On Saturday morning I set out on an epic birding journey. The quest was not to find the holy grail nor lost aztec gold. It was to find a fountain, and not just any fountain, but reportedly the tallest fountain in the world. There, and only there, could I find the coveted male Hooded Mergansers, the promise of immortality, and still be home in time for dinner. It turned into a marathon. When all was said and done, I had travelled 26.2 miles. Coincidence? Perhaps...perhaps not.
Like any good day, this one started out as night. Before the sun was up, I swung by the Papago Park ponds to check for a single female Hooded Merganser residing there since early October. She was still around but unavailable for photos. The water was very calm, disturbed only by the occasional Snowy Egret out after the early bird special.
As the sun began to rise, rafts of Ring-necked Ducks and Mallards also started to stir, their yellow eyes opening to the yellow light.
Some of the other common desert denizens began their morning routines as well. The clucking of Gamble's Quail emanated from the surrounding scrub, while impatient Mockingbirds looked for the day's first targets to harass.
And of course, no southwestern desert scene would be complete without lots of Verdins bubbling about in the mesquite trees. As is apparent from their facial coloration, these birds spend lots of time staring at the sun. This tendency gains them ancient wisdom, powerful headaches, and lots of energy.
As pleasant as early morning at Papago was, the journey to Fountain Hills beckoned. Some 23 miles northeast of Phoenix was the Fountain of Youth and its Hooded Mergansers, and I had to get there or die trying or, worst of all, wait until the next weekend! As if to reinforce the seriousness of this quest, a portentously stern Curve-billed Thrasher was waiting by the car, looking, where else, but to the northeast.
Resting in the valley of the McDowell mountain range, Fountain Hills park is a lovely expanse of green and water, surrounded by scenic mountain-scapes all underneath a big bushy sky. It is part of a master-planned community and Fountain Hills has a very suburban feel to it, but the blue sky and moist air still make one feel rejuvenated.
I was greeted with a rainbow upon my arrival, but soon I realized that finding the Mergansers around this lake would be no easy task. To make any progress whatsoever I would have to fight my way through Coots, legions and legions of Coots!
There were hundreds of American Coots around the lake, their dark masses undulating and sweeping over the grassy hills devouring all in their path and crushing all resistance beneath their large lobed feet.
On land or water, they terrorized everyone their path, and when nobody else was around, they'd turn on each other. These ungainly creatures would often take big running starts to build up momentum and then plough into other unsuspecting Coots, stirring up the water and making terrific amounts of noise.
And yet, even in the face of this hostility, other gentler birds found their peace and prosperity at the Fountain Lake. I crawled slowly along the Fountain Lake banks, hoping to get some close up shots of a Greater Yellowlegs, a bird with which I am not afforded many photographic opportunities in Phoenix.
Everything was going well, the bird was coming in range, and then..BLAH!!!
Ugh, photo-bombed by a Coot. Such a bully...
Eventually I circled around to where the Coot numbers were thinner and the concentration of other waterfowl was much higher. Here American Wigeons and Lesser Scaup mingled with Eared Grebes, keeping a rigid society where Coots were not welcome.
The Lesser Scaup were particularly active and fun. Have you ever noticed how lots of duck beaks look like little masks that are shaped like dog heads? Somebody mentioned that to me once, and now that always comes to mind when looking at ducks. What are Mr. and Mrs. Scaup hiding behind the mask?
Eventually persistence and circuitous walking paid off. Lots of the waterfowl stayed out towards the middle of the lake, well away from the Coots and the shoreline traffic. Normally these birds would be too distant, but using a pair on on-loan Swarovski nocs', which have unparalleled resolution and focus, I could ID all of the duckies even at great range. I got a sight on some Hoodies and tracked them around the lake, until eventually they came closer to the shore, accompanied also by a male Ruddy Duck.
Though far away, the Hooded Mergansers were unmistakable. The quest was complete, the marathon was done. Since my visit last weekend their numbers have only grown, with over one dozen now reported at the lake, both males and females and all the drama that brings.
As if on cue, the world's largest fountain, which shoots off every hour from the center of the lake, erupted in triumphant recognition.