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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

New Mexico in Winter

Santa Fe to the Bosque

2024 Narrative

In Summary:

It’s hard to express the stark and ancient beauty of New Mexico’s myriad landscapes in words or photos — you really just need to come witness it for yourself. The land draws you in while its abundant wildlife makes long lasting impressions on your heart. Massive mountains swathed in coniferous forest, and blanketed in snow, rise from the desert like titans. Expansive tracts of riparian woodland line the banks of the Rio Grande for hundreds of miles, providing rich corridors for wildlife movements. The sun unfolds across the morning landscape with unmatched grandeur, and falls away slowly through dreamy tones of gold, red, and purple. We traversed some of the best areas New Mexico has to offer, following the Rio Grande across most of the state, encountering 146 species of birds as a group, a new record!

In Detail:

Day 1: Albuquerque to Truth or Consequences: We began our journey at sunrise in Albuquerque, traveling to the cottonwood gallery forest along the Rio Grande. As we arrived at our first stop, Tingley Bosque Ponds, hundreds of Red-winged Blackbirds were streaming out of the reed beds. A bit of sifting through them produced two male Yellow-headed Blackbirds. The ponds were teeming with waterfowl, including magnificent views of Wood Ducks and Canvasbacks. The local Neotropic Cormorants were beginning to construct their nests on the islands in the fishing ponds. At Embudito Canyon we battled high winds, and though most species were hiding we did enjoy our first views of Ladder-backed Woodpecker and Western Bluebirds. A Crissal Thrasher sang to us from the ground upslope but we saw nothing more than a flick of the tail as it disappeared over a four-winged saltbush and upslope. Exhausted by birding in the high winds we opted for an early lunch at the Guava Tree Cafe in Albuquerque, a delicious Latin American restaurant with a New Mexican spin. It was a favorite meal of many for the trip. Post-lunch we headed southward following the Rio Grande through stunning Chihuahuan Desert grasslands, bluffs and canyons. Just north of Sevilleta NWR we enjoyed our first of many Ferruginous Hawks for the trip, along with a soaring Golden Eagle. In the distance a flock of Chihuahuan Ravens picked at a dead cow. By the afternoon we arrived at Paseo del Rio SP, a desert canyon along the Rio Grande, just downstream from the Elephant Butte Lake dam. For much of the winter a Nutting’s Flycatcher had been haunting the riparian vegetation in this area and while it had become difficult to locate recently we were determined to give it a shot. Wandering along the river we encountered twenty species of birds, including Say’s Phoebe, Brewer’s Sparrow, Spotted Towhee, and Belted Kingfisher. One of the most unique sightings was a covey of Gambel’s Quail eating mistletoe fruits high in the treetops! A Merlin blasted overhead but that didn’t prevent us from locating the Nutting’s Flycatcher - a lifer for many and New Mexico bird 506 for Raymond! It’s always exciting when the guide gets a new record.

From the dam we watched a plethora of American White Pelicans circling up from the lake, across the the namesake Elephant Butte bluff, and into the sunset. After a little New Mexican food we checked-in to the Sierra Grande and enjoyed soaking in the hot springs under the stars.

Day 2: Organ Mountains National Monument and Las Cruces: We started the day like any proper New Mexican birding day should, with breakfast burritos in the town of Hatch, famous as the green chile capital of the World. We took our burritos on the road and headed south toward the city of Las Cruces, New Mexico’s second largest city. Here in the warm southern tier of the state many species overwinter that are completely absent even 80 miles to the north. Our first stop was at Sagecrest Park, a city park with lots of native vegetation and birds. Within moments of stepping out of the van we were watching Phainopeplas calling from the mesquites. This snazzy little silky-flycatcher was dubbed the trip mascot and we enjoyed many more sightings over the next couple of days. Verdins were common in the surrounding desert vegetation while a pair of Cooper’s Hawks carved beautiful courtship circles out of the sky overhead. We watched the hawks’ movements with delight, while a bold Anna’s Hummingbird tried to chase the hawks out of the neighborhood. From here we headed to Dripping Springs in the Organ Mountains National Monument, a fabulous desert mountain protected as a National Monument during the end of the Obama administration. Thousand foot cliffs tower over the Chihuahuan Desert, Madrean woodland, and the remains of a late 19th century mountain resort for residents of the Las Cruces upper class. By the early 20th century this site became a sanitarium for the treatment of people battling tuberculosis.

