Sunday, August 10, 2014

Hannagan Meadow and Luna Lake: Terrifying and Peaceful

On Tommy D's Birding Expeditions, most Expeditions are problem free without any issues.  Every now and then, something freaky may happen in the field.  You never know what may happen.

Remember how I have been saying that the White Mountains is a big area?  Well, it's so big that it has three different counties in midst of it.  I decided to head to the east side of the White Mountains on one of the days I was on vacation.  On this east side, there are many more awesome birding locations.  I haven't explored most of them, and the ones I have explored, I haven't explored very much.  By heading south of Alpine on Highway 191, one quickly accesses Greenlee County.  This county is one of Arizona's smallest counties, and it is Arizona's most underbirded county.  I've never birded it, and I decided that I would take a morning of the trip to at least step my foot into the door and walk into Greenlee County for awhile.  The area that I wanted to explore the most in Greenlee County was Hannagan Meadow and the Blue River area.  I've never been to the Blue River, but the Hannagan Meadow area looks just like any of the other classic and beautiful White Mountain locales that are close to Greer.  While hiking in the Mount Baldy Wilderness Area one day with my family, I ran into Prescott birder David Moll.  David had hiked a trail in Hannagan Meadow that I was wanting to hike, the 4.5 mile Aker Lake Trail.  He informed me of a family of Spotted Owls that he found along the trail.  My mind raced at the thought of the Spotted Owl family, I really wanted to see them and start my Greenlee County birding expedition in a perfect fashion.  While David couldn't remember exactly how far they were from the trail head, he at least gave me a good habitat description so I could take my time and carefully scan certain spots along the trail.

Once I got to the trail, my Greenlee County list started to begin.  It was overcast skies to start off the hike, and it was drizzling with rain for awhile.  I planned to hike for at least the first two miles of the Aker Lake Trail so I could get out of the area at a decent time to explore other roads and areas in Greenlee County.  The vegetation on the trail was very thick and wet.  Before I knew it, I was soaked.  You've gotta hate tall grass that intertwines with the trail, especially early in the morning.  Birds called up in the trees.  There were plenty of Greenlee Mountain Chickadees.

There were plenty of other forest birds around too, most of which stayed out of sight and high in conifers.  I wanted to get the Spotted Owl search on.  David described the location as a section of broken forest.  I would search those sections that looked like that sort of habitat in hopes of finding the owls.  Starting off didn't feel so right though.  There was a feeling of eeriness in the air and in the thick woods, and it was quite freaky.  You know that feeling, that there is something else out there that can take you down if it wanted to?  That feeling that you might be being watched, or that something bad may unfold?

When I started to become very cautious, I heard something in the woods running in my direction.  It was getting closer, and closer, and closer.  It then started to make a yipping sound.  Seconds later, a Coyote came out of the woods, and ran right by me, about twenty feet away.  It didn't even notice that I was there, but it kept going, and it acted as if it was terrified.  The Coyote ran further into the woods, stopped, and started barking very loudly.  He kept going and going, and something was making him act very freaky.  Right then, another Coyote ran up.  I was now between two Coyotes.  The second one didn't see me, but he was barking too, almost as if he wanted the first Coyote to come back.  Both of them were acting weird.  They both started to bark and yip louder, and it was freaking me out.  To make sure they weren't involving me, I revealed myself to the second Coyote, and it took off the second it caught sight of me.  A breeze then came through.  I started to hear a longer, deeper, stronger, and more drawn out howl over the breeze.  Once the breeze stopped, I could hear the howling well, and it was also close by.  And these howls weren't coming from the Coyotes, they were coming from a pack of Wolves.  I'll admit, I was terrified, and so were the Coyotes, who must have gotten tangled up with the Wolves.  My mind was playing tricks on me, and I was certain for that time that I was in danger.  I wasn't very prepared if the Wolves decided to head into my direction.  I didn't even have a knife or broken bottle caps to tape and tie onto my hands, like Liam Neeson did to fight the Alpha Wolf in the movie, The Grey.  In the movie, Neeson was relentlessly followed by a rogue wolf pack in the winter hell of Alaska.  We still don't know if he survived or not, but we know he put up a good fight, it is Liam Neeson, right?  

