Santa Cruz Flats

by Dan Weisz

Santa Cruz Flats is part of the agricultural land in Pinal County that is located west of I-10.  In 2010, Pinal County was the second fastest growing county in the United States.  Originally in 1875, Pinal County was carved out of Maricopa and Pima counties.  While Pinal County is the third largest county in Arizona, it is also an agriculturally rich area with about 1000 farms and over 1 million acres in land used by farms.  People “bird” Pinal County and Santa Cruz Flats to see the birds that frequent mesquite grasslands and agricultural areas.  Below are a few birds seen this week:

Lark Sparrows are the same size and shape of the common House Sparrows that we see at our homes and at almost any business building in the Foothills.  But Lark Sparrows have a very bold, striking facial pattern.  They will walk on the ground rather than hop like many other songbirds do (although they will hop during courtship).  They forage on the ground and eat insects and seeds.  This bird popped up into a creosote bush to see what was going on.  

The next bird is a pretty unusual find for this area:  an Osprey!  Ospreys are raptors who eat live fish and are usually found along shorelines and waterways- both rivers and lakes, marshes, estuaries, etc.  This osprey was sighted in Santa Cruz Flats perched above a canal, watching the water where it was pouring into the canal.  He has been seen in the area for several weeks so he must be finding food to eat.  Several studies have shown ospreys to be excellent anglers.  They catch fish on at least 1 in every 4 dives with a success rate as high as 70%.  The average time they spent hunting before making a catch was about 12 minutes (something for you to think about the next time you throw your line in the water)!

In hunting mode below.  Ospreys are raptors:  check out the curved, hooked beak and long powerful talons.

He was spooked and flew off before returning to his perch with a pretty spectacular landing!

A small rouse helped to realign his feathers.


And then he turned around to face the canal again, with an even greater rouse.
Ospreys are about 2 feet long with a 5-6 foot wingspan.

Say’s Phoebes can be found in the Catalina Foothills at almost any school yard and along areas similar to the corrals at Westward Look and Hacienda del Sol.  Here, in Santa Cruz Flats, a Say’s Phoebe was feeding alongside the road.  These rust-bellied phoebes are a bird of open country but are also common around buildings as well.  A flycatcher, they will feed on flying and terrestrial insects.

Lark buntings are common sparrows in the Great Plains and are known for their striking black and white breeding plumage.  In the winter they migrate south and appear in southern Arizona, and  they change into rather drab winter plumage while maintaining their silver/blue bill.  The breeding white wing patch turns into a noticeable cream-colored wing patch in the winter.

A pair of burrowing owls watching over the fields alongside the road.  The undersides of concrete canals offer a great home for burrowing owls.  The owls either dig burrows themselves or take over burrows other animals have dug in the soft ground.  Agricultural areas offer lots of insects and rodents as prey for them.