Venture to New Mexico

January 15-22

With Johnny Wilson

Narrative and photos by Johnny Wilson

A group of five birders arrived in Albuquerque on the evening of January 14 ready for a New Mexican winter adventure of note. During dinner we listed our target birds while enjoying our first taste of New Mexican food for the trip. Everyone went to bed early, eagerly awaiting what birds the next few days will produce.

After breakfast on January 15, it was first time for a little twitching: we headed to Balloon Fiesta Park, an enormous 86-acre balloon launch field where we easily spotted a single very lost Brant among hundreds of Canada Geese.

Then it was time to look for a few local birds at Los Poblanos Open Space. Even before we reached the Space, we saw several Sandhill Cranes along the way, some even foraging in neighborhood gardens! Los Poblanos hosted about 20 more cranes, as well as a Say’s Phoebe and Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay. The resident Western Screech-Owls were unfortunately hiding in their nest box, so we agreed to try again later. Brief visits to various locations along the Rio Grande River to the west of town yielded a group of Evening Grosbeaks, opportunities to directly compare Eastern Bluebirds and Western Bluebirds, an out-of-range Pacific Wren singing his heart out, a wide range of waterfowl, and a mammal surprise in the form of a North American Porcupine. We ended the night in the small town of Socorro, an ideal base for the waterbird spectacle awaiting us the next day.

One of the highlights of our near-annual ventures to New Mexico is the visit to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

Our 2023 visit once again didn’t disappoint, with hundreds of Snow Geese, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, and Green-winged Teal, as well as tens of American Wigeon, Gadwall, Ring-necked Duck, Bufflehead, Ruddy Duck, Redhead, and Canvasback in attendance. Other birds associated with the Refuge’s wetlands were Bald Eagle, American Pipit, Long-billed Dowitcher, and Marsh Wren, while areas away from the water hosted Ladder-backed Woodpecker, both Common Raven and Chihuahua Raven, Gambel’s Quail, Red-shafted Flicker, and Sagebrush Sparrow. A highlight in the Refuge’s farmland was a large flock of Sandhill Cranes, while we also spent some time enjoying a murmuration created by around 1,500 Red-winged Blackbirds (a couple hundred Brewer’s Blackbirds were also present).

We did break the day at Bosque del Apache with lunch at a cafe in the nearby town of San Antonio, while we also used the opportunity away to visit a nearby ranch where we saw Chestnut-collared Longspur, Horned Lark, Prairie Falcon, and Ferruginous Hawk.

We had to hustle on the third day to get to Las Animas Creek (about 100 miles south of our hotel) while birds were still active in the morning. Fortunately, we made it in good time with the result that we saw nearly all our targets rather quickly. Among the highlights were about 40 Gambel’s Quail, several groups of Acorn Woodpeckers, as well as Bridled Titmouse, Brewer’s Sparrow, Black-throated Sparrow, Lesser Goldfinch, Curve-billed Thrasher, and a very cute Verdin.

Next was a brief hike at Percha Dam State Park which yielded an out-of-season Hammond’s Flycatcher and Vermillion Flycatcher, as well as huge flocks of Gadwall and American Wigeon in the irrigated fields nearby. Ceballo Lake State Park produced the trip’s first Red-naped Sapsucker and Phainopepla, as well as several Clark’s Grebes among more common Western Grebes.

We ended the day with a drive through Elephant Butte Lake State Park where we spotted Mexican Duck, Rock Wren, Canyon Towhee, more Pyrrhuloxia, Curve-billed Thrasher, and Verdin, as well as several more Clark’s Grebes among the more numerous Western Grebes.

Wednesday, January 18 started off at “The Box”, a scenic recreational area managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Popular among rock climbers, the canyon didn’t disappoint our group of birders with Rock Wren, Canyon Wren, and Townsend’s Solitaire easily found. Snow and slippery conditions complicated progress at nearby Water Canyon in the Cibola National Forest, so we decided to cut this visit short after seeing a few Mountain Chickadees and a lone Brown Creeper. Spirits were lifted on the way out as a pond along the Water Canyon entrance road yielded at least one Thick-billed Longspur among about 80 Chestnut-collared Longspurs. The area’s grasslands also proved worthy of attention as we saw at least one recently described Chihuahua Meadowlark among the more numerous Western Meadowlarks.