Courtesy of The Grey

I was scared that I would have a wolf face-off on one of Tommy's Birding Expeditions.  Instead of using Neeson's techniques above, all I could do was grab a branch to defend myself.  The Wolves kept howling, and the nearby Coyote kept yipping.  I stood there, helplessly, and hoped for the best.  My heart was racing.  I looked over my right shoulder, and saw, nothing.  I looked over my left shoulder, and saw, nothing.  I thought, have I tried looking behind me yet?  I turned around, and......saw nothing.  The wolves were nearby, but they weren't all that close.  Only one the worst case scenario would this actually take place with a wolf attacking me.  Attacks on people are extremely rare, and plus, Arizona's Wolves are a subspecies known as the Mexican Gray Wolf.  They are considered to be a lot smaller than the Gray Wolves further north in North America.  Wolves are big creatures and are fierce carnivores, but are rarely aggressive towards humans.  Films like The Grey and such give us a general fear of Wolves, which is really a false fear that is very unnecessary.  But who wouldn't be scared of one though in a face to face encounter?

Courtesy of The Grey

The Wolf is actually my favorite animal.  It's the one animal I would choose to see over a certain or favored bird species in the wild.  There are birds that I would rather see than any other mammals out there, with the exception of a wolf.  While it was freaky hearing them howl, I was freaking stoked at the same time.  I actually wanted to see them, and truth be told, I loved the adrenaline rush.  Had I encountered them, they most likely would've ran as fast as possible in the opposite direction.  With wolves, that is how it is 99.99999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999 percent of the time.  The Wolves then stopped howling after a half-minute.  Could I count them as a lifer, since I count some birds as heard only lifers?  Hmmm....probably not.  There isn't a mammal quite like the wolf.  Hearing one is indescribable.  I had both an incredible feeling of awe and fear at the same time.  If I saw one, I would be terrified, but yet amazing at the same time.  The wolf is a very powerful animal, but is more fearful of us than we can ever be of it.  I've never understood why people have persecuted and have had such hatred towards them.  As the howling was stopping, I did see some forest chickens flying around that the Coyote had kicked up.  As I was busy being scared, I assumed they were Grouse.  But when I went up to one of them, I saw that it was a young Wild Turkey.  He was petrified in fear inside too, and he already looks petrified enough on the outside, even at such a young age.

There was a whole family of Wild Turkey around, and I saw the mother shortly after photographing this young bird.  The wild dogs were now silent, and the sun then came out of the cloud cover.  The birds were active in the forest, but they weren't cooperative for pictures.  I searched hard for the Spotted Owls and covered two miles of the trail.  The Spotted Owls eluded me, but I did find a spot where I'm pretty sure was the place David probably had them.  There was a lot of fallen timber in midst of a standing, thick, and shady forest.  I walked around and looked.  Although the Spotted Owls were probably looking down on me, I couldn't look up to see them.  That is the way it usually goes.

I continued on my Greenlee County adventure after the Aker Lake Trail.  I "survived".  I pulled over at the side of the road and saw a neat sign about the Mexican Gray Wolves.  This subspecies is very endangered and reintroduction efforts have gone underway and have expanded in the White Mountains.  There are probably between 75 and 100 wolves in the region today, if I remember right.  Gosh, it would be cool to see one.  Nevertheless, it was amazing hearing them and knowing that they are indeed around!

One of the areas I wanted to explore on the Greenlee County section of the White Mountains was the Blue River.  I turned onto the road, Forest Road 567, and started to make my way towards the River.  The Blue River is famous for it's fishing, and because it is underbirded, I thought, "Could I possibly find cool things to make it a known location to go birding often".  Probably not, but I could speculate.  As I drove down road 567, I added a snacking Red-tailed Hawk and Clark's Nutcracker to my small Greenlee list.

