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Arizona: Thrashers and Sparrows

12/04/2013

Our family went out to Phoenix for Thanksgiving.  My wife has family that live there and that’s the closest relatives that we have.  I made sure that there was enough time for me to get out and do some real birding.  I got some advice on where to go to maybe see Crested Caracaras and some special Thrashers.  Saturday was the day and I headed off South of Phoenix and Chandler to the Santa Cruz flats.  Being up so early rewarded me with a great Sunrise.

Arizona Sunrise

Arizona Sunrise

I ended up seeing tons of Sparrows.  Mainly White-Crowned, but some others too, like Lark Sparrows and Vesper Sparrows.

Lark Sparrows, Pinal County AZ

Lark Sparrows, Pinal County AZ

Vesper Sparrow, Pinal County AZ

Vesper Sparrow, Pinal County AZ

You can see the differences in the amount of breast streaking.  I also managed to get a lifer Lark Bunting, but in winter plumage.

Lark Bunting, Pinal County AZ

Lark Bunting, Pinal County AZ

And a few Horned Larks were out. Here’s one showing off it’s namesake horns.

Horned Lark

Horned Lark

I got to see a large mixed flock of Blackbirds.  Brewer’s, Red-Winged and Yellow-headeds were alternating between sitting in a Cotton patch and flying over to a feedlot which was across a road.

Blackbirds in cotton, Pinal County AZ

Blackbirds in cotton, Pinal County AZ

And then one of the many Northern Harries that were around came by and scared everyone into the air.

Northern Harrier and Blackbirds, Pinal County AZ

Northern Harrier and Blackbirds, Pinal County AZ

I saw a few Falcons, like this Prairie Falcon which was sitting on a pole.

Prairie Falcon, Pinal County AZ

Prairie Falcon, Pinal County AZ

There were lots of hawks around. I saw more than few Red-Tailed Hawks sitting on poles and this Ferruginous Hawk.

Ferruginous Hawk, Pinal County AZ

Ferruginous Hawk, Pinal County AZ

The sky was overcast for most of the morning, not too good for photos.  But I liked how this Loggerhead Shrike and lunch turned out.

Loggerhead Shrike, Pinal County AZ

Loggerhead Shrike, Pinal County AZ

There were even some Warblers still around, like this Yellow-Rumped in a Date Palm.

Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Pinal County AZ

Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Pinal County AZ

I also saw some Green-Tailed Towhees, lots of American Kestrels and even a Vermilion Flycatcher; but no Caracaras and the day was still ticking on.  So I decided to call it a morning and head to the other location that I wanted to visit, the famous Thrasher Spot at Baseline Road and Salome Highway.

Along the way I spotted this hawk along I-8 sitting on a good vantage spot.

Red-Tailed Hawk, Saguaro National Monument, AZ

Red-Tailed Hawk, Saguaro National Monument, AZ

I drove down Old Route 80 to get to the Thrasher Spot and I managed to see lots of birds.

Old Route 80, Gila Bend AZ

Old Route 80, Gila Bend AZ

I was hoping to see a White-Tailed Kite, Mountain Plover or Black Vulture, but no dice.  But I did get to see lots of birds doing interesting things.  There was a field full of Killdeer that would all decide to fly around in formation ever minute or so.  No Mountain Plovers in the bunch though.

Killdeer, Buckeye AZ

Killdeer, Buckeye AZ

The Killdeer were soon joined by 30 or so Meadowlarks that decided to fly from the East to the West side of Rt 80.

Meadowlarks, Buckeye AZ

Meadowlarks, Buckeye AZ

And I’m thinking that this one was a lookout to make sure that no cars were coming.

Western Meadowlark, Buckeye AZ

Western Meadowlark, Buckeye AZ

There were lots of Red-Tailed Hawks along the route, and a Northern Harrier and many American Kestrels like this female.

American Kestrel, Buckeye AZ

American Kestrel, Buckeye AZ

I eventually came to a dam and a neat bridge that crossed the Gila River.

Gila River Bridge, Old Rt 80, Buckeye AZ

Gila River Bridge, Old Rt 80, Buckeye AZ

I stopped halfway across to see some Cormorants swimming by and this Belted Kingfisher sitting in some trees watching for fish.

Belted Kingfisher, Buckeye AZ

Belted Kingfisher, Buckeye AZ

Old Rt 80 went up and over a ridge into more agricultural areas on one side of the road and rocks and desert on the other.  I watched a hawk fly in and land on some of the rocks.  My guess is a dark-morph Red-Tailed Hawk, there’s a noticeable belly-band there.

Dark-Morph Red-Tailed Hawk, Buckeye AZ

Dark-Morph Red-Tailed Hawk, Buckeye AZ

I was scanning the fields when I saw a group of grey birds far out in the distance.  They were a dozen Sandhill Cranes.

Sandhill Cranes, Buckeye AZ

Sandhill Cranes, Buckeye AZ

And then I noticed a group of Ibises flying in a bit north of me.

White-Faced Ibises, Buckeye AZ

White-Faced Ibises, Buckeye AZ

I tried to find them again, but never got a better look at the area.  But I did scare out a Great Egret which gave me a nice show as it flew away.

