Winter New Mexico Jan 04—10, 2017

Posted by Barry Zimmer


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 Percha Dam State Park around 10 AM having already had a stellar morning. The drive from Las Cruces had produced several good birds including wonderful scope studies of Ferruginous Hawk and Prairie Falcon, fields of Sandhill Cranes, and a close Greater Roadrunner among others. We had barely made it out of the cars when a Red-naped Sapsucker was spotted working some nearby pines. While enjoying prolonged scope studies of the sapsucker, a Phainopepla flew in overhead, and several Western Bluebirds appeared in a nearby mistletoe-laden tree.

A Greater Roadrunner, the state bird of New Mexico, scurried along an embankment.

Greater Roadrunner - Photo: Erik Bruhnke


A short walk down to the dam itself yielded a couple of Black Phoebes, a Spotted Sandpiper, an immature Bald Eagle sailing overhead, and more bathing bluebirds as close as fifteen feet away. Starting our walk south along the Rio Grande, we quickly encountered a singing Carolina Wren. This species is accidental in New Mexico (in fact, I had never seen one in the state in 40 years of birding there!), and we had lengthy scope views of the bird sitting right out in the open. We had not even finished looking at the wren when someone spotted a Fox Sparrow scratching in the leaf litter. We had excellent studies of this rarity as well before moving on. We had heard reports of a Great Kiskadee (a tropical flycatcher quite out of place here) that had been present at this site for the past few weeks and were hoping to stumble into this mega-vagrant. As we walked along, we flushed a group of mostly White-crowned Sparrows. Pishing brought several members of the flock up into a small mesquite—a very rare Golden-crowned Sparrow (normally found much further west) was among them! Our luck with finding rarities was getting to be ridiculous. This only increased moments later when a Harris’s Sparrow was also found in the same flock!

Equally as rare was this male Scott's Oriole that provided a tour first!

Scott’s Oriole— Photo: Erik Bruhnke


As we were trying to improve on our views of the sparrows, the Great Kiskadee suddenly called from upstream! Quickly moving in the direction of the call, we spotted the kiskadee perched up high in a bare tree along the river. In the span of about an hour we had found five incredible rarities for the state and had scope views of all but the Golden-crowned Sparrow. I cannot remember having a more successful stretch of locating rare birds in such a short time before. As the day progressed, we added a pair of adorable Bridled Titmice and several Acorn Woodpeckers in Animas Creek. Two very rare Lesser Black-backed Gulls were found near the dam at Caballo, as well as a good mix of diving ducks including Redhead, Canvasback, and Common Goldeneye. We finished the day at Rock Canyon Marina, a part of Elephant Butte Lake State Park, where Clark’s and Western grebes swam side by side, as the sun set in the western sky. This had been an amazing day filled with regional specialties and rare vagrants. Superb weather (sunny skies, no wind, and temperatures in the low 60s) only added to the success.

In fact, our whole tour pretty much followed this recipe—great birds and great weather. We began in El Paso, where we tallied large numbers of roosting Yellow-headed Blackbirds and four Ross’s Geese the first afternoon. The next morning, highlights included a pair of Burrowing Owls, a close, perched Merlin, several Hooded and Common mergansers, and a pair of Monk Parakeets at Ascarate Lake; Broad-billed Hummingbird (accidental), three Hooded Orioles, and a Scott’s Oriole (a tour first) in my yard; Rock and Bewick’s wrens, and Black-chinned and Black-throated sparrows in McKelligon Canyon; and a very rare Costa’s Hummingbird at another private residence.

Afternoon found us at world-famous Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, where Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes filled the fields.

Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes— Photo: Barry Zimmer


The following day was spent in the Las Cruces area, where we added Scaled Quail; Crissal Thrasher; Green-tailed, Spotted, and Canyon towhees; and Rufous-crowned, Cassin’s, Brewer’s, and Black-chinned sparrows; all while enjoying the incredible scenery of the Organ Mountains.

Moving northward from the Percha/Caballo area on Day Five, we found yet another rarity—a Brown Pelican hanging out with American White Pelicans on Elephant Butte Lake. Water Canyon, west of Socorro, yielded Golden Eagle, four Juniper Titmice, Townsend’s Solitaire, and several flocks of Chestnut-collared Longspurs. In the late afternoon, we visited world-famous Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. There we encountered incredible numbers of white geese (Snow and Ross’s) and Sandhill Cranes feeding in the agricultural fields at the north end of the tour loop. We watched and listened as flock after flock passed overhead heading to roosting sites against the backdrop of a wonderful rosy sunset. This was an experience of sight and sound that none of us will ever forget.

Our final day started back at the refuge with a dawn vigil, where we hoped to see a massive morning takeoff of geese. As the eastern sky turned to flaming orange, we could hear the loud cacophony of approaching geese. Suddenly many thousands were visible in the sky, and they were all headed our way. The vast majority of the birds landed almost right in front of us, settled in for ten minutes or so, and then burst into flight once again. The roar of the birds’ wings combined with their deafening barking and cackling vocalizations, as well as the nearby guttural, rattling calls of Sandhill Cranes, created a symphony of the finest sort. Our group stood with jaws open and wonder in their eyes as this amazing event played out in front of us.

We even tallied a couple of the very uncommon

“Hepburn’s” race of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch.— Photo: Barry Zimmer


But there was still work to be done before this tour was over. Sandia Crest, sitting at over 10,600 feet in elevation to the east of Albuquerque, was next on our itinerary. Here we witnessed flocks of rosy-finches swirling about the feeders and nearby trees. All three species (Black, Brown-capped, and Gray-crowned) were seen at close range, as well as the distinct “Hepburn’s” subspecies. Steller’s Jays also visited the Crest House feeders, along with the rosy-finches.

Our final stop was at the Rio Grande Nature Center. There, a dozen or more Wood Ducks lined the pond, a small flock of Cackling Geese fed in a nearby field, and Black-capped and Mountain chickadees visited the feeders.

All in all, we tallied an impressive 152 species of birds in our six days of birding, including 21 species of waterfowl, 13 species of raptors, and an unbelievable 20 species of sparrows. We had superb weather almost throughout, while much of the country was suffering from terrible winter storms. New Mexico certainly lived up to its billing as “the Land of Enchantment”!