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. 

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!