Saturday, November 29, 2014

Cruisin' the Flats

We're pushing into December, which means when one isn't participating in a TGC Challenge Challenge Challenge Challenge, one is likely chasing down some remaining Year Birds, if not vagrant-hunting, and making sure such lists are respectable enough that any other voyeuristic birders snooping on eBird won't look at one's paltry numbers and laugh. Magill Weber, Chris Rohrer, and I teamed up on the Santa Cruz Flats in Pinal County (annoying close to Maricopa County) for such list buffering and generally good birding on Black Friday. At this terribly dusty and rewardingly birdy expanse of agricultural land, the lines are short but there are still some bargains for Year Birders. Our morning started with roadside Meadowlarks and checking tamarisk groves for owls or other vagrants. 

One of the Santa Cruz specialty birds, for reasons I don't quite understand other than habit and learned behavior in a small population, is Mountain Plover. This declining species doesn't turn up reliably in much else of the state, except for Yuma. They're a fickle bunch and often skittish (as was the case yesterday), but still a damn fine bird.

While making our rounds though the agr. land and sod farms beloved of the Mountain Plovers and many raptors, we also recorded many of the expected liminal grassland species, some of which were belated Year Birds for Magill and myself.

There were also Burrowing Owls, which I see probably every month out of the year and of which I shall never tire, nor will anyone else who's heart is not as black as coal (from smoking or something).

The other main attraction of the Santa Cruz flats is its resident and wintering population of Crested Caracaras. This bird turns up sometimes in the agr. land of western Maricopa County, and also in southeast Arizona, but nowhere as reliably or in as large of numbers as in this dusty valley. Three weeks ago I passed through this area with an out-of-state birder and we recorded 5 Caracaras and no Plovers. This time around we had 6 Plovers and a whopping 26+ Caracaras.

Fun fact: Caracaras are often thought of as Vultures, but they're actually more closely related to Tanagers than Vultures. This is science. Vulture or Falcon or Parrot or whatever, they are cool birds. This cannot be denied, even if they don't have talons.

Our count exceeded two dozen individuals, conservatively, which was the highest number I'd ever encountered in a single trip. A majority of those birds we counted were also immature/1st year birds, seemingly eager to strut their stuff at the Caracara wintering grounds.

We didn't have Texas-style good looks, but some of the immature birds stayed far closer to the road than I had the pleasure of observing here before, and this proximity made for the day's highlights.

The glorious long weekend is still progressing on its merry course, and there is time enough for more birding. As the year winds down one has to make some tough decisions with that scarcity of time, to go for more year birds? vagrants? sparrows? Probably sparrows. Always choose sparrows.