Winter New Mexico Jan 05—11, 2012

Posted by Barry Zimmer

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Barry Zimmer

Barry Zimmer has been birding since the age of eight. His main areas of expertise lie in North and Central America, but his travels have taken him throughout much of the wo...

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We arrived at a small ponding area on the north side of Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in mid-afternoon to find roughly 2,000 white geese bathing and resting within a short distance of the parking area. We were able to walk out within 30 feet of some of the birds and had marvelous side by side comparisons of Snow Geese and the diminutive Ross's Geese. Small groups of Sandhill Cranes kept gliding in overhead, rattling and trumpeting as they sailed into the marsh. Suddenly all the geese erupted into the air, at first heading south, and then circling back and flying directly over our heads. The sight and sound of this avian explosion was quite memorable, and when we looked to the east we saw perhaps the cause of the fuss, as an immature Bald Eagle sailed lazily into view.

Heading further into the refuge, we encountered an excellent variety of waterfowl and numerous raptors as we navigated the tour loop. A Ferruginous Hawk just 20 feet outside the van atop a cottonwood was particularly memorable. As dusk approached, we headed back to the roosting pond and found a steady flow of cranes arriving (over 11,000 were estimated to be at the refuge this winter). They came in groups of threes, eights, and tens, and most flew right over us and landed maybe a hundred feet away in the shallow water. Spellbound, we enjoyed the crane spectacle until the rosy sunset faded to dark gray and we knew it was time to tear ourselves away for dinner.

The amazing goose and crane show at Bosque del Apache is but one of many spectacles and highlights of our Winter New Mexico tour. We began in El Paso with a visit to a huge Yellow-headed Blackbird roost. We estimated an incredible 10,000 birds seen (mostly males) as they swirled about in a kaleidoscopic display and rested on the rooftops of nearby horse stables. Other El Paso area highlights included a very obliging pair of Harris's Hawks, an estimated 1,200 Common Mergansers in one morning, two Cackling Geese and a close Ross's Goose, two locally rare Greater Scaup, great studies of a Common Goldeneye, a Golden Eagle, a flock of White-throated Swifts, and three adorable Burrowing Owls. In my yard we enjoyed Anna's and Broad-tailed hummingbirds, a pair of Curve-billed Thrashers, an Orange-crowned Warbler, and a nearby Cactus Wren.

Upriver in the vicinity of Las Cruces we visited the incredibly scenic Organ Mountains and tallied a stunning Prairie Falcon (circling right over our heads), prolonged studies of Scaled Quail, Townsend's Solitaire, Sage Thrasher, one of the most responsive pairs of Crissal Thrashers ever, and a bevy of interesting sparrows including Cassin's (rare in winter), Rufous-crowned, Brewer's, Black-chinned, Black-throated, Sage, and Lark Bunting.

Still further north in and around Percha State Park we added five more Ferruginous Hawks, two more Prairie Falcons, Red-naped Sapsucker, and loads of Western Bluebirds and Phainopeplas. Animas Creek produced the clownish Acorn Woodpecker and the crowd pleasing Bridled Titmouse among others.

Our final spectacle involved the amazing rosy-finches of Sandia Crest. Waiting on the deck of the Crest House with breathtaking (literally) views of the Rio Grande Valley below us, we marveled as the rosy-finches (all three species) appeared suddenly out of nowhere in a swirling flock, and then assailed the tray feeder with a frenzy for a few minutes before disappearing as quickly as they had arrived. We witnessed this three times and had great views of the U.S. endemic Black and Brown-capped, as well as Gray-crowned rosy-finches. In addition, stunning Steller's Jays, frenetic Mountain Chickadees, and a bizarre Abert's squirrel visited the feeder as well.

In all we tallied 140 species of birds, including many highly-sought southwestern specialties, while enjoying the huge concentrations and spectacles of wintering birds in the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico.