--Flagstaff that is, or rather, the high elevation environments near Flagstaff that provide wonderful, unique, and existentially essential birding! Yes indeed, Arizona birders love their desert dwellers and their southeastern specialties, but sometimes one just needs chilly mountains and pines to complete the holistic birding experience. If those mountains also happen to have high elevation specialists and other cool-temperature loving birds that aren't easily found elsewhere in the state then, well, so be it.
Several weeks ago, some very intriguing reports trickled their way down from up north. A Eurasian Wigeon on Mormon Lake, twenty miles south of Flagstaff, was complimented by sightings of Red Crossbills and Evening Grosbeaks at the Mormon Lake lodge nearby. Heading up a week later, a birding buddy of mine found something even cooler. After successfully scanning the grasslands on the other side of Mormon Lake for Rough-legged Hawk, I parked near the lodge and began scanning. Almost immediately Grosbeak sounds started emanating from the nearby ponderosas, but before getting near these trees I had to cross a drainage ditch.
Like any 2-D video game, these ditches are often treacherous to jump across, and are usually full of dangerous critters. In this case the critters were of some interest, as Chipping Sparrow and Dark-eyed Junco emerged to get the Sparrow count up and running for the day.
That was to be expected, but an odd sighting at ground level was this Pygmy Nuthatch, which was perhaps given the false affirmation by its parents that when it grew up, it could be anything it wanted. Alas, it was clearly not a Junco, no matter how it tried, but I was still willing to accept it for what it was, even if this bird was not being true to itself.
There, that's more like it.
The ground birds were obliging, but all the while I was following them around I couldn't shake the disappointment in how small their beaks were. After all, this trip was about seeing big rude birds with big rude beaks. The calls were still resonating in the ponderosas, and the sighting could be delayed no more.
About twenty feet or so up the trees, there they were. Thirteen of ABA 2012's Bird of the Year. They perched, they flaunted, they exuded all the style and panache to be expected of a former BOY. It was a terrific shame to have missed them in 2012, and a terrific joy to find them in 2013.
The unibrow, the yellow, the broad chest...yes yes this truly was a mighty Bird of the Year, one of the top three there's ever been.
Like many birds, the sexual dimorphism of the Grosbeaks is less kind to the females, who have their own unique charm but are somewhat drab by comparison. For that matter, sometimes they're not too charming either. I think she was a little grumpy to have been bumped off her perch by a Nighthawk, and a Common one no less. Lady Macbeth...
While crouched beneath the ponderosa pines, I was visited by another prominently beaked bird. This was the only Red Crossbill on which I laid eyes throughout the day. It flew into the tree and landed only ten feet away. It was a surprisingly abrupt approach, and in fact I think the bird did not see me, for as soon as it turned its head it was off, leaving my with but a single photo and a lovely memory. What a heartbreaker. That Crossbill has to be one of the coolest example of micro-evolution in North America.
Higher in the ponderosas there was a different group of birds. Woodpeckers lead a life that only other Woodpeckers understand, and perhaps also heavy metal rockers, and hammers--ok anybody who has to smash their face against something for a living.
Some Northern Flickers fed on the ground, but the higher reaches of the Trees belonged to the melanerpes and the picoides. Acorn and Hairy Woodpeckers were the most common, but a few Lewis's Woodpeckers added their peculiar mix of color and attitude to the upper canopies as well.
Also in the area, rather annoyingly, were several Eurasian Collared Doves. These large and chalky doves normally do not bother me, even though they're and invasive and quickly expanding species. In city limits, they provide a nice diversity with the other common doves and feeder birds.
However, seeing them out in the relative pristine of the Mormon Lake woods felt like a violation of sorts. Surely, not here? Is not place safe from these city-slickers? You're in the wrong context Dove!
The Pinyon Jays were elusive to the camera, but Steller's Jays were more than numerous. Bushtits were also abundant, as were Bridled and Juniper Titmouse.
With time starting to run out, I finally got a visual on some Mountain Chickadees as well--of course they were positioned perfectly to have the lighting against them. They were a bit of a hassle but come on, what trip to the mountains is complete without a bird that has Mountain in its name?
This stately Mountain Bluebird on a cattle guard was a lovely punctuation mark to a great day of birding. Riparian habitats, desert scrub, salt marshes, and grasslands all make for beautiful, teeming birding sites, but there is something particularly invigorating, particularly satisfying about birding in montane forests, and for that I salute the Flagstaff.