Monday, May 8, 2017

When Eurasia Visits Mormon Lake, Arizona

May 5th started off as a rather normal day of birding.  Then it was and then it wasn't.  I was seeing normal birds to high elevations in central Arizona such as Greater Pewee, Downy Woodpecker, Red-faced Warbler, Painted Redstart, and Hepatic Tanager.  But I was exploring a mountain range that I had never stepped foot into, and that was Gila County's Sierra Ancha Mountains.  This place was incredibly beautiful, with thick mixed conifer and oak forests, towering cliffs, scenic views, and even a breathtaking waterfall.  The Sierra Ancha was something to be excited about, and I planned on spending most of the day within the range.  After birding a key area for about four hours, I then did what I have found myself doing on a lot of trips.  I'll drive to my furthest point of possible exploration, and then I'll slowly bird my way back rather than vice versa.  I like this form of exploring, it puts me in more of a relaxed and un-rushed state of mind.  When I got into the northern reach of birding points, I got cell phone service for the first time in the day.  I heard my cell phone go off.  Thinking that it was going to be my blood brother, it actually turned out to be my birding brother, Caleb Strand.  Caleb's text read, "Common Crane at Mormon Lake.  I know your probably out of cell service, but thought you'd wanna know if you do have cell service".

I didn't want to leave the Sierra Ancha Wilderness that day.  In fact, I was a little mad.  It was 11:15 A.M. in the morning, and here I was exploring this gorgeous area for the first time in my life.  The Sierra Anchas had my pumped up, they had me stoked.  And now, there was this bird, haunting me, and I knew if I continued back south into Highway 288 to explore more and more of the Ancha territory it would bug me more and more.  Truth be told, I've always wanted to see a Common Crane.  This huge bird is a handsome product of Eurasia.  It breeds from Northern Europe east through Northern Eurasia to East Russia, and it winters from south Eurasia to sub-Saharan e Africa (Rare Birds of North America by Will Russell, Ian Lewington, and Steve N.G. Howell).  With that range, it doesn't seem a bird like a Common Crane would have much business here in North America.  But actually, the Common Crane has become almost annual somewhere in North America.  It is usually discovered in Alaska, western Canada, and especially the Great Plains and the Midwest.  Usually, it is found within huge flocks of Sandhill Cranes, where picking a Common Crane out of the huge flocks of Sandhills can be a daunting and time consuming task.  Both Sandhill and Common Cranes breed in eastern Russia, and it is thought that Sandhills migrating to North America from those locations who winter in places like the Great Plains are joined occasionally by Common Crane.  The two have even hybridized in North America and sometimes, Common Cranes have showed up and stayed for long periods of time.  Providence comes into question when Common Cranes show up further east of the Midwest and the Great Plains, which has happened also.  In recent years, Common Cranes showed up in two of Arizona's neighboring states:  Nevada and New Mexico.  It was at these locations where Common Cranes were mixed in with thousands of Sandhill Cranes.  I had birding buddies go to chase each bird, especially the one in New Mexico.  There were times I considered going, but I passed up on the long drives.  Those pass ups really put the want in my blood to see a Common Crane.  And in the oddest possible moment, I had the chance right in front of me to chase it.

