Holiday Birding

December 27, 2014
Responding not to a Bird Alert but to our own instincts to go north for a specific bird led several of us birders on an unexpected adventure.  We had chosen Saturday, December 27th to do some birding north of the Phoenix Valley.   We had just experienced the coldest week in 2014 here in the Valley of the Sun, but  our treasure-hunt bird was at the much higher elevation of 7,000+ feet at Mormon Lake, southeast of Flagstaff.

Having checked the weather, we took our warmest clothes to add to our traveling layers as we headed north to Coconino County.   What no forecast had predicted was SNOW!   After turning onto Lake Mary Road from I-17, we began to have flurries.  The farther we traveled, the more snow began to accumulate on the rural road.   As we drove past Upper Lake Mary, we noted that it was partially frozen.

When we reached our destination, Mormon Lake Overlook, we quickly added our heavier coats, scarves, gloves and ear-covering caps to protect ourselves against the 18-degree F. cold.  Flurries were blowing sideways, pretending to be a blizzard, but the flakes landed softly against our cheeks and melted.  With our two spotting scopes trained on the junipers and bare-branched plants below us plus good looks with binoculars, our desired bird could not be found at its frequent location.  I got distracted from looking for the bird by the snow flakes magnified in the scope.  But, I really wanted to find that Northern Shrike.  So, all three of us continued to search for signs of ANY bird life.  Nada.

We drove back and forth between the first and second overlook on the east side of Mormon Lake several times, stopping and viewing, still between blowing snowflakes.  Not easily deterred, but coming to terms with the reality of our situation, we headed for Mormon Lake Village.

At least the Village, surrounded by Coconino National Forest with its tall Ponderosa Pine trees, produced some birds.  Dark-eyed Juncos were the first and most abundant bird we came upon in the forest.  The most amazing bird we found in abundance was the Lewis's Woodpecker.   With its dark red face, set off by a gray collar and pink belly with a back of green-glossed black feathers, it was a perfect Holiday Bird.  Every now and again birds show up in greater numbers than usual and to see, at a minimum, 16 of these woodpeckers was quite a thrill.

Lewis's Woodpecker

Other forest birds, too, paid no heed to the flurries and were quite active, especially Mountain Chickadee and Pygmy and White-breasted Nuthatch.  Steller's Jays were calling as usual but the raptors overhead were quiet.  A Bald Eagle flew in large circles over the Village the full hour we spent there, including warm-up time at the pizza place, the only spot we found open.  

The waitress told us Mormon Lake was the only place up north getting snow and it had not been forecast.  Flagstaff was snow-free!  Because of Mormon Lake's location between mountains, their weather can be very different from other areas.

Warmed up, we headed back to the overlook to search for our bird.  We laughingly looked at our species list of 11 and decided to aim for 15.   By the time we returned to the Mormon Lake Overlook, flurries had stopped.  But looking for one small beautiful bird in a 10-mile area, hoping that it would visit one of its favorite spots while we waited for it, was definitely a long shot and did not happen on this frigid day that stayed well below freezing during our visit.

Part of active birding is to keep track of numbers.  This birding experience led to my/our lowest number of bird species seen this year in four hours of birding.    TOTAL:  15 species.  What a benchmark!   I'll be happy to avoid that from happening again.

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