Mormon Lake, Coconino County, AZ

Saturday, June 10, 2017
Why would I want to drive 150 miles (one way) to see a bird? For starters, I had missed it during its first sighting in early May when Kathryn Hart had discovered it on May 4th. But that was too close to my two-week Cape May, New Jersey Birding and Family trip to make such a distant full-day run.

All I could do was hope that this bird, never seen in Arizona before, would like Mormon Lake enough to stick around until my return. That was not to be. The Eurasian COMMON CRANE was last seen at Mormon Lake on May 14th and I didn't arrive back in the state until the 22nd. Dang! It's a rare vagrant to North America and the very first time anyone has seen and reported it in Arizona.

Having lived in Japan for three years (1960-63), I knew the crane carried great symbolism to its people. It signifies Love, Peace and Harmony and that's why so many Americans have now learned to make the paper cranes. Their symbolism carried over the Pacific to us -- much as the actual wayward COMMON CRANE had done. 

As luck would have it, it was re-discovered at Mormon Lake in June. So, I rounded up two birder friends to join me in our search for this rare Eurasian bird east of Flagstaff. With Julie Clark driving her SUV, she, Lois and I caught up with one another on our 3-hour drive, regarding our various birding trips over the winter months.  Before we knew it, we had arrived at the turn off from Route 87 to Mormon Lake Village, population given as: 50-5,000.

On this beautiful, but somewhat blustery Saturday, it looked like a festival was underway at the RV Park with a hand-made sign explaining: the poor-man's Sturgis. Bikers were everywhere. Not a place from which we could access Mormon Lake.

Having been to the Village once before, I had no real strategy for our birding the "lake" -- in which I could see no water. Heavy rains over the winter kept some little streams running out in the mostly-dry lake bed but it was covered with long flexible grasses that served as a carpet for long-legged shorebirds. From the Lodge, we spotted a few elk, but needed to figure out how to access the very large lake bed that appeared to be surrounded by private property and forest land.

Turning back to our car parked at the Lodge, a birder from Tucson (John) asked if we were there to see the Crane.Yes! He needed to fill his gas tank but told us he had already seen the Common Crane this morning and would be glad to show us how to reach a good spot. (I still don't know exactly where the "stake-out" spot was located but perhaps this was it.)

Fortunately, out in the shimmering distance, Lois spotted the COMMON CRANE keeping company with a Great Blue Heron. Once we saw it through the spotting scope, we could actually find it through our binoculars. So, I tried for photos of this rare bird foraging at least a football field length beyond us. 

COMMON CRANE at Mormon Lake; Saturday, June 10,2017 (Black "bustle" at its rear)
Back-lit photo in morning sun, neither the Great Blue Heron (left) nor COMMON CRANE show their true colors

Light gray all over, it appears white-bodied, with black face and neck, but white nape. Thick yellowish bill and
black flight feathers and tail.

After the COMMON CRANE lifted off to fly just a bit farther away (closer to RV Park but still not within sight of it, we decided to explore other access. We found a parking area on the right-hand side of the road, then hiked in through Coconino Forest land spotting lots of WESTERN BLUEBIRDS and other expected mountain species.

Although I'm not known for doing well with directions (in this case, I had none), I led to the lake where we got another good view of this very rare COMMON CRANE.

Still quite a distance away, the Crane's white nape shows as it preens (above)
Another Documentary Photo of the COMMON CRANE at Mormon Lake 6/10/17

L-R: Julie Clark & Lois Lorenz; dry Mormon Lake in background

We decided to drive around the whole lake to get perspective on where other birders might be locating themselves to spot the rare Crane. Just about where Mormon Lake Road turns into Route 87, what should fly across in front of the car (from east to west toward the lake) just above eye-level but the COMMON CRANE? -- giving us a fantastic jaw-dropping view of its full color -- neck outstretched and legs trailing. By the time I reached my camera, the crane had circled the SW portion of the lake and was flying toward us as if looking for a good spot to set down.  From the open car window, I managed yet another poor photo of this COMMON CRANE on its first known visit to Arizona.


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