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The Prescott Daily Courier | Prescott, Arizona

home : features : getting out January 25, 2015


1/16/2013 9:59:00 PM
Birds' belly feathers keep legs, feet warm
Eric Moore
Courier Columnist

Last Saturday was a very cold day - it was about 13 degrees when our little group of birders arrived at the north shore of Willow Lake to cover our assigned area. We stoically braved the elements until the midwinter bald eagle survey ended at 11 a.m.

It was just beginning to get light when we arrived, so there wasn't much to see in the way of birds. We hiked around the shoreline until the sun came up, and then we made our way back to the car. During the first hour and a half we saw red-tailed hawks, northern harrier, Cooper's hawk and a bald eagle in flight.

When we arrived the sky was mostly clear, but before we left the north side of the lake it was snowing! It was amazing to see how quickly the storm moved in. It seemed as though one minute we were witnessing an incredible sunrise on Granite Mountain, and the next minute the mountain disappeared to our view as it was enshrouded in a snowstorm.

The snow was light and didn't really affect our birding too much, but it certainly beautified the landscape. I would estimate that about 90 percent of Willow Lake was frozen over. Patches of open water were here and there, where numerous waterfowl congregated to feed. Not only was most of the lake frozen over, but the ground was frozen, and my hands were freezing!

Back at the car we refueled with some hot chocolate and homemade banana bread! Now we were ready to head back out. We drove around the lake to the south side, where we ran into a fellow birder who had an awesome Swarovski scope.

As we were surveying the variety of birds at the lake, we found a flock of 15 least sandpipers. At first, they were quite skittish, but after a period of time they slowly worked their way towards us to the point that we were able to get excellent looks at them - both with our binoculars and with the scope.

At first, when they were really far away, I noticed one sandpiper hopping on one leg. I thought that it had either an injured leg or even a missing leg, as it appeared to have only one leg. As the flock of sandpipers got closer, I noticed that many of them at one point or another were hopping on one leg. Through careful observation, I realized the sandpipers were practicing a very clever way of conserving body heat.

Bare feet and legs lose a lot of body heat - just ask a woman wearing sandals and a dress on a cold day. By tucking one leg up into their belly feathers and exposing only one leg and foot to the extreme cold, the sandpipers were reducing the loss of body heat by half. After hopping around on one foot for a period of time, they would switch legs, alternating back and forth. What brilliant birds!

We saw a lot of Canada Geese, eight snow geese, two tundra swans, (almost sounds like a Christmas song!) and three more bald eagles. Throughout the morning, birds of prey were abundant. We saw several more northern harriers, red-tailed hawks, an American kestrel, and we got great looks at a sharp-shinned hawk.

In the end, the storm passed over, the sky was a beautiful blue and it was a calm, pleasant, albeit cold morning.

For information on upcoming bird walks, check our website at www.jaysbirdbarn.com and call the store at 443-5900 to sign up.

Until next week, Happy Birding!

Eric M. Moore is the owner of Jay's Bird Barn, with two locations to serve northern Arizona - 1046 Willow Creek Road in Prescott, and 2360 State Highway 89A in Sedona. Eric has been an avid birder for over 45 years. If you have questions related to wild birds that you would like discussed, email eric@jaysbirdbarn.com.



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