest flock was 72 in 2010. We had excellent close views and it was exciting, yet a little troubling, to realize we were watching maybe 1% of the entire world population of this rare species.

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We’d stayed in the flats for longer than we anticipated, looking for the plovers, so we only had time for a brief visit to Sweetwater Wetlands just before dusk. In a whirlwind tour we found the wintering SOLITARY SANDPIPER, two LONG-BILLED DOWITCHERS, 20+ BLACK-NECKED STILTS and watched 45 NEOTROPIC CORMORANTS flying north.

We ended on a total of 77 species in what was an excellent day of winter birding in wonderful SE Arizona. My thanks to Leslie for her charming company and great birding skills.

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