Venture to New Mexico: Bosque del Apache, Las Vegas & Sandia Mountains

February 7 – 13, 2022

Narrative by Simon Thompson; Photos by Simon Thompson and Alan Lenk

Some flew and others drove, but we all met at the hotel near the Albuquerque Airport that first evening. After a good beer at a local brew pub and some planning, we adjourned for the night ready to look at waterfowl in the morning.

Our first stop was Tingley Lagoon along the Rio Grande in Albuquerque where many wild ducks had joined the armies of domestic Mallard and Canada Geese – with some of them so close we could get full-frame photos of American Wigeon, Wood and Ringnecked Ducks and Canvasback.

We also got our first Greater Roadrunner of the tour, a bird we would see on a daily basis, but never tire of its antics and character.

The weather at the very bird-rich Rio Grande Nature Center State Park was so pleasant we decided to have a picnic lunch in the sunshine after our birding walk. A small flock of Western Bluebirds was feeding in the parking lot, but unfortunately dispersed before everyone came back for lunch. A brief stop at another park along the Rio Grande produced our second Mexican Duck of the day, along with some beautiful Common Mergansers feeding in the river.

After some more great photographic opportunities for waterfowl we drove south to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge to view the evening waterfowl show from the Flight Deck. Dinner was at the Owl Café in San Antonio, which was appropriate after seeing several Great Horned Owls on our way there!

From our base in Socorro, it was only about an hour south to Bosque, but a stop in the village of San Antonio delayed our arrival the following morning. Birds were everywhere with our first Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay, Pyrrhuloxia and Brewer’s, Black-throated and White-crowned Sparrows in the brushy field edges.

A pale prairie form of Merlin sat atop a nearby pine and the male Phainopepla was one of the many highlights that morning.

The rest of the day was spent at the wonderful Bosque del Apache NWR, where we explored both of the driving loops.

Highlights were many, but included stunning Gambel’s Quail under the feeders, flocks of Snow Geese in the fields (one being eaten by a Coyote!), Bald Eagles, a drake Cinnamon Teal and a small herd (sounder?) of Javelina or Collared Peccary. We finished the day with a beautiful Rough-legged Hawk in the high desert along Route 60 south of Socorro.

It was a change of scenery the next morning as we hiked the snowy and icy road up Water Canyon. This was truly spectacular with breathtaking vistas, rugged cliffs and dense spruce-fir forests. The birding was quiet as it was mid-winter, but by the end of the hike we had seen Pygmy Nuthatch, Mountain Chickadee, Brown Creeper and a beautiful male Williamson’s Sapsucker.

An immature Golden Eagle soared above us as we left the grassland, allowing us to get great photos of this huge bird.

Our picnic was along the shore of Elephant Butte Lake, where huge flocks of American White Pelican, Western Grebe and waterfowl crowded the shallow waters. Bald Eagles and Northern Harriers were constantly flushing the ducks making for a true wildlife spectacle going on in front of us.

After lunch we drove to the southern portion of the lake, looking for a couple of rare gulls. We didn’t find them, but were treated to Clark’s and Western Grebes displaying and some excellent fishing by several Common Mergansers.

Our final stop of the day was at Isolated Lake near Elephant Butte, which we found after driving around in the high desert for a while. Here we had our only American Avocets, Longbilled Dowitchers and Least Sandpipers of the trip- nice to get a few shorebirds.

After a thwarted attempt at dinner by one of the chain restaurants we did find a Mexican seafood restaurant that was happy to accept us walking in without reservations! Then it was a longish drive up to Las Vegas which was to be our base for the next couple of nights.

Las Vegas is an historic town and more manageable than its famous namesake and the 2 nights here gave us some great birding opportunities in the northern part of New Mexico. We started the next morning at Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge- a rather windswept area of prairie interspersed with hedgerows and stands of stunted and weather-beaten cottonwoods. A magnificent Ferruginous Hawk was the welcoming raptor at the Headquarters Hedgerow and allowed for some great photos.

This was followed by several more Ferruginous Hawks, a very obliging Rough-legged Hawk and a Prairie Falcon – all nicely teed up atop telephone poles. Large numbers of Mountain Bluebirds added their sky-blue coloration to the raptor show, along with bright yellow Western Meadowlarks.