As I drove further into the wilderness on Forest Road 567, I saw that the Blue River was further than I thought it was going to be.  The scenery changed drastically, and so did the road.  I had come four miles, and the last 9 miles to the river was a drop down steep and narrow road.  I had told my parents I would spend the second half of the day with them and I had to be back early in the afternoon.  It was already late in the morning, so the Blue River had to be put on hold.  On my next trip, I hope to explore this area more, cause it looks awesome.  Who knows what possibly awaited me in these awesome valleys below?  Maybe next time.

I decided to finish out my Greenlee County exploration by driving a few miles of other dirt roads.  After spending a lot of time on the Aker Lake Trail and then trying to get a lot of birding in a short time resulted in a low bird list of under 40 species.  At least I got my foot in another county, which felt great!  Greenlee County, you will see me more in the future.

On my way home after crossing back into Apache County, I ran through Alpine and decided to stop at the nearby Luna Lake, which has awesome birding.  I only had a few minutes to scan the lake, but I noticed that there were a lot of Eared Grebes nearby.  As I looked closer, I could see many young grebes, some of which were riding on their parents' backs.  This is always a neat thing to see, and I saw this earlier on the trip with my friends.  I then looked in front of me to see a family of Eared Grebes (a male and female, and grebelet), close by!  The Eared Grebelet was on it's mother's back, and both parents were taking turns feeding the small bird.  Since this post certainly has a lack of photos compared to the other posts I've written on the White Mountains, this series of Eared Grebe family pictures can make up for that.

With his mate and young grebelet, Mr. Eared certainly had a lot to be proud of.

I consider my trip to be a success, even though I didn't find the Spotted Owls or have a bird list to really talk about.  But I did explore a new area, and I know what to better expect next time around.  The Eared Grebes were something else, and were awesome to watch and photograph.  And I guess one of my next goals is to see a Mexican Gray Wolf.  Stay tuned for more posts from my White Mountain trip, because there are a lot more coming.  We aren't even halfway there yet!  

-Wolf howl (awoooooooooooo!)


  1. Phew! Greenlee County sounds like the last AZ frontier now. The prospect of all that exploration in such an under-birded area is pretty exciting. Sweet post.

  2. Thanks Laurence!

    We should take a trip over there sometime and find some cool stuff. It's a trek there but it's awesome.

  3. Great photos and looks of the Eared Grebes! Nice start to an underbirded county in Arizona.

    1. Thanks Gordon!

      Greenlee seems like it's gonna be extra fun in the future. Those Grebes were awesome, I'm glad they came as close as they did!

  4. Exciting! The wolves would have been a highlight for me as well. I'm glad that there are these remote places for wildlife to exist. Excellent adventure!

    1. Thanks Chris! That's one of my new goals now, to see a Mexican Gray Wolf. Next summer, if it works out we all go up to the White Mountains again, I was thinking it would be cool if we explore some of Greenlee County. Maybe we can find a wolf too.....

  5. I see you really took my tip to heart. 40 species is good for the conifer forest.

    I've encountered wolves in Greenlee County. I was back-packing and was hours from anything. They started howling as if to call more wolves. I too felt concern but wanted to exalt in the experience. I don't need wolves to have danger solo back-packing in such wilderness.

    One Year I had over 60 active Eared Grebe nests on Luna Lake. Best bird at Luna: Sandhill Crane.

    Really terrific crossing paths and meeting your family in Mt. Baldy Wilderness, like a dream.


  6. Hi David!

    Thanks for stopping by. That is really cool that you have encountered wolves in Greenlee County. I would love to see one, I wish they would have shown themselves. Your encounter sounds 100 times creepier than my encounter, which mine technically wasn't an encounter.

    That is a great Eared Grebe count for Luna Lake, I should've taken more time to count the totals of the birds while I was there. I did get to see that Sandhill Crane at Luna Lake, which was my life bird on July 4th, 2003 (and my birthday!).

    It was awesome running into you at Mt. Baldy as well. I was really wanting to go into Greenlee badly on the trip, and when you told me about that trail and it's surroundings it clinched my decision to go there. What a great place the White Mountains are, too much to explore!