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February 3rd, 2009
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Wildlife spectacles

No, I don’t mean binoculars, or even Ed’s intriguing eye glasses with 2.8 x magnification, I mean the sort of wildlife spectacle that makes you gasp, such as close views of impressive raptors or great flocks of cranes.

My new friend Ed asked if I’d take him out birding somewhere, and his sister Jackie and friend Jim wanted to tag along. None of them are birders, but they’re all interested and knew I could show them some cool local wildlife. All of which added up to the perfect excuse for a trip to the Sulphur Springs Valley…

We set out at 7am and stopped first at the Benson WTP (sewage ponds). I really like this site, partly because it’s right next to I-10 and so quick and easy to bird, and partly because it turns up interesting stuff all the time. Today there was a good selection of ducks, including a group of splendid male Buffleheads displaying to nearby females, plus several Eared Grebes. The major highlight was a small falcon which appeared on the wires above us. Assuming it was going to be a Kestrel but wanting to show everyone a nice raptor close up, I put the scope on it and immediately realized it was a fine male Merlin, and what’s more, it was carrying a freshly killed adult White-crowned Sparrow in its talons. It flew long before I could get the camera on it of course, but it was an incredible sight nonetheless.

Our next stop was the Apache Station Wildlife Area, formerly known as the AEPCO Pools or That Place Opposite The Power Station. The power station created a viewing area to look for cranes in particular, but there’s always something even if the cranes are absent. A couple of Tree Swallows were my first of the year, and Northern Harriers cruised the field edges. I was especially looking for a group of four Tundra Swans, pretty rare in SE Arizona, and they duly flew in a few minutes after we arrived. They never came close and stayed behind a row of trees, so no photos, but it was nice to see only my third, fourth, fifth and sixth swans down here in the desert.

Just as we were about to leave, I finally heard the distinctive cries of Sandhill Cranes and a group of 16 wheeled into view, spending the next ten minutes trying to decide whether to land or not. They eventually decided against it and headed south – we headed west…

…and into the Stronghold. Regular readers will know that Cochise Stronghold B&B is one of my favorite places on the planet and my friends John and Nancy kindly allowed us to visit, enjoy lunch on the patio and sample some of the canyon’s amazing wildlfe. All the usual suspects were there: jays, titmice, finches, cardinals and more. We had great fun watching Acorn Woodpeckers tend to their larder (a telegraph pole studded with jealously-guarded acorns) while Pine Siskin was a decent addition to the list.

The main event was the raptor and crane show in the Valley, and as usual it did not dissappoint. We were running into flying flocks of cranes all day, although we didn’t find any feeding out in the fields. We did find a gorgeous Ferruginous Hawk, though, as well as many elegant Northern Harriers, loads of Red-tailed Hawks, American Kestrels, Loggerhead Shrikes, Greater Roadrunners, a Bendire’s Thrasher and plenty of Vesper and Brewer’s Sparrows. White-crowned Sparrows were again notable by their general absence. They can’t all have been eaten by Merlins!

We didn’t arrive at Whitewater Draw until 3pm, and the crane numbers were already pretty impressive. I’d guess at least ten thousand were roosting around the water’s edge.

The Great Horned Owl was in situ in the barn, another was in the owl roost with a Barn Owl, a few shorebirds were in evidence including Greater Yellowlegs and Wilson’s Snipe, a Sora showed itself at the edge of the reeds and a bright male Vermilion Flycatcher added a splash of outrageous color.

Satisfied with our lot we headed back to Tucson. It’s always a treat to show wildlife to people who don’t normally experience it up close, and Ed, Jackie and Jim made it a real pleasure for me. They seemed to enjoy it, too… 😉

Oh, and the list for the day reached 56 species, whilst my year list is up to 123, which could be worse I suppose.

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