Last Thursday I led a Jay’s Bird Barn-sponsored bird walk to Willow Lake. We started on the south shore and almost immediately discovered two good sized birds of prey sitting in a dead Ponderosa pine tree up in the granite boulders. They were really far away and the sun was behind them, so they were pretty much just a silhouette, making a positive identification really challenging.
My first impression was that one of the birds might have been a buteo and the other a falcon, which would have been unusual to have two different birds of prey species in close proximity to one another.
The only way to tell was to get closer, so we started walking toward them. Before we got very far, both birds took flight, disappearing behind the rocks, only to reappear moments later out over the open water, flying low and fast. It turns out that both birds were juvenile peregrine falcons! What added to the thrill of seeing peregrines was observing their behavior – it was as if they were frolicking in midflight. I suspect, based on their behavior, that these two juveniles were probably nest mates and were enjoying some sibling time together.
The falcons first flew west out over the lake, then they doubled back and split up. One landed on a rocky pinnacle and the other returned to the dead tree. At one point the falcon in the tree sallied out and attempted to catch a flying insect, perhaps a butterfly – behavior I have never observed before from a peregrine. I suspect it was honing its hunting skills, as peregrines are notorious for taking birds right out of the air.
There were the usual suspects in the lake – mallards, coots, pied-billed grebes, ruddy ducks, and even some cinnamon teal, but not much else. We saw a great blue heron, three great egrets and a lot of cormorants. Overall, the south shore was pretty quiet. I was hoping to find some migrating shore birds such as sandpipers or avocets and stilts, but the only shorebirds we saw were a few killdeer and a lone ibis in flight.
The weedy area between Willow Lake Road and the lake was super quiet. We could hardly rustle up a bird, so we decided to drive around to the north side and see what we could find there. It was a good decision. As we exited the car, we immediately heard a variety of bird species – a crissal thrasher here, a phainopepla there, chipping sparrows, lark sparrows, juniper titmice, western scrub-jay, spotted towhee, ladder-backed woodpecker, lazuli bunting, lesser goldfinch and Bullock’s oriole. It was a smorgasbord of birds! Within minutes, we had probably doubled our species count for the day.
Most years, Willow Lake is a much better place to view shorebirds, but so far this year, Watson Lake has been more productive. The water level at Watson Lake is so low, extensive mudflats are exposed, uncovering an expansive area that was under water just a few weeks ago. Just this week, some of the birds observed on the mudflats at Watson Lake include stilts, dowitchers, yellowlegs, willet, ibis, sandpipers, semipalmated plover and a forester’s tern.
This time of year, the number of birds and the variety of birds at the lakes changes every day because of migration. A good pair of binoculars or a spotting scope is helpful when bird watching at the lakes, as usually the birds are pretty far away. Great places to view Watson Lake are the Peavine trail in the morning and the lookout on Highway 89 in the evening.
Until next week, Happy Birding!