When I found out about the Mormon Lake report, I was very frustrated.  I wanted to see this bird, but then I didn't want to leave the Anchas.  I hiked up a drainage for a few minutes in the Anchas to look for a Spotted Owl.  The Crane was kicking my brain.  I made it back to my truck, turned mobile data on, and figured the drive to Mormon Lake was 3 hours and 15 minutes.  That seemed far to me.  After a few more minutes of brain toggling, I said "Screw it, I'm going for the Crane!".  After all, the Anchas will always be in Arizona, they won't fly to Eurasia.  Secondly, it was later in the morning, and bird activity was only going to decrease.  Thirdly, I had a great half day already in the Anchas and seeing a Common Crane would be an epic second half of the day elsewhere and would only leave me craving a return to the Anchas even more.  So I made the decision, and it was really a no-brainier.  And the drive was a far one.  I went north the rest of the way on Highway 288 through Young and Pleasant Valley.  About 25 miles had to be driven on dirt road.  It seemed to take forever to reach the Highway 260, a paved paradise.  It was here that I would drive west to Payson to Highway 87.  I would then take Highway 87 north for 40 miles to Lake Mary Road, and then Lake Mary Road to Mormon Lake Road.  The ride seemed to take forever, but all of it was through coniferous woodlands, my favorite scenery.  And all for a Common Crane, in which as the Crane flies, Mormon Lake was only 70-80 miles from the Anchas, but there obviously isn't a straight highway that goes from this particular Point A to Point B.  Caleb Strand, Joshua Smith and I even talked about this vagrant possibility to Arizona back in February on our Greenlee County trip.  I knew how common Sandhill Cranes were in Greenlee County, especially around Duncan.  A question came in my mind when the idea came into my head on the trip, "Hey guys, if there was a state record to be found this weekend in Greenlee County, what would it be?"  Caleb and Josh were stumped at first, but when I said Common Crane, they seemed to kinda agree a little.  We concluded that it would be much more likely at Willcox Playa, where thousands of Sandhill Cranes winter, but the fields of Greenlee could be another possibility.  And it's funny that we talked about this, because there was this single Common Crane at Mormon Lake as I was driving in it's direction for over three hours.  Perhaps this bird was in Cochise or Greenlee County with thousands of Sandhill Cranes at one recent point?  Maybe it wanted to take the scenic route...

Around 2:40 P.M, I arrived at Mormon Lake after leaving the Sierra Anchas at 11:20 A.M. that day on May 5th.  I was overwhelmed a little because my phone battery was very low, and I needed it for navigation.  Mormon Lake is unique among Arizona lakes, due to the fact that it is Arizona's only natural lake.  Mormon is huge, and as I drove up, I saw that it had a lot of water in it, something that hasn't happened in a long time.  The water was by no means high, but a level of water is better than no level.  Before this mega rare bird showed up, Mormon Lake was getting birding attention everyday.  There were plenty of birds being found, including large flocks of Black-bellied Plovers as well as a few Snowy Plovers.  Knowing that this was Arizona's first ever Common Crane, I knew that I would have plenty of company from other birders.  When I got closer to the lake, I turned on mobile data and saw a dis-heartening report come in from my buddy Gordon Karre.  He said he watched the Crane for a few minutes, and then it flew off and went over a ridge to the north.  I didn't lose hope at all, knowing that if it flew away then it could certainly come back.  The bird was originally being seen at the northwest side of Mormon, but some who had seen it earlier in the day said it would fly around the lake a lot.  I then looked on the Facebook Arizona Birding group, and Chuck Larue reported that he re-found it after Gordon lost it by a place near the lake called Double Springs Campground.  After typing in Double Springs on my phone, I saw that it was a three minute drive.  I sped over to the spot quickly.  As I turned a corner, I had an open and rather close view of the west Mormon Lake shore.  As I pulled over just north of the Double Springs turnoff, I saw a huge flock of White-faced Ibis that were joined my a mixed flock of Egrets.  Right away, I noticed a huge bird walking and wading in the marsh nearby, and right when I lifted up my binoculars, I saw that it was the Common Crane!  Good grief!  The load of pressure to find the mega-rarity was lifted off my chest in a matter of seconds.

Although the Common Crane was very distant from a photographic standpoint, the views of it that I had through my scope were amazing.  This bird was stunning, and seeing it's head and neck pattern really blew my away.  It's ivory colored bill, black throat and crown, as well as it's broad white stripe that goes from the back of it's eye to the back of it's long neck stood out even in looking through binoculars.  Common Cranes are said to be wary birds, and this one sure was.  After two minutes of watching this bird and with me wanting to get a closer look, something spooked the ibis, egret, and Canada Goose flocks nearby and it spooked the crane too.  The Crane flew even further, and this time, it was very very small in the scope.

The fact that this bird was in Coconino County, Arizona, at Mormon Lake, didn't seem right to me.  But I was loving every second of it!

I decided to go and try to get a better look at the crane after it flew.  Factoid wise, this bird was actually found on May 4th by Kathryn Hart, but she reported it was a Sandhill Crane.  Birder Roger Sleeper came to the lake during this same day in the morning of May 5th, and found it to be what Kathryn's picture really made it look to be, which was Arizona's first ever Common Crane.  Anywhere in the ABA, this bird is an epic one to see.  And by golly, was I ever glad I made the drive to see this bird.  After some navigating around the lake, I came to a point where I re-found the Common Crane at a better angle.  Once again, my scope views were good, but it would take a much closer walk out to the bird's area for my cameras to get something good.

