Monday, December 24, 2012

Anything but Flat-lining

For the next week or two, I am afraid I must bombard you all with photos and gushings from a recent trip out to the Santa Cruz flats in between Phoenix and Tucson. Though it's only about an hour drive, I was treating this mentally and emotionally like a more serious, longer trip--you know how you've just got heightened levels of determination and focus compared to when you're just ambulin' around the park.

I also had a lot of anticipation for this trip because it would provide a great opportunity for safari birding--spotting and photographing from the comfort and concealment from a vehicle--which is pretty great. Of course, this limits one's access to roads, but birds tolerate automobiles much better than pedestrians (in non-urban settings), plus it's cold at 7:00 am these days. Driving slowly along the dusty agricultural roads west of Picacho Peak, lots of curious birds would pop up to see who else was awake at this hour.

When I am 114 years old, lying on my deathbed ready ti impart some last nugget of wisdom to my progeny it will be this: "Never pass up the opportunity to gawk at a Lark Sparrow."

Of course, with winter happening now, the Phoenix area is crawling with White-crowned Sparrow juveniles and adults. I've no idea what the science is on this, but why does it seems like there are more immature White-crowns around than any other bird? Sure, their young are more visible and recognizable, but you don't see many other immature birds in winter, including other Sparrows, while the precocious White-crowns are everywhere.

One of the larger attractions to farm-field car birding, in addition to the high occurrence of raptors, is the opportunity to photograph Larks. There aren't many grassy fields in the Phoenix area, so if you want Meadowlarks you've got to head to the farms, where you'll find them in relative abundance.

I often frustrated with my photographic attempts at Meadowlarks. I feel like everyone and their grandmother has sweet close-up shots of a Meadowlark singing its heart out from atop a fencepost. In my experiences, they're very shy and often spook if I slow the car down.
Horned Larks are more cooperative, but which species is the more handsome? That is a tough call...

It's also tricky to photograph the Larks when party-pooping Sharp-shinned Hawks keep dive-bombing everyone. This guy didn't even have the courtesy to stop and pose so that he wasn't back-lit.

These birds were all just seen en route to the smaller birding hotspots in the Santa Cruz flats, and there'll be more to come on that front later this week. In the mean time, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you all. 


  1. I had a question for you; just read your 3/26/12 post about Tres Rios. I live nearby and am a bird enthusiast, but was wondering what kind of permit you need to ask for when calling AZ Game and Fish? thanks!

    1. Hey Greenbird,

      Thanks for stopping by the blog. Here's some info on the Tres Rios (Overland Wetlands, west of 91st Ave).
      This is from the porject coordinator Debbie Radford:

      "Currently, I am providing birders who wish to bird in the overbank wetlands area with a Parking and Ingress Permit, which was developed in conjunction with the Estrella Mountain Police Precinct. This allows birders to park along 91st Avenue and step over the gate to walk inside without worrying about being ticketed for trespassing. Special arrangements can be made for handicapped birders, of course. We are counting on the birders keeping the site as clean as we want it to be. Any birder who is interested just needs to call or email me with their postal mailing address to get a permit."
      Debbi Radford
      Tres Rios Project Coordinator
      200 West Washington St., 9th Floor
      Phoenix, AZ 85007
      Fax 602-495-5843

      Just shoot Debbie an email and she'll have the permit to you in about a week. It's really just an orange sheet that says you have permissions to park there. I've never seen anyone checking or anything, they mostly do it as a precaution against overzealous ATV enthusiasts. This permit pertains to the expansive wetlands west of 91st ave. There is also the smaller Hayfield site, east of 91st (and a touch south) which does not require a permit but which is gated off and not consistently open.

      I'll be out of town but back around Jan. 5th. Let me know if you ever want a birding buddy there. I love the site and am there often. Big places like that are best birded with a few participants and some of my best trips there have been with others. On a great day, you can see 90+ species!

      To help give a feel for the area too, here are a few more posts I've done on the site:


  2. You are about to learn how to have fun birding and photographing from your car. I do about 95% of both from my car and I am very successful. A vehicle makes a natural blind. Just drive very, very, very slow....

    1. I love it already. True, it doesn't leave one with the same communing-with-nature feel that some rugged hiking does, but for photography it's pretty great.
      The one downside for me is that my mobile blind is a stick shift, so driving very slowly and keeping a hand free is tricky.

  3. Thanks for sharing, Laurence. I'm going to join you vicariously as you share the trip through your stories and images. Can't wait to see what comes of the flats. My daughter and her family are here in Utah for the holidays. We've given them some good snow storms to remember when they return to the Phoenix area. I'll give you a heads up next time we are down there so don't hesitate to let us know if you ever make it to northern Utah. I guide for free! Have a Merry Christmas!

    1. Hey Jeff!

      Nice to hear from you. I do intend to make it up to Utah in the next year or two--I'll look you up fro sure when we're there, even if I have to sneak the birding in on the side.
      It's breezy and 65 here today, not quite a Utah snow storm :)

      I too, guide for's even crossed my mind to pay people to let me guide them (ok, no it hasn't). It'd be great to get out in the field with you though. Let me know next time you're in P-town.

      Merry Christmas

  4. Hi Laurence, great shots! I think the Horned Lark is quite attractive. I would easily trade a fence-perched Meadowlark for one of these! Happy holidays to you:)

    1. Right on Tammy, and that'd be an Eastern too eh? Sounds like a deal.

  5. Laurence, In Florida I was almost always on foot when photographing birds, a few times I photographed from my Jeep at Myakka State Park so when I moved to Utah and started to seriously photograph from a mobile blind I felt like I had been stapled or duct taped inside the vehicle. I still yearn for more movement. But on foot here means most of the birds would fly away immediately.

    I can't pick between a Horned Lark and a Meadowlark, they are both very handsome birds.

    Happy Holidays, I am looking forward to seeing your posts in 2013

    1. Thanks Mia. I am likewise looking forward to your stunning images from 2013.
      It's a harsh trade-off with the mobile blind, but yes the improved photography is pretty undeniable, at least in my experiences, especially here in the U.S. and out west. where the preserves are so spacious and spread out.

  6. Laurence, you know I have to go here now! I have never been, you know! Wonderful shots and how dare you have so much fun so close to Chris and I with out us! LOL! I can see that you had a quite the adventure!

    Merry Christmas! Perhaps next year we will finally get a chance to bird together!

    1. Here's hoping Kathie :)

      I'm always game to go back to the Flats and try for some of the other birds I missed and get better looks at the Caracaras. Give me a shout when you and Chris want to see some Mountain Plover and Caracaras. I've got the place mapped out now!

  7. I think I prefer the Eastern Meadowlark to the Western Meadowlark. But otherwise great shots. I haven't seen any Horned Larks for a few years. They are pretty good-looking birds.

    1. Yeah, I think I'm with ya there Moe, but all in all I might prefer the Horned Lark. Who else has plumage like that that isn't an Owl?