On January 25, 2014, I had the honor and privilege to show Frances Raskin around the Santa Cruz Flats area in Arizona. Frances is an avid and very good birder in her own right. Currently she resides near the east coast of the United States with a new job lined up in another state. What brings her to Arizona is the fact that her parents currently reside here which really give her the best of a lot of birding opportunities. I think the Mountain Plover was probably her main target bird and some years this bird can be found fairly regularly in and around the sod farms in this area of ag lands south of Eloy, AZ. This year had been a fairly reliable year for them but having not read any reports of them for about 10 days, I was thinking maybe we had lost our window of opportunity. So we met and headed out together to explore this vast area of roads to see what we could find.
In the early morning light we happened upon a Merlin perched in a tree along the road and really enjoyed the good looks this one provided for us. Merlin is always a great bird to find, so that started us off on a good note. This is a very fast falcon and they come in 3 color forms and this one was the darker or'Taiga' form which is the most common form seen in AZ. About 3 miles further down the road, near the corner of Baumgartner and Wheeler we discovered another Merlin and it looked so different than the first one, that I had to get out my bird guides to confirm what I thought it was; another Merlin, however this one was the lighter of 'Prairie' form. I have only seen one of the Prairie forms once before and that was a quite a distance and in flight, so this one was a real treat to find and see for the sake of comparison.
As we were driving the roads we came upon a Ferruginous Hawk that flew from a pole in front of our car. Unfortunately, it kept on flying until it flew out of sight, but that was the first new life bird that we found for Frances. We had an abundance of birds in many different habitats including a Western Meadowlark and of all the Red-tailed Hawks we found, one of them included this gorgeous 'dark-morph' Red-tailed Hawk.
As we continued driving the roads, we finally came upon a very nice Prairie Falcon and since was life bird number 2 for Frances, we stayed in the car and approached as close as we could without disturbing this bird. I angled the car sideways so that she could get good looks at this bird out of the passenger window and study it well. Prairie Falcons are very skittish especially when a car door opens. We finally made it to the sod farms and tried as we might by scanning every field multiple times, we never came up with any Mountain Plovers. Our consolation prize was the resident Burrowing Owl and some Brewer's Sparrows.
After a quick drive to grab some lunch, we headed back to the roads and this time we were on the west side of this vast area and as soon as we got to Pretzer Road I decided to head east to the sod farms once again and about a mile west of where we were looking before, I found a good friend Claudia Kirscher with a group of birders and they had found some Mountain Plovers and were gracious enough to point them out to us in their scopes. Finally, we had succeeded in finding this bird for Frances giving her 3 new life birds for the day. (Incidentally, Claudia was the person that helped me find my first Mountain Plover a few years back!)
As we worked our way back to our meeting point, we passed through an area with water and fields on both sides and the number of American Pipits were staggering, flying in huge swarms over the road and the fields.
At several places along the roads Frances had spotted some of the resident ground squirrels, so finally at one point I was able to capture a photo of one of these adorable little rodents.
We had a great day of birding and hope to do more in the future when she makes another visit to AZ.