Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Santa Cruz Flats

A Big January requires strange trips to dusty areas like the Santa Cruz Flats near Picacho Peak.  Here in this desolate part of the world, sandy dirt roads wrap around farming fields.  When Laurence suggested we go, I had to really plan and map this one out.  For such an isolated and dry area of the world, it was surprising the amount of NEW birds we saw.  On this epic outing, bird guru Rich Hoyer, Kathie Brown and myself would go where no one in their right mind had gone before.  And the day would shock and surprise us all.  In short it rocked!  And it was well worth all the dirt and grime:)  It also helped that Rich had birded this area before and maximized our time out in the field.  Thank you Rich!
Throughout the day, we found abandoned buildings and ancient artifacts from former human communities.  Some farms were still active, but there were stretches of "the nothing".  So it was shocking (as we were searching for Mountain Plovers at the Evergreen Sod Farm) to find a Crested Caracara flying over our heads.  During our day, we would encounter many birders searching for new life around the flats.  Many were from out of town while others were surveying raptors.  On this day they would count around 35 of these tropical Crested Caracaras!  Wowsa!
Crested Caracara
But we went on our merry ways.  Rich was searching for a Longspur.  Kathie was counting birds.  And I was trying to get better shots of Pipits and Horned Larks.  Spectacular birds!
And then it would happen.  The Burrowing Owls.  I smiled and smiled and smiled some more.  I LOVE owls!!!  And I finally was able to get nice shots of these beautiful birds.  Like statues along the dirt roads, they appeared as rock figures or dead branches.  
Burrowing Owl
My big lesson for the day came from Rich on thrashers.  For both Kathie and myself, this Bendire's Thrasher would be a life bird.  But like so many birders ask, "How do you tell the difference between a Curve-billed and Bendire's?"  Habitat and bill structure.  Notice how the Bendire's upper bill curves and the bottom part of the bill isn't as curvy(straighter) than that of the Curve-billed?  I put up a Curve-billed pic below to compare the differences. 
Bendire's Thrasher

Look closely between the two pics. The Bendire's is said to have "arrowhead" or triangular like markings around the breast area.  But it's difficult and not always distinguishable. So look for the bill.  The Santa Cruz Flats are perfect habitat for this bird. 
Curve-billed Thrasher
Another bit that Rich shared with us was the habitat of the Sage Sparrow.  Sparrows can be tricky for most birders but this is one sparrow that's pretty easy to ID because of the gray coloring.  It lives in extremely sparse Sagebrush plains.  It was a strange experience finding this little bird.  It was like were on the set of Star Trek filming for a harsh desert scene on an alien planet.
Sage Sparrow
I was able to photograph the Pipits and Horned Larks.  Kathie found her Bendire's Thrasher several times that day.  And Rich used his magic powers to call out the Chestnut-collared Longspur.  I heard it but didn't have enough observation time with this bird.  By the time I finally got my eyes on it, it had landed in the fields.  Did I see it? Yes.  Rich and Kathie had really nice observations of the bird in flight.  So I hope that one day, I will be able to get really nice pics of this bird. 
The trip is well worth the effort.  It's really not for non-birders as the views flat.  But for birders, this is an exciting place because it has birds that cannot be found elsewhere in our state or country! 
Horned Lark
Bring an atlas as the roads can be tricky.  Have a good vehicle as most of the roads are dirt.  Wear pants and if you have a scope, bring it.  
American Pipit
The Santa Cruz Flats can be found between Phoenix and Tucson near Picacho Peak and Casa Grande.  There are a lot of good birds in this area. 
Bendire's Thrasher
The day was exciting.  The birding team was most excellent. It was a real treat working with Rich and Kathie as it made for a very productive day. 3 sets of eyes are better than one.  
The Santa Cruz Flats can be intimidating for many as there isn't really a set point like in the National Parks, etc.  But start with the Evergreen Sod Farm and move back.  Bring snacks and drinks.  Wear adult diapers. No bathrooms.  If you don't like diapers, you might consider going behind a bush;)  I chose option two instead:)  Hopefully these tips help you out.  Mountain Plovers, Caracaras, Thrashers, oh my! Just think about what you could discover:) 


  1. WOW, Chris! Sounds like an awesome place to go birding. Loved the Caracara, Thrashers, Horned Lark and I REALLY love the Burrowing Owl. I LOVE owls!

    Cool sightings and great photos! Happy Birding!

  2. Great shots as usual.....well done Chris.

  3. You call it desolate part of the world but I would gladly explore it. Wonderful shots!

  4. loved this set. except for the caracara, i don't get to see these birds. :)

  5. Miałeś wiele ptaków do "złapania" aparatem , my do oglądania. Śliczna sowa, ale pozostałe ptaki też oczywiście. Pozdrawiam.
    You had a lot of birds to "catch" the camera to my watch. Cute owl, but the other birds, of course. Yours.

  6. Wow---I can only imagine how much fun you had that day... To see all of those birds had to be awesome.. I was interested in learning more about the Thrashers.. We have Brown Thrashers here --but I've never heard of the ones you showed... Beautiful!!!

    I know how happy you were to see those Owls... Great photos.

  7. Wow, the Santa Cruz Flats sounds like a marvelous area to go birding. I always enjoy visiting your wonderful blog, because your feature birds I don't often get to see here in the Midwest. Your photographs are fantastic! I especially love the Burrowing Owl, Horned Lark and Crested Caracara. Oh my goodness, you spotted 35 of these cool birds! Congratulations on the life bird. Birding excursions don't get much better than what you have described in this awesome post.

  8. Seems like such an unlikely place to find so many birds. My fave is the Burrowing owl and I can imagine it bobbing up and down.

  9. Nice work Chris, looks like you all really made the most of that amazing (and amazing bleak, in non-bird terms) site! Love your photos. Cheers!

  10. Sounds like a wonderful day out. An incredible landscape too. Love the Burrowing Owls :)

  11. Heading out where others do not dare, except, it seems birders! Fantastic shots, and experiences, love the owl too :)

  12. Wow, what a day! The abandoned building looks really intriguing. Love the Burrowing Owl shots; I still hoping to see them one day. The Thrashers are beautiful too!


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