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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

New Mexico in Winter

Santa Fe to the Bosque

2022 Narrative

It’s hard to express the stark and ancient beauty of New Mexico’s myriad landscapes. You really just need to come witness it for yourself. The ancient 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.

Our first day of birding in New Mexico unfolded with magnificence. The sunrise broke the granite rim rock above Embudito Canyon illuminating the surrounding hills in golden light, ushering the desert birds into the open to bathe in morning rays. Squads of Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays flew up to the sunlit rocks on the ridgeline while Canyon Towhees and Rufous-crowned Sparrows waited patiently on the cholla tops below. Sun creeps down into the canyon slowly, bringing attention to each microhabitat in a way that doesn’t allow you to bypass one for another. You can really soak it all up. A Canyon Wren scratched along a boulder field and gave prolonged scope views. Local Canyon Wren populations were negatively affected by last year’s severe drought and I wasn’t sure whether we’d find one at all, so it was a welcome surprise on our first day. A Juniper Titmouse danced on its namesake host tree mere feet away. A flock of Western Bluebirds welcomed us back to the parking lot and sent us off to the next location through a cloud of feathered cobalt and rust. A stop by Tingley beach provided close studies of many species of waterfowl, while a mixed flock of White-breasted Nuthatches, Eastern Bluebirds, and a Bewick’s Wren brought life to the leafless cottonwoods. We enjoyed delicious local tacos for lunch, well, except for those who chose to eat dessert waffles instead.

An hour-long drive towards Bosque del Apache NWR was broken up by a brief excursion into the Chihuahuan desert grasslands around the northern end of Sevilleta NWR. These expansive grasslands flow southward flanking the central mountain chain to the east and west, offering unmatched hunting grounds for wintering raptors. In quick succession we enjoyed multiple Red-tailed Hawks, a spectacularly close view of Prairie Falcon, a couple American Kestrels, many Ferruginous Hawks, and a spattering of ravens. A large flock of Mountain Bluebirds fed voraciously on the berries of the Russian olives near the Rio, completing the NM bluebird trifecta on day one. A Sagebrush Sparrow, a Say’s Phoebe, and a Curve-billed Thrasher made our roadside bathroom stop a more memorable one. 

Multiple Northern Harriers ushered us down Hwy 1 toward Bosque del Apache NWR. Upon arrival we were surprised to find a White-tailed Kite hunting the fields north of the Flight Deck pond! We watched small groups of Snow and Ross’s Geese dribble back into their roosting ponds for the night.

Bosque del Apache is one of those places that you can visit thousands of times in a lifetime and it never feels mundane, but the first time is always mind blowing. Early the next morning we stood quietly (and frigidly) in the darkness, on the frozen edge of an expansive pond filled with waking geese. Silhouettes of distant hills and cottonwood snags were beginning to come into view as the sky sat low, painted in deep blue and orange. The calls of roosting geese rushed across the pond while many thousands lifted off at once from a distant pond and made an overhead pass, some landing nearby and others heading out to begin their day of feeding. Two nearby Bald Eagles loafed about on a gnarled snag, while duck soup swirled about below - mostly Northern Shovelers and Pintails, with a few Buffleheads added for spice. An early morning drive of the north loop was very productive with a murmuration of Red-winged Blackbirds that was easily ten thousand strong.

The week prior I’d found a White-throated Sparrow mixing with a small flock of White-crowned Sparrows along an unmarked section of the refuge road and was delighted to find it still around - it’s been a slow winter for them in Central New Mexico. Twenty-two Javelinas (Collared Peccaries) hid in the weedy fields near the north end of the refuge, while two Ferruginous Hawks played in the winds overhead. Just down the road our first Greater Roadrunner of the trip was sunning itself without a care in the world. We followed it for several minutes admiring its brightly colored head markings and the olive iridescence of its scapulars.

Enroute back to the refuge after lunch we visited one of “Raymond’s Secret Desertscapes” where we had a wonderful array of desert species, and fabulous views of a Crissal Thrasher singing loudly from the top of a low mesquite, providing prolonged scope views. Just up the road Black-throated Sparrows and the Green-tailed Towhees took turns showing off. A flyby Verdin brought the van to a halt, and while it didn’t stay long it gave us an opportunity to pick through another large flock of blackbirds - this one about 50:50 Red-winged to Brewer’s, with two Yellow-headed Blackbirds thrown in for a challenge.

In the early afternoon, while I was fumbling about trying to figure out where I’d put my vehicle permit at the pay booth, I simultaneously spotted a Bobcat strolling up the edge of a pond near the beginning of the refuge. Had I had my permit at my fingertips we would’ve made fast work at the entry station and missed it (thank goodness there’s not enough space in these new 15 passenger vans to be well organized). As luck would have it, we made it through the booth just as the cat reached the main road, where it then chose to walk in front of our vehicle for about 100 meters! The south loop was productive, with lots of the expected species. We were, however, surprised to find a young male Common Yellowthroat loosely associating with a Marsh Wren near the entrance to the South Loop Boardwalk. Further around the loop we admired a large group of Mule Deer as they fed on the dry woody branches of seep willow - simply amazing that they can extract any nutrition at all from these plants at this time of the year. One more swing around the north loop produced a group of four Coyotes lounging in a field. We watched the setting sun as we made our way back to Socorro for the night.

The next morning found us down south where the northeasternmost stand of Arizona Sycamore trees spills out into the desert along Las Animas Creek. Acorn Woodpeckers flew circuits around the treetops, coming and going from their acorn stashes for most of the morning. A flock of Bridled Titmice and displaying Ruby-crowned Kinglets gave spectacular views. A mixed flock of sparrows held a very dapper Lark Sparrow (rare in NM in winter).