Along the trail to the springs we laid eyes on Green-tailed Towhee, Rock Wren, Rufous-crowned, Black-throated, and Brewer’s sparrows, and Loggerhead Shrike. We stopped for a while and watched a group of Mule Deer eating prickly pear cactus. A number of Red-tailed Hawks watched on from the cliffs overhead. After a wonderful picnic lunch, with an exceptional view, we headed into town to a dove roost that’s been hosting a small group of Ruddy Ground-Doves. Within moments of arriving we found three huddled up alongside a large flock of Inca Doves, after beautiful views of this rarity from Mexico we began the journey back to the north.

We stopped below Caballo Reservoir Dam and watched a gorgeous male Pyrrhuloxia at close range. Nearby a Vermilion Flycatcher was hunting midges in the last sliver of light in the top of a cottonwood; its already spectacular plumage further enhanced by the light of golden hour. We returned to Truth or Consequences for pizza and our final dip in the hot springs water.

Day 3: Las Animas Creek and Elephant Butte Lake: After a delicious breakfast at the Sierra Grande we headed south to Las Animas Creek, a gorgeous riparian canyon in the heart of the Chihuahuan desert. The northernmost Arizona Sycamores in the state spill down into the flats and allow for an interesting mix of species. Acorn Woodpeckers, a Red-naped Sapsucker, dozens of Lesser Goldfinches, and a couple Bridled Titmice joined a Juniper Titmouse, and a host of sparrows. The ivory white sycamores were a beautiful sight against the creosote desert wash beyond. At Percha Dam State Park we enjoyed prolonged views of Spotted Sandpiper and American Pipit. Below the Caballo Lake spillway we enjoyed lunch before heading to Elephant Butte Lake for a bit of water birding. Enroute to Elephant Butte Lake we stopped at a small park in TorC to search for a Varied Thrush that has been there off and on through the winter. We never laid eyes on the thrush but we heard it well and the audio recordings I made are accessible on the eBird trip report ( Water levels at the lake are much higher than they’ve been for many years which meant that shoreline and marshy habitat was mostly nonexistent, even still, we enjoyed side-by-side comparisons of Clark’s and Western Grebes. American White Pelicans were scattered about the lake. We drove north to Socorro for the night as we watched the sun set over the desert.

Day 4: Bosque del Apache NWR: We left the hotel dark and early to watch the Snow and Ross’s geese leave their roost for feeding grounds north of the refuge. There was no mass exodus this morning, but it was still a gorgeous site as they trickled out in small groups in front of the rising sun.

A spin around the south refuge loop produced a couple of rarities: a White-tailed Kite perched high in a leafless cottonwood, and an adult Trumpeter Swan on the boardwalk pond. On the north loop we stopped for a long time to watch flocks of Sandhill Cranes parachuting in before us at close range. A pair of Javelinas sipped water from a drainage canal and a very tiny, cooperative Sharp-shinned Hawk hunted the stands of screwbean mesquite on the west side of the refuge. At the refuge headquarters we enjoyed lunch and wandered through the cactus gardens, enjoying the curation of desert plants, and the wild birds that utilize them. Just north of the headquarters we found a cooperative Sagebrush Sparrow that sat for prolonged scope views. We birded our way northward stopping for some Crissal Thrasher fun before returning to town for a short afternoon break before dinner and owling.

After dinner we made our way through light rain back to the refuge and scoped a wonderful Western Screech Owl that was vocalizing in the forest along the edge of the Rio Grande. We spent some time searching for Barn and Great Horned owls but the rain and wind was proving difficult and we found no other creatures other than a single Striped Skunk. All said and done we saw nearly 80 species for the day, a fabulous list total for a winter day in the high desert, or anywhere in the USA in February really.

