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December 29th, 2010
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Santa Cruz Flats, Willcox & the Chiricahuas

It was going to be a long day so Joe Corcoran and I set off early and headed northwest on I-10 to the Santa Cruz Flats. The main target here was Mountain Plover, a ‘near threatened’ species with a population as low as maybe 5,000 birds, which breeds not in the mountains but on the high plains of America. It winters mostly in California and Mexico, but also in small numbers in SE Arizona, chiefly at this site. They’re very hit and miss but today we were in luck – we found a flock of 18 MOUNTAIN PLOVERS with a few Killdeer in a field with a short crop. The views weren’t great but it was one of the target birds on the list.

Elsewhere we saw a couple of FERRUGINOUS HAWKS, a HARLAN’S RED-TAILED HAWK, a MERLIN and four PRAIRIE FALCONS, along with the usual NORTHERN HARRIERS and AMERICAN KESTRELS.

As a last attempt at Mountain Plover, we tried a road labeled 2750, which is a north turn from Pretzer Rd, between Curry and Tweedy Roads. I’ve seen plovers along here before. We reached the large open area without seeing anything, turned around and noticed a HUGE flock of 74 MOUNTAIN PLOVERS in front of us, which must have flown in right behind us. I’ve never seen so many. If the original flock was separate, we saw 92 Mountain Plovers in total.

Satisfied with the start to our day and fueled by a brunch of pizza, we got back onto I-10 and began a long journey east. To break it up a little, I planned a few stops. The first, near Pinal Air Park, produced this splendid BURROWING OWL.

Burrowing-Owl-Pinal-Air-Park-10-1229-01

Our next brief sojourn was to Benson Water Treatment Plant, which is great as a quick birding stop and has the advantage of often turning up interesting birds. Today was no exception as we encountered a drake WOOD DUCK, while a flock of 31 CANVASBACKS flew in, and the usual assortment of ducks were enlivened by some spiffy BUFFLEHEADS and the continuing immature SNOW GOOSE.

We continued east and made Willcox Twin Lakes our next brief rest stop. We charged around Lake Cochise in about ten minutes, seeing almost nothing of note except one shorebird. We puzzled over the ID for a while but came to the hasty conclusion that it must be a droopy-billed Baird’s Sandpiper. I was slightly alarmed to discover there were no previous December records in SE Arizona, so I wanted to check the photos before I made a claim. It has sparked an interesting debate which some of America’s finest ornithologists have come up with differing theories. I’ll tackle this bird in a separate blog post, but here are some photos. What do you think it is?

shorebird-Willcox-10-1229-04

shorebird-Willcox-10-1229-02shorebird-Willcox-10-1229-03shorebird-Willcox-10-1229-09

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We moved on to the golf course pond. A nice flock of SANDHILL CRANES was roosting in the seasonal pool there, whilst a SORA put in a brief appearance on the pond itself. For the second time in a few minutes we encountered an unusual bird. At first glance there was an ordinary flock of AMERICAN WIGEONS on the pond, but one bird stood out. Is this the very limit of pale-headed this species can be, or is it indicative of hybridization with another related species, possibly a Chiloe Wigeon? Apart from the lack of dark streaking over the entire head and neck, it looked otherwise much like the rest of the male American Wigeons present. We scratched our heads some more, wondered if we’d start seeing normal birds again, and continued on our way.

American-Wigeon-Willcox-10-1229-02

We arrived in Portal late afternoon, but early enough to continue up mountain and try for Mexican Chickadee. We found few birds in very cold, windy conditions as a big storm blew in. Try as we might, we couldn’t find a chickadee, but it had been a successful day nonetheless.

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