Our next stop was along the banks of the Rio Grande near Caballo Lake at Percha Dam State Park, one of the state’s well known birding hotspots. A Rufous-backed Robin had been around for a few weeks, but we weren’t able to track it down during our time there. We did however find a singing Carolina Wren (rare and local in NM). Phainopeplas in their glossy black plumage adorned the treetops all around the park and we had superb views of a flock of Cedar Waxwings drinking from a leaky water fountain.

After our trusty Subway stop for lunch, we visited Paseo del Rio SP where we walked along the river bed scoping ducks. It wasn’t long before we had nice scope views of Mexican Ducks mixed in with the other more common wintering waterfowl. A wonderful vista above the Elephant Butte dam gave us an opportunity to scan through a large flock of Common Mergansers, picking out a few Red-breasted Mergansers in the mix. Distant American White Pelicans flocked on the lake to the north.

A stop at Rock Canyon Marina to try for better looks at Pelicans gave us a great opportunity to compare Western and Clark’s Grebes, both of which were doing courtship displays on the water. A major surprise at this stop was a first-cycle Glaucous Gull, a mega rare bird for NM, and the rarest sighting of the trip. We spent some time attempting to get photos of the distant gull before making the drive back to Socorro for the night. After dinner we snuck out of town to enjoy some dark skies, drooling at the sight of the expansive starscape overhead. Just down the road we had a spectacular close-up view of a vocalizing Western Screech-Owl.

We rose early the next morning to try for Longspurs in the nearby grasslands. A recent cold snap brought sub-zero temps to this area and the standing water in the grasslands was all still frozen, and thus not a longspur to be found, perhaps departed for grasslands further south. We did have a wonderful view of a Golden Eagle shortly after sunrise! Today was mostly a travel day and much of the day was spent transiting through gorgeous habitat while enroute to Santa Fe. Flocks of Mountain Bluebirds lined the highway for much of the afternoon. We stopped at a few more of “Raymond’s Secret Spots”, one of which held a large covey of Scaled Quails. One of the quails crawled up to the top of a cholla cactus and called in the late morning light! Scaled Quail has been another hard bird to find given the recent drought conditions, so we were all overjoyed - it was even selected as a favorite bird of the trip by one in the group. Stops for Pinyon Jays were unsuccessful, but we enjoyed other denizens of the Pinyon-Juniper Woodlands, including a more looks at Juniper Titmice and a mixed flock of Gray-headed, Oregon, and Pink-sided Dark-eyed Juncos. A Sage Thrasher sat up very nicely for many minutes and was the last new bird for the day before heading to our hotel on the Santa Fe plaza.

Starbucks for breakfast and on the road heading east to the Pecos, where our first stop along the Pecos River produced Mexican and Black-capped Chickadees, Townsend’s Solitaire, Pygmy Nuthatch, and Brown Creeper. It was cold. Really cold! But the birds helped keep our minds distracted. The stream was largely frozen at our first stop, so we dipped on dippers. We headed up the canyon in search of open water. A few small groups of Black-billed Magpies lined the roadside as we gained elevation. At our second spot we found an American Dipper, which quickly disappeared before everyone could get on it. While we were waiting for its return I tooted for Northern Pygmy-Owl to pass the time. After a bit of time, I stopped whistling but the tooting continued - an owl heard my call and was responding! It only took moments to locate the Pygmy-Owl calling from the highest branches of a nearby Ponderosa Pine, and it only took a few more moments before a mob of Pygmy Nuthatches had also spotted the tiny owl. We watched it move about from tree to tree, with a tiny string of nuthatches following close behind. I just love it when all the pygmies get together for a pine-top party. The dipper eventually showed itself again, bouncing around on the icy stream bank before plunging underwater and out of sight. It was another truly magical morning.

In the afternoon we visited the Santa Fe Ski Basin where we tracked down a tree-full of woodpeckers, including three Hairys and two American Three-toed Woodpeckers. Steller’s Jays, American Crows, and Common Ravens bounced around the parking area but they were the only corvids in sight, Canada Jays were nowhere to be found. Two Red Crossbills called from the treetops and we enjoyed some nice scope views. We made a quick stop along the Rio Grande in Espanola to search for goldeneyes but the viewing conditions were tough, and the bridge was rumbling so hard from passing trucks that scope viewing was quite shaky. We found some large groups of Common Goldeneyes but never picked out any Barrow’s for certain. After leaving the river it wasn’t long before we located a group of Lewis’s Woodpeckers feeding over farm fields in stunning evening light. We counted at least five Lewis’s in total and had prolonged looks as they sallied out for insects and called from a nearby telephone pole.

We left Santa Fe early the following morning to be at the Sandia Crest by sunrise to search for Rosy-Finches. Unfortunately, this year has been another record warm winter and has produced very little winter precipitation, as a result Rosy-Finches have been hard to come by. These birds are resource driven migrants and will forego migration if food is available wherever they are. The lack of snow in the Southern Rocky Mountains early this winter may have kept many Rosy-Finches from migrating to more southerly sites. Nevertheless, we were persistent and eventually witnessed a group of fifteen Black Rosy-Finches briefly visiting the feeder station at the Sandia Crest House. In addition to the flock of “rosies” we also saw multiple Red-breasted and White-breasted nuthatches, one female Red Crossbill, and had a flyover Pine Siskin. We did a bit more birding in the middle elevations after the crest and had a small mixed flock right over our heads that included a stunning male Red-naped Sapsucker, and better views of Townsend’s Solitaire. We enjoyed dinner in downtown Albuquerque and toasted to a very successful trip, and to new birding friends.

- Raymond Vanbuskirk

Created: 02 June 2022