Thursday, May 2, 2013

Great Scott!

Prescott and Yavapai county...lying only an hour and fifteen minutes to the north, they're the closest non-Maricopa county/region to central Phoenix, and they also have some nice, cooler, high elevation birding spots. One of my birding buddies is a big booster of the Prescott scene, and a few weeks ago I joined him for a half day of exploring around Watson and Willow Lake. These are two of the most well known and visited of Prescott's five central lakes, and in addition to boasting some nice riparian habitats, they also draw in some excellent waterfowl, both of which grabbed my attention.

The first critter of interest at Watson Lake was not a bird though, but this big and beautiful moth hanging out on the bathroom shed.  

It was a cool morning but not chilly, though it had snowed only a week before. While walking through the Watson riparian area, American and Lesser Goldfinches made plenty of noise, and various Vireos vociferously voiced from the treetops. Tree Swallows reveled in the morning light, and the occasional Lazuli Bunting buzz broke out from the dense foliage along the creek.

The Watson Riparian area opens up after a short walk, and while the pathways on both side of the lake were frequented by cyclists, we still had some nice views and nice birding. Four Cassin's Kingbirds all in a row along a telephone line made for a quirky sighting, and this precocious Western Kingbird nipped from fence post to fence post, with a swarm of his breakfast buzzing in the background.

These sightings were a great way to get going, but we also came to Watson lake with some specific targets. The liminal habitat between the riparian washes and the open lake is prime Wood Duck territory, and a recent report of White-winged Scoter also piqued our interest.
The first of our target birds came from the southwest shore, when Tommy spotted a handsome drake Wood Duck in the shallow junk. It was too far for passing photos, but Tommy's spotting scope made for some great views. Apart from an escaped Mandarin, this is the most colorful bird one might find floating in or perched around North American ponds.

Walking a mile up the southwestern shore, we decided to leave the main trail, somewhat on a whim, to explore an inviting little inlet. With a few Redhead couples, it had some waterfowl not yet seen that day. Tommy then spied a large, brownish, generally dull feathery floaty thing. Perfect!
When the bird finally lifted its head, it was indeed the White-winged Scoter.

It's not Wood Duck; it's not even the most colorful Scoter, but White-winged is a solid find anywhere in Arizona, and one I was glad to record for the second time in the last couple of years.

The sleek Franklin's Gulls were another attraction at Watson Lake. These migrators are more numerous in the state now than they were several weeks ago, and even while they were distant, their handsome hoods eye-catching eye rings are always nice to see.

By the time we reached our second destination at Willow Lake, the wind had really intensified. We scoped out some Blue-winged Teal, along with a Lesser Yellowlegs and two Black-necked Stilts (all good finds for the area), along with the expected regimen of waterfowl, but otherwise the whipping wind kept the birding pretty muted.

On the plus side, fancy flyers like the Franklin's Gulls enjoyed the free lift, and we had much closer views than were afforded at Watson Lake.

A pair of California Gulls added some larus diversification to the mix, though they were both uglier and farther away. Hey, a year bird is a year bird.

We were surprised to see a Turkey vulture cutting through the Gull cloud, seemingly spurred with a purpose not as characteristic of the buzzards. As the raptor passed overhead though and the light became more helpful, the white tail bands allowed us to add Zone-tailed Hawk to our list for the day.

The windswept water of Willow Lake was not a deterrent for the Eared Grebes, whose numbers seemed bolstered in the breeze, by comparison, as many other birds sought shoreline inlets for cover. We didn't find the target Red-breasted Merganser here, though I found some at Glendale the next day and thus no hard feelings were felt.
We're cool; you be windy if you want to, Willow Lake.

The Willow Lake shoreline is a very interesting, impressive combination of sandy shale and wind-rounded granitic mounds. My proclivities towards bush crashing and impatience got the best of me; eventually I gave up the Merganser scouting to explore the miniature canyons.

Down in Phoenix, the Yellow-rumped Warbler population has dramatically decreased for the season. It's a shame how that timing in central Arizona works out, because few of the wintering YRWA get into their really sharp plumage before they leave. 
They had bulging numbers in the Prescott area though, and they were pretty to boot. Tommy also had a nice Myrtle subspecies show for him, and I spent time battling this Audubon's variety with my broken autofocus. He ducked, bobbed, and weaved in a manner than would make both professional boxers and squirmy children proud. Magnificent bugger...

It's funny how when wind, rain, or general afternoon doldrums make for sparse birding, something so common can, and will, become a fascination. In part for lack of better birds on which to spy, I followed this yellow-chinned chicken around for a good twenty minutes, never coming away with anything better than the photo below, but nonetheless feeling very satisfied overall. 

Cooper's Hawks aren't such big fans of soaring in the thermals, but I wouldn't have assumed they were big fans of awkward perching atop the tallest boulder by the trail. This weirdo just apparently forgot how to hawk or something, but after a minute's time for his amnesia, plus the realization that people were looking, he departed to find a more accipitery perch.

We recorded somewhere near seventy species for the half day and enjoyed some gorgeous weather, in addition to some gorgeous birds. With the commute to these Prescott locations being only slightly longer than many of the best Maricopa spots, this may well become one of Butler's Birds frequently frequented.