Winter New Mexico Jan 09—15, 2014

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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From the first afternoon with nearly 10,000 Yellow-headed Blackbirds draping the wires like Christmas garland to the last afternoon with a swirling flock of Black and Brown-capped rosy-finches pouring onto a feeder just 20 feet away, our Winter New Mexico tour was packed with great birds and fantastic bird spectacles. Starting in El Paso, we scoured the Rio Grande Valley and adjacent mountains northward to Albuquerque, tallying 143 species of birds and enjoying some of the best weather ever for this trip.

On our first afternoon, we visited a huge roost site for Yellow-headed Blackbirds. An estimated 8,000 birds came in at once, draping the wires in stunning yellow and black garland. It was a truly incredible spectacle.

Yellow-headed Blackbirds draping the wires - an incredible spectacle.— Photo: Barry Zimmer

In El Paso, we began with a good variety of waterfowl at Ascarate Lake, including striking Common Mergansers, a pair of fabulous Hooded Mergansers, Wood Duck, a rare Greater Scaup (side by side with Lessers), and Common Goldeneye among others. Point-blank comparative studies of Neotropic and Double-crested cormorants followed, and a close perched Ferruginous Hawk was the icing on the cake. Three adorable Burrowing Owls posed outside their burrows along the Rio Grande, as we headed to another part of town. A visit to my yard produced a wealth of rarities including Broad-billed, Allen’s, and Rufous hummingbirds, and a pair of overwintering Hooded Orioles, in addition to more regular fare such as Verdin, Cactus Wren, Curve-billed Thrasher, Spotted Towhee, and Lincoln’s Sparrow. A vagrant Lewis’s Woodpecker was next in line, with Acorn Woodpecker and Steller’s Jays found in the same area. We topped off the day with a quick stop in a desert canyon that yielded the locally uncommon Black-chinned Sparrow, as well as Brewer’s, Black-throated, and White-throated (rare here).

The next day, in the vicinity of Las Cruces, we visited the scenic Aguirre Springs Recreation area of the Organ Mountains, as well as the Jornada Grasslands. Early morning stops on the Jornada resulted in great views of Green-tailed Towhee, the recently split Sagebrush Sparrow, more Black-throated Sparrows, and Pyrrhuloxia. On our short walk at Aguirre Springs, we found Townsend’s Solitaire, Hermit Thrush, Bewick’s Wren, a very rare Townsend’s Warbler, Black-chinned Sparrow, and Rufous-crowned Sparrow, while soaking in the amazing scenery. A late afternoon return to the Jornada produced scope views of three Crissal Thrashers, a great display from a Greater Roadrunner, and some nice Gambel’s Quail.

The desert grasslands of the Jornada proved productive on our second day, beginning with this handsome Black-throated Sparrow.

Black-throated Sparrow.— Photo: Barry Zimmer

Heading further north along the Rio Grande the following day, we tallied all three species of bluebirds, including a recently flooded field adorned with gorgeous Mountain Bluebirds hovering about like turquoise gems. Our first Sandhill Cranes, another Ferruginous Hawk, a few Bald Eagles, Red-naped Sapsucker, a rare Dusky Flycatcher, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Steller’s Jays, and lots of Phainopeplas topped the morning list, while a pair of cute Bridled Titmice (a last-minute find), Clark’s and Western grebes, and two very rare gulls (Glaucous and Lesser Black-backed) supplied afternoon excitement.

On the fourth day we headed north towards Socorro. Quick stops around Elephant Butte Lake produced a good variety of waterfowl (including two rare Greater White-fronted Geese and numbers of Canvasbacks), more Mountain Bluebirds, and some American White Pelicans. By midmorning we had reached Water Canyon, nestled in the north end of the Magdalena Mountains. A stock tank along the entry road yielded flocks of Horned Larks and Chestnut-collared Longspurs, as well as one McCown’s Longspur for some. A Prairie Falcon decided to join the party, chasing larks and longspurs everywhere. A herd of 34 Pronghorns was a nice bonus in this area as well. Further into the canyon we saw Mountain Chickadee and had superb views of our primary target, the Juniper Titmouse. In the afternoon we made our first visit to world-famous Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Upon arrival we were greeted by thousands upon thousands of Ross’s and Snow geese dropping into a roadside ponding area. We were able to walk up to within 30 feet of them and had marvelous comparative studies. Sandhill Cranes glided in overhead as the afternoon progressed. All in all a great day!

A large group of Sandhill Cranes shortly after dawn at Bosque del Apache.

Sandhill Cranes shortly after dawn at Bosque del Apache.— Photo: Barry Zimmer

On our final morning we arrived back at the refuge at dawn. An estimated 55,000 white geese were believed to be on the refuge and we saw most of those in an incredible flight just before 7 AM. Cruising around the refuge loop gave us great studies of thousands of Sandhill Cranes, in addition to two more Ferruginous Hawks, seven or eight Bald Eagles, and two Coyotes. A quick check of the headquarters’ feeders produced a very rare Golden-crowned Sparrow, in addition to Spotted and Green-tailed towhees and four White-throated Sparrows. By midmorning, it was time to depart for the high elevations of Sandia Crest east of Albuquerque. Upon arrival, numbers of Mountain Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Steller’s Jays entertained us as we awaited the hoped for arrival of rosy-finches. Within forty minutes a swirling flock appeared over the crest and swarmed onto the tray feeder. At least 16 Blacks and four Brown-cappeds (both U.S. endemics) were in view at once, no more than 20 feet away! A late afternoon stop at the Rio Grande Nature Center produced 200 or more Cackling Geese, numerous Wood Ducks, a pair of Hooded Mergansers, a Ring-necked Pheasant, and cranes so close you could almost touch them, among others.

In all, we saw nearly 150 species of birds and witnessed incredible spectacles of blackbirds, geese, and cranes. The weather was astounding, reaching a high of 70 one day and never dropping below the mid to upper 20s at night.