Sunday 20 March 2016

Arizona in Winter - Day 4

Day 4 – Picacho Peak, return to Santa Cruz Flats, Sonoran Desert Reserve, Thrasher Spot, Gilbert Riparian Preserve

My final day, and time to attempt to mop up. I allowed myself the luxury of a lie in until 6am, and was at Picacho Peak State Park for the the low glow of early morning. Here I mucked about with Snuffi and cactuses, and finally got a Cactus Wren that had a clue about plant identification and was perched on its namesake. This is a paid-entry area, but it was early enough that it wasn't manned and so I was able to potter about for a while. It would be worthwhile, if you are visiting for a week, to see if you can get a State-wide pass, as I shelled out in several places and indeed was put off visiting Patagonia Lake due to the $15 entrance fee (in addition to the time I didn't have). 

Once I'd finished dicking about I drove back up to the Santa Cruz Flats to join several other Mountain Plover dippers. We consoled ourselves with McCown's Longspur and a Merlin, and I got Bendire's Thrasher (as well as Sage and Curve-billed) thanks to some decent and recent gen from one of them, but the Plovers were nowhere to be found. Another trip is needed. This is a great spot, and even though I had planned out my day the previous night to be at the 150 mile-distant Buckeye Thrasher spot for about 10am, I didn't leave the Flats until gone 11 so that one went out of the window. 

Mountain Plover

Western Meadowlark. Or Eastern.....
Being somewhat stubborn I did still enact this plan though, and enjoyed a scenic drive though the Sonoran Desert – the Saguaros go on as far as the eye can see but sadly there were few stopping spots. I scored a Rock Wren at Gila River bridge and finally got to the Thrasher spot at about 2pm, probably the absolute worst time of day. It was nearly 90F and appeared totally dead. I met a Brit and a Californian who had seen very little, but this was a significant detour for me as rather than drive 90 miles to Phoenix I had driven 160, and still had another 60 to get back there. So I set off into the desert! And naturally I scored with five Thrasher species at this one spot in the heat of the day. Curve-billed and Bendire's were easy and close to the road. I found a Sage Thrasher briefly, but the other two took some finding. The tactic was simply to wander aimlessly - as the birds live here, you just have to walk close to the bush they're in or underneath. First to fall was Crissal, low in a bush and singing quietly. Le Conte's took longer and was much further away from the road. Again, I was just pushing forward into the habitat when some rapid movement caught my eye. I walked around the low bush and.....nothing. I tracked a circle around the distance I thought a bird might have moved but still nothing. I repeated the circle a little wider, and there it was again, a rapid dash between two bushes. Le Contes! A pair in fact, darting from shaded spot to shaded spot – the closest comparison I can make in terms of behaviour is Cream-coloured Courser, and being pale in colour and with curved bill you can immediately see the similarities. They run really very quickly indeed, and I didn't see them take to the wing once, in contrast to the Bendire's and Curve-billed which were only too happy to fly away from me.

Classic Thrasher habitat

Bendire's Thrasher
With this rather unexpected success taking me to about 3pm I got back on the road and headed back east to Phoenix, where Gilbert Water Ranch was my final stop of the day. I had to drive all the way through the city but found it easily enough. The main lake had a number of Lesser Scaup and Ring-necked Duck on it, but the main interest is in what is called the Riparian Preserve, a series of lakes and managed habitat behind. It was fantastic, I swa heaps. Abert's Towhees hopped around, Gambel's Quails were numerous. Anna's Hummingbirds buzzed from bush to bush, and Verdin was relatively common. The scrapes held a variety of waders and wildfowl, including decent numbers of American Avocet, Black-necked Stilt, Lesserlegs and Least Sandpiper

Abert's Towhee

Anna's Hummingbird

I had a very pleasant few hours wandering around here until the sun went down, and spent the last half an hour getting down low with the ducks on the main lake. This was complicated by it being 'Sadie Hawkins', an important date in the American high school calendar where the girls ask the boy out and everybody dresses up. So when I emerged from the Riparian part of the park the lake was crawling with dolled-up teenage girls and gawky uncomfortable-looking boys. A dusty English American guy with a camera that put theirs to shame didn't really fit in, but they worked round me, and in some cases stepped over me as I was flat on the path. I think it was probably worth it.

Lesser Scaup

female Ring-necked Duck

drake Ring-necked Duck

American Avocet

Black-necked Stilt
Then I met some cousins for dinner, or at least I think they're cousins. My family on the American side is descended partly from Yorkshire immigrants and partly from Mormon settlers. I don't know how far this goes back precisely, but the end result means I have relatives absolutely everywhere. So I met Kelly, Ben and their kids E and D at a nearby mexican place. Kelly is my mother's (mom's!) cousin's daughter. We share the same Great Grandmother, but I don't know what the technical term for that is. Let's stick with relative. We had a great time catching up - we had last seen each other as 11 year olds on the family ranch in Utah, a trip I still remember as I got to ride a quad bike for the first time and went fishing in "Blue Lake" for trout. This branch of the family still have the ranch, and still go there every summer which is pretty cool. Both being somewhat advanced from 11 we have kids of our own now, and they will get to meet later this summer in Scotland which should be a lot of fun - so the meaning of family continues.

And that was my trip! After dinner I drove to my pre-ordained lodgings next to Phoenix Skyharbor, and the following morning I flew home in a somewhat roundabout but enjoyable way. About 125 species, of which a third were new. 1800 photos, reduced to 428 on the first pass once back in front of a decent screen, with a lot more editing to come. My ideal kind of trip really - short and sweet in a new area with new birds, with lots of advance planning and a lot fun had putting it into practice. I'll be going back, the only question is when?

No Panthers were harmed during the taking of this photograph.

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