We then made a chance stop at Bernardo Wildlife Management Area which turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. Thousands of Sandhill Cranes greeted us as we turned into this location, while a flock of approximately 3,000 Snow Geese—we also spotted at least six Ross’ Geese—rested right in front of the WMA’s viewing platform. After this wildlife spectacle, it was time to head north towards the historical district of Santa Fe where we spent an hour or so exploring this touristy town’s creative arts and Pueblo-style architecture.

The next leg of our New Mexico Venture saw us visiting the cold, windswept grasslands of Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge. A highlight here was a herd of Elk/Wapiti and a lone Golden Eagle, but we also managed to see Mountain Bluebird and even a few Sandhill Cranes. The Las Vegas birding scene did seem a bit quiet, so we took a break from the grasslands by visiting the nearby Storrie Lake State Park where we saw Black-billed Magpie, two Rough-legged Hawks, a very out-of-range Rusty Blackbird, and five Common Goldeneye among numerous other species of waterfowl.

Our route back to Las Vegas NWR yielded a large flock of Cackling Goose, while our second visit to Las Vegas produced Loggerhead Shrike, American Tree Sparrow, and both the Oregon and Pink-sided forms of Dark-eyed Junco. We ended the day on the scenic Pecos-Cowes Road where we saw two groups of Wild Turkey, several Steller’s Jays, Pygmy Nuthatch, Townsend’s Solitaire, Mountain Chickadee, and a contender for bird of the trip—several American Dippers. We ended the day viewing prehistorical architectural ruins at the Pecos National Historical Park.

Our journey back to Albuquerque included several birding stops, starting with bird feeders in the Eldorado neighborhood of Santa Fe which produced Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay, Juniper Titmouse, Evening Grosbeak, Cassin’s Finch, Pine Siskin, and Spotted Towhee. Our search for Pinion Jay was complicated by blizzard conditions and we were somewhat worried what this meant for our visit to Sandia Crest. Fortunately, the difficult conditions did not extend up to Sandia Crest, usually a highlight of our New Mexico Ventures.

While conditions were very cold, trip participants had several opportunities to see the stars of the show, Rosy-Finches, with Brown-capped Rosy-Finch, Black Rosy-Finch, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch and Hepburn’s Rosy-Finch all making an appearance.

Our last morning in New Mexico saw us heading to Embudito Canyon on the eastern fringe of Albuquerque where we had an opportunity to study Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Juniper Titmouse, Canyon Towhee, Curve-billed Thrasher, and at least three forms of Dark-sided Junco: Oregon, Pink-sided, and Gray-headed.

After a quick visit to the nearby Tijeras Pueblo Archaeological Site, we headed to Tingley Lagoon in the heart of Albuquerque where we saw the first Neotropical Cormorants of our trip, as well as very tame Wood Duck, Canvasback, American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Redhead, Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, and Hooded Mergansers clearly used to being fed by visitors.

We then spent a little more than an hour at the Petroglyph National Monument viewing several pieces of rock art carved by ancestral Pueblo peoples and early Spanish settlers.

We ended the day and trip back at Los Poblanos Open Space where we were finally successful in seeing a very sweet and inquisitive Western Screech-Owl.

Our Venture to New Mexico finished with 133 bird species. Mammal highlights included North American Porcupine and Elk/Wapiti, while we also saw Mule Deer, Desert Cottontail, Hispid Cotton Rat, and Coyote. We enjoyed several historical sites and amazing scenery and tasted some delicious New Mexican food. We sometimes encountered very cold and snowy conditions, but that just added to the adventure. Thank you everyone who came on and made this a very enjoyable tour.

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