Thursday, January 3, 2013

Mountain out of a Mole Hill

More than the Vermillion Flycatchers, Kites and Ferruginous Hawks (which I didn't see anyway), and even the Crested Caracara, the real treasure of the Santa Cruz flats is its winter repository of Mountain Plover. To find the Plover's coveted sod farms, one must head west down Pretzer road, past Tweedy road and turn onto road 2750. The temptation will be to survey the flocks of Grackles and Pipits on the lush fields, but this is not where the Mountain Plovers will be mountain plovering. 

Find the driest, crunchiest, most needle-pointy-hurt-your-bum-when-you-sit-on-it field you can, and then scan the harrowed tracks where the soil has been turned up.

The camouflaged Mountain Plover use these rugged strips as headquarters for their daring raids into the open, where they eat bugs and plove and so forth. They also seem to spend lots of their time just sitting.

Initially I was pretty surprised to find these guys. After all, this is not a common or widespread bird, and their range in Arizona is very patchy. Additionally, there were Killdeer all over the place and they are the same size. I stopped the car next to the dry sod field to roll down the window and start my surveillance. The birds didn't seem very bothered, and I counted some twenty-six in all.

Maybe you can tell from this photo, but this dry sod grass was seriously sharp. To avoid spooking the birds I had to get down low and scoot along the hypodermic needle grass, incurring many pricks, pokes, and punctures in the process. The Plovers didn't have to worry about spooking me so they could stand up straight, and the poky grass didn't bother them at all. 

For being IUCN listed as 'near-threatened', the Mountain Plovers were not very shy or protective. They must've figured I was just there to enjoy the sod too (false!) and soon they were carrying on with their business all around me. One of the Mountain Plover's favorite past times is having staring contests.
They're very good. You can look at this photo for minutes on end and the bird will never blink.

Occasionally Northern Harriers would buzz over the sod fields. Having Harriers buzzing around gives anyone cause for concern, Mountain Plovers included. I would've been worried too except that if a Harrier tried to take me, I would've finally gotten some good close-ups of that species, which would totally be worth it.

Little flash, little flare...the Mountain Plover doesn't care.
They do not judge and they do not despair
Head to the Santa Cruz Flats, and the Mountain Plover will meet you there.