Day 5: Estancia Valley to Santa Fe: The next morning we awoke to predictions of snow to the north. As we made our way to the grasslands of the Estancia Valley we stopped to admire an enormous flock of Snow and Ross’s geese taking flight from the nearby Bernardo WMA. In the nearby grasslands we struck out on Scaled Quail but we found a lovely Sage Thrasher sitting fat and happy in a Oneseed Juniper that was dripping with berries.

A bit further along we stopped in the town of Mountainair for a coffee pick-me-up. The grasslands north of Mountainair weren’t in great shape but it didn’t prevent us from finding a river of Horned Larks, easily 20,000 strong. Ferruginous Hawks lined the roadside all along the way to lunch. After lunch at the Greenside Cafe we attempted to reach the Sandia Crest for our first shot at Rosy-Finches. We were able to drive as far as Ellis Trailhead (within a mile of the mountaintop) before the snow became too deep to continue. Rather than hike two miles in the snow, in 20 degrees farenheit weather, we opted to get off the mountain safely and head toward Santa Fe searching along the route for Pinyon Jays (which we did not find… on this day). This tour has extra time built in for more than one chance at rosy-finches, for this very reason. Near the bottom of the mountain we found a flock of over twenty Steller’s Jays. We made our way to Santa Fe for a delicious East African meal, at the award winning Jambo Cafe, and some much needed sleep at the fabulous El Rey Court, a boutique motor inn built during the glory days of Route 66.

Day 6: Southern Rocky Mountains: We rose early, hit a Starbucks and were on our way to Georgia O’Keefe country in northern New Mexico. Bird diversity in far northern New Mexico is low during the winter but the views of the surrounding desertscape easily made up for the lack of birds. Along the Rio Grande in Espanola we counted thirteen Barrow’s Goldeneyes, and only one Common. We spent the rest of the morning searching for Lewis’s Woodpeckers, and mostly finding Black-billed Magpies. Finally when we were just about to throw in the towel we found a single Lewis’s attending a cavity in a cottonwood snag, it perched in beautiful lighting for a great scope view.

Afterwards we made a trip to the Santa Fe ski basin where we found lunch and not too much else. We did enjoy watching a flock of Common Ravens raiding a cooler in the back of someone’s truck. After lunch a few folks saw a flock of Rosy-Finches flying high above the ski basin trees but they were never close enough to identify and they didn’t stay long. From here we headed to Pecos, NM where we enjoyed watching an American Dipper actively hunting along an icy mountain stream. Other new birds for the trip were Townsend’s Solitaire, Red-breasted and Pygmy nuthatches, and Wild Turkey.

Day 7: Rosy-Finches or Bust: After a Starbucks run we pointed our van to the Sandia Mountains for our last shot at the famous Rosy-Finches. Along the route we encountered 40 Pinyon Jays along Hwy 14 south of Madrid, NM.

We arrived at the Sandia Crest to find the treetops coated in ice and a few of Rosies already waiting for us at the feeders.

Shortly after we positioned ourselves for best viewing to the south of the feeders we were enveloped by a cloud of Black, Brown-capped and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches affording us with great views and side-by-side comparisons of all three species together.  Further downslope we walked among the Ponderosa Pines, finding a small flock of Type 2 Red Crossbills (the ones that like big pine cones and sound like Pygmy Nuthatches). In a nearby tree we watched a Tassel-eared Squirrel eating acorns.

After another lunch at Greenside Cafe we headed back to Albuquerque for a view of the Sandias from the west and a very fruitful wild goose chase. With the setting sun we were able to pick out Canada, Cackling, Greater White-fronted, Snow and Ross’s geese all in the same flock. After a lot of scoping we located the long-staying Brant, a local celebrity that has returned to this site for at least three consecutive winters. As the sun set, marking the end of a fabulous tour in the Land of Enchantment, we took a selfie with a plastic Wile E. Coyote that was intended to scare the geese from the grassy fields (it didn’t repel the geese or us). We capped the trip off with a delicious New Mexican meal in the historical Albuquerque Old Town Plaza.

Raymond VanBuskirk, 2024

ebird Trip Report:

Created: 15 February 2024