Before I had that chance, the Common Crane took flight again.  However, my scope views of the bird were phenomenal from this point.

A Common Crane over the Flagstaff area conifers, I wonder if Arizona will see this sequence every again...

The bird soared and flew above the lake for about ten minutes before it landed again.  This time, it landed near where I first saw only a little further north and it was right by the road!!!  From my angle, it was still in a good scope view.  I wanted to get back to the spot along the road quickly because I knew that this would be my best chance of getting a decent photograph of the bird.  On my way back to my truck, I found my birding friend Dale Clark looking out at the lake.  Dale didn't see me yet, but I knew that this Common Crane was his 500th Arizona bird.  In the birding world in Arizona, reaching 500 is considered the Holy Grail, and Dale was at 499 before this bird.  I have quite a ways to go before 500, as this bird was my 455th for Arizona.  As I got closer to Dale, I yelled out to him, "Did ya get it?!!?".  To my surprise, Dale hadn't even seen the bird yet.  Dale said, "No, I went over to Lake Mary after I read it went north and I'm now getting back over here".  I ran up to Dale and said, "Dale, look through the scope".  Seeing Dale look through my scope to get his highly desired goal of 500 birds in Arizona was epic.  Dale looked for a few minutes, and then we were speeding up the road while the Common Crane was still foraging at the spot near the road.

As Dale and I pulled up, the mega was still right there!

It was at this point that I would get the best of views that I would get of the Common Crane that I would get before it flew even further away.  Dale and I didn't care, we stopped along the road, put our hazard lights on, and snapped away.  If I would've put my camera on manual focus, my photos may have turned out a lot better than they are.  But for a mega-rarity like this, I'm thankful enough.  Dale on the other hand, has a much better camera than I, so his pictures, yeah...

Mormon Lake had other good birds around too.  I got 7 or 8 new birds for Coconino County for the county lister that I am!  Other birds I enjoyed were Snowy and Cattle Egrets, Purple Martin, a fly-by Williamson's Sapsucker, Franklin's Gulls, American Avocets, a Bald Eagle scaring birds on the lake, Common Goldeneye, and more among 44 species at the lake in 4 hours.  Birders would eventually pile up in hopes of getting a look at the impressive Common Crane.  I also joined by Brian Johnson, Barb Meding, Chuck Larue, and Anita Ojeda.  We had decent scope views from where the Crane was in the distance.  Yve Morrell, a kind lady doing an ABA Big Year, was on her way up from southeastern Arizona to try for the Common Crane after landing Rufous-capped Warbler.  She was in touch with Brian Johnson.  When she was nearby, we all lost sight of the Crane after keeping tabs on it for a long time.  We didn't know where it went, and we were a little nervous.  Mark Stevenson and Molly Pollock, two of Arizona's great birders as well as two of Arizona's top listers, pulled up after we lost the bird.  Yve then pulled up.  After scanning and scanning, Brian Johnson worked a miracle and spied the source on the opposite side of the lake, which measured out to be more than three miles away.  The looks were poor through the best of scopes, but everyone could tell it was the bird.  Luckily, everyone made their ways over to the south-east reaches of the lake where the Crane was, and the looks were good once again for the crowd of birders.  Brian sure came up as clutch in the situation!  As the sun started to go down, the light on the Common Crane was awesome.  The bird eventually flew back to the northwestern side of the lake again before we called it a night.  I had a two plus hour drive back to Phoenix in the dark, but this day will go down as a great one in Arizona birding history, as well as my own birding history.

As far as I know, the Common Crane was still present on the night of May 7th, 2017.  Many many more birders got to see this impressive rarity throughout the weekend.  I don't know if it is still at Mormon Lake as I write, but chances are, it probably is.  I hope it continues to continue, because honestly, I'd love to see it again.  It may sound a little greedy, who cares if it does.  This bird is cool, and the area around Mormon Lake is cool too.

I have a lot of catching up to do on this blog.  Stay tuned for many more posts in the near future, many of which will be of past trips in the last month or two.  And one of them will feature those awesome Sierra Ancha Mountains, which I will visit again soon!  To close, lets take another look at my most recent lifer.

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