Great Egret, Buckeye AZ

Great Egret, Buckeye AZ

And saw this Immature Great-Blue Heron standing on the top of a structure looking a bit lost.

Great-Blue Heron, Buckeye AZ

Great-Blue Heron, Buckeye AZ

And before I got into my car I saw a hawk sitting on a wood pile on the west side of the road.  I was hoping for a Red-Shouldered Hawk, but I think that it’s a Cooper’s.  Still a nice looking bird.

Cooper's Hawk, Buckeye AZ

Cooper’s Hawk, Buckeye AZ

I probably could have stayed at this one spot.  There were Loggerhead Shrikes, blackbirds, another Yellow-Rumped Warbler and other birds, but I really wanted to get to the Thrasher Spot before it was dark.  So I forced myself not to stop any more and finally made it to Salome Hwy and Baseline Road.  This area is known for the ease at seeing a very shy bird, the Le Conte’s Thrasher, as well as Crissal, Bendire’s and Sage Thrashers.  But everyone comes for the Le Conte’s, including me. Although I have yet to see a Crissal Thrasher (for sure, I’m pretty sure that I did in fact see one earlier this fall here in ABQ, but I don’t have a photo of it to be sure).

Thrasher Spot, , Buckeye AZ

Thrasher Spot, , Buckeye AZ

What is funny is that I took this photo and then wondered to myself why.  And then I noticed the same shot on 2 other blogs this week by people who have visited the spot.  One of them, Neil Hayward, is in the middle of a Big Year.  And it looks like he’s on a record setting pace.  But he’s been to the Thrasher Spot twice this year, and the 2nd time was just a week before me.  He was there for Sparrows though.

The Sage Sparrow was split into 2 species this year, Sagebrush Sparrow and Bell’s Sparrow.  And there’s a 3rd subspecies.  From what I can tell, they all have varying amounts of streaking to their backs, from none to lots.  Neil was there to see if any of his Sage Sparrows were Bell’s and not Sagebrush.  It turns out that both were at the spot, but I only managed to see Sagebrush Sparrows.  Nice looking sparrows though.

Sagebrush Sparrow, Buckeye AZ

Sagebrush Sparrow, Buckeye AZ

There were also White-Crowned and Brewer’s Sparrows there too.

Brewer's Sparrow, Buckeye AZ

Brewer’s Sparrow, Buckeye AZ

I found a really amazing and comprehensive website, Birder From Maricopa County, which describes the Phoenix area in great detail.  You can search by the birds that you want to see or the areas of the county.  This guy really needs to put this information in book form and make some money from it.  He could have the Phoenix version of Birding Hotspots of Central New Mexico.

The description of the Thrasher Spot is pretty spot-on (it’s in Area 8).  The description said to walk out away from the road and look for the birds in the thick mesquite bushes.  I walked out about 100 yards and realized that I was down to just 10 photos left on my card, and the other card back in the van.  I took a minute to free up some more space (how many blurry photos of birds does one need?) and then decided to walk out towards another row of mesquite and then walk back towards the road with the Sun at my back.  But I ended up walking and walking.  I finally saw a thrasher and I wasn’t sure what I had.  I’m pretty sure that it was a Bendire’s who was missing the top beak.

Mystery Thrasher, Buckeye AZ

Mystery Thrasher, Buckeye AZ

But just a few feet away was a for sure Bendire’s Thrasher sitting out in the open.  It even watched me move around to get a better shot.

Bendire's Thrasher, Buckeye AZ

Bendire’s Thrasher, Buckeye AZ

It finally jumped down and met up with another one and they both ran off into the scrub.  I kept walking a few yards and saw another thrasher.  It turned in profile to me and I clearly saw that it was a Le Conte’s Thrasher!

Le Conte's Thrasher, Buckeye AZ

Le Conte’s Thrasher, Buckeye AZ

And it too was met by a second and ran off together. I looked at the Sun and it was heading down, so I bid farewell to the thrashers and walked back to the road.  At the van I noticed a neat sight, one which I didn’t think that I’d see over Arizona, a sun dog was in the sky.

Sun Dog, Buckeye AZ

Sun Dog, Buckeye AZ

I made it back to north Phoenix well after dark.  We had been seeing and hearing a Great-Horned Owl around the house where we were staying, but It wasn’t out when I got back.  But the next morning I saw a little hummingbird sitting atop an Ocotillo while I was loading up the van for our trip back to New Mexico, a nice little Costa’s enjoying the early morning Sun.

Costa's Hummingbird, North Phoenix AZ

Costa’s Hummingbird, North Phoenix AZ

We were out early and decided to stop by the Petrified National Forest and Painted Desert on the way home.  It was really cloudy and cold, but it was still an incredible thing to see.  The number and size of the fossil trees was mind-boggling.  We called it the fossil forest and that name fits better with kids.

Fossil Forest, Petrified National Park, AZ

Fossil Forest, Petrified National Park, AZ

It was a good trip, despite not seeing all of the birds that I wanted to.  But I did get a nice amount of lifers for my list.  Next stop is Rosy Finches this weekend with my son, and maybe some rare visitors to Albuquerque tomorrow if the weather isn’t as bad as it’s supposed to be, I’ll have the kids along if I go out.

Thanks for making it this far,

Cheers!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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