Unfortunately most of the local lakes and reservoirs were frozen and any open water was crowded with waterfowl. Redhead were the most abundant, along with Common Merganser, Gadwall, Lesser Scaup and a pair of Common Goldeneye adding to the mix.

The rest of the afternoon was fairly quiet, but we tracked down our target American Dipper along the Pecos River, along with Black-billed Magpie and a handful of Black-capped Chickadees and Dark-eyed Juncos.  Unfortunately we dipped on the Pinyon Jays that had been reported at Pecos National Historic Park and they were even absent on our return visit the following morning.

Dinner that night was at the historic Plaza Hotel, which has been featured in several movies, including Diamonds are Forever, Back to the Future 2 and No Country for Old Men. This was excellent and a welcome break from Southwestern meals, which we had been having on a daily basis. This magnificent hotel had been completely renovated since our last visit when the windows let in all the cold air as 7” snow fell overnight!

After our second visit to Pecos NHP we headed for some culture in New Mexico’s capital of Santa Fe. A walk at the Randall Davey Audubon Center produced our only Juniper Titmouse of the tour, and allowed us views of several races of Dark-eyed Junco as they fed beneath the feeders. A Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay also sat in the open allowing photographs. After a delicious pizza lunch we had time to wander and explore the center of town and historic Plaza before continuing to some stake-out Barrow’s Goldeneye on the Rio Grande near the town of Espanola.

Despite the traffic, noise from the nearby homes and a stray dog, we managed great views (and photos) of the four remaining birds. I assume the larger number of birds that had been reported had moved north over the last week or so, but thankfully some had lingered until we were around!

Dinner and overnight was back in Albuquerque where some of us went back out for a snack and beer- the pizza at lunchtime had filled us all up!

The following morning we made another trip to Tingley Lagoon to look for a reported Greater Scaup. No Scaup of any flavor was to be found, but we watched the Neotropic Cormorants carrying sticks and displaying at their nest sites.

Then it was to be one of the highlights of the trip – if everything went according to plan and the birds cooperated. Sandia Peak is nationally famous as being THE spot to see all 3 species of Rosy-Finches during the winter months. But…….they can be super-unreliable and a lot of patience is often needed waiting for the flock to drop in to the feeding station. We drove up the mountainous winding road as a hoar frost painted all the trees in a frosty glow.

A pair of Red Crossbills flushed up from the roadside where they had probably been feeding on grit, and a Steller’s Jay gave us a few brief views before disappearing into the forest. Thankfully we had barely been atop the peak when the flock of Rosy-Finches appeared out of nowhere and landed in a bare tree. That was a huge relief.

We meandered down the mountain and decided to head over to Embudito Canyon for lunch and some desert brush birding. Unfortunately there were no picnic tables to be found, so we all went birding while Chris put on the lunch spread.

The birding was quite different to anything else on the tour, and we added Cactus Wren, Canyon Towhee, Rufous-crowned Sparrow and Curve-billed Thrasher, plus it was interesting to bird in Cholla cactus habitat at the foot of the Sandia Mountains.

The rest of the afternoon was spent hiking around Los Poblanos Open Space; a large park where a Western Screech-Owl had been seen consistently in one of the nest boxes. We waited around until late in the afternoon, when owls traditionally appear at their nest holes, but there was no sign of it. Thankfully we re-found it in a different box- allowing for some great views.

A great day and then to dinner; always a challenge these days, but with perseverance we found a local bistro- “Two Cranes” where we had a most enjoyable evening meal.

Some folks left early the next morning, while those of us remaining spent the morning at Petroglyph National Monument- a very impressive area with yes, petroglyphs, but also with Rock Wren and Crissal Thrasher.

We finished the trip with 119 species and 40 eBird checklists! A great trip to a beautiful part of the country and thanks to everyone who joined it and made it so enjoyable.

Simon Thompson

More Birds by Alan Lenk:

One thought on “Venture to New Mexico: Bosque del Apache, Las Vegas & Sandia Mountains”

  1. Alan- Your photos are really wonderful, and your commentary had me experiencing this fantastic trip once again. Thank you, and looking forward to seeing you on another trip soon!

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