Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Rough Around the Edges: Mormon Lake Grasslands

Last weekend saw my final days of March Madness, my spring break week in which I was able to do lots and lots of birding, to see what the world would be like fifty years down the road (I already have the disposition of a seventy-something year-old too) when I can go out birding everyday. I had excellent birding adventures around Phoenix, and a truly marvelous day down in the southeast corner of the state (more to come on that later), so for my spring break's birding swan song I headed up north to Mormon Lake and Flagstaff. Spring, even uber spring, is happening down in the Phoenix valley, where we've already had record high temperatures in the 90s. That wasn't so much the case up north, where windy, 20-degree conditions greeted me outside of the car. Luckily I wore pants, but why bother seeking out wintery conditions in March? For this:


Yes, the largest natural lake in Arizona, Mormon Lake and its surrounding grasslands were hosting some serious BOIs (birds of interest). A listserv report from several days before listed Eurasian Wigeon and Rough-legged Hawk both being in the area. With limited time and scoping abilities, I didn't try very hard, nor find, the Eurasian Wigeon, but the Rough-legged Hawks were on the most-wanted list. Staring hundreds of yards down into the grassy, dryer parts of the lake bed, I could see some butiful buteo silhouettes.


Killer looks huh!? Even at significant distance, the Unshaven-legged Hawk seemed apparent for its different dimensions and gait. The Common Ravens didn't care if they were Roughies or Red-tails, and they quickly drove this bird away from its fence post. On closer inspection though, this bird had far too much white on its breast and belly. Despite it almost being a rarer sighting for the time and place, some of birding gurus pointed out that this is likely a juvenile Ferruginous Hawk, something that wasn't really on my radar (another newbie mistake, ugh!).



At the time I was assuming Rough-legged, since I had seen some kiting when I was first approaching by car. The distant sightings were not very soul-satisfying, and as it later turns out this wasn't even the right bird. There were other stops to make on the opposite side of the lake though, and with the morning growing older I decided to move on and then check again on the way back to the interstate. While continuing to drive south down Lake Mary Rd, which runs parallel to the eastern shore of the lake and amid the bordering grasslands, I was treated to the sights and sounds of signing Meadowlarks.


It was cold. There were snow banks in places along the road and a formidable breeze, but none of these   factors proved prohibitive to the loquacious Meadowlarks. Both Eastern and Western varieties can turn up in this area. Listen to the song and decide which species is singing here. 

video

Near the southwest corner of Mormon Lake, the Mormon Lodge and adjacent campsite provided some fantastic birding. It was great to get back into some high altitude pines--a habitat I haven't visited since last summer--and see the cool birds up there. There's something about high-altitude birding...everything just feels more rustic, more wild, more genuine and impressive when you see it. That material will be in another post. 
On the drive back up from Mormon Lodge, I kept my speed low and my eyes peeled for any Rough-Legs that may have perched nearer the road. Perhaps it read my mind, or I read its. Anyway, sure enough one of the Roughies was perched prominently on a fencepost maybe twenty yards from the roadside.  Of course, it chose the east side and was thus pretty back-lit, but I won't complain. 


I took a few snaps of this regal raptor, a sense of great wonder and satisfaction warming me up as I gawked at this stunning bird. Alas, I wasn't the only one who's attention was caught by the Hawk. Another fellow in a truck pulled over and parked just behind me. He must've been in a chatty mood, for he immediately openned his door and walked over to my car (which I was using as a blind of sorts). 

"Hey friend, watcha looking at over there, the Hawk? Oh yeah, I drive up and down this road all the time and I see lots a' hawks and birds along.....(he kept talking about stuff and things)."

"Well mister," I thought, "To answer your question, I am looking at nothing now. Nothing." 
The Hawk flushed when he got out of his truck. I probably wouldn't have gotten better shots anyway, but it was still a bit vexing. At any rate, as the bird retreated I got to see that white and brown tail too--another diagnostic sign--and overall felt much better about my sighting. If I had only the early morning opportunities, it would have been a long, bleak ride home.


This coming weekend it will be time to find some Swainson's!

16 comments:

  1. Congrats on the rough-legged sightings, brief but beautiful moments to cherish. Good luck with the Swainson's!

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    1. Thanks Debbie, it was a cool cool morning indeed, in every sense of the word.

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  2. Laurence, LOL! Chris and I have had similar experiences with people lately! Glad you got your bird but sorry the experience was spoiled (just a little) by the over-friendly (and clueless) driver! Celeste and I also had this happen yesterday at Empire Gulch when Mr. and Mrs. Boomer came through walking and talking loudly looking at birds! Mr. Boomer said in his booming voice, "I'm not an expert," and we couldn't help but think, "and you never will be if you keep on walking and talking that loudly!

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    1. P.S. I know where the Swainson's hang out!

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    2. Hah! Yes indeedy the birds bring all manner of different birders too. Good luck this weekend. I hope you have some Swainson's as well!

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  3. I would have been p!$$@D! I never have noticed this issue before but maybe it's because the....oh what's the word I'm looking for to replace the nasty one in my head?.....the naive, unlearned, unskilled, empty-headed tourists have chased away the bird. I told Kathie this. If anyone ever gets between me and my lifebird, it will be their end!

    Your shot of the Rough-legged Hawk is wonderful. I've seen the bird ONCE and no pics. We were driving home with a car on our rearends down at the Whitewater Draw. It also perched on a pole and then flew off! My heart went.....oh no......!!!!!! No pic at all. But I know I will see it again. Looks like a great place!

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    1. Yeah I really shouldn't complain too much; it could've been much worse. Still, there can be those frustrating run-ins, and Had that fella come along a couple minutes earlier and I got nothing, I can't say I'd be as even-keeled.

      At least with the Swainson's there'll be hundreds : )
      Won't have to tread as lightly then.

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  4. Sigh. I don't have a Rough-legged on my life list yet. I clocked hours at the fall hawk watch this last season, but no Rough-leggeds or Goshawks. I as out there at the end of November! There was snow on the ground! And no rewards for it either. There have been Rough-legged sightings in Walkill NWR which is in northwest NJ out where I do fieldwork, but it's nearly 2 hours to get out there, so hasn't happened yet. This week I haven't even made it 1 mile down the road to my patch. Sigh #2 But I am enjoying your tales - almost makes up for the my lack of tales to relate.

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    1. Bummer worthy birder.
      Well, I don't have Broad-winged Hawk yet, and I have to drive about 2 hours and 45 min to get up where these birds are, but all the same eventually you'll get a sweet sighting. Just think of it this way; all your birding luck is getting stored up right now until you can unleash it on the day/weekend of your choosing.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

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    2. Broadwings are so cute and adorable!!!! I've seen hundreds, but all soaring past on their way to warmer climates - none close up. The hawk watch site is about 3 miles from where I am currently sitting on campus, and I can reach another 3 more within an hour drive. If I want really amazing I can do 2.5 hours to Cape May or 2.5 hours to Hawk Mountain.

      Last time I checked, nothing was moving north yet - too cold!

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  5. Congrats on the lifer- they are quite the lookers... Bummer on the bird being flushed, but at least it was obviously just a dude being friendly. Not a birder being an asswipe.

    Also... I kind of wish you called this post "Luckily I wore pants."

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    1. Yeah, I shouldn't be too hard on the guy. Since I was crouched down in the brush, I maybe should've acted all indignant that he just gave away my position in hide-and-seek.

      Unfortunately cold conditions don't feature much in my posts. You've given me great ideas for next time the opportunity comes though.

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  6. Glad to hear you were able to fill your spring break with lots of birding. Great shots of the Roughie; what a beautiful raptor! We caught up with a bit of that wind & chill on our trip out west! Luckily I wore pants too!

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    1. I didn't know you went out west. Looking forward to your posts : )

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  7. Awesome post Laurence. I love the picture of the Rough-legged Hawk. I think it's a female Rough-legged. She hasn't shaved her legs in awhile. But she's a bird and can get away with it. Flagstaff is awesome birding!

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    1. Thanks Tommy. She's still a foxy devil no doubt, even if she's let herself go a bit this winter...

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