The government shutdown was in day 26. TSA employees had already missed a 2 week paycheck and there was no way to know when the next one would be coming. There were news stories about backlogs and potential delays at security checkpoints at the airports. My flight was due to depart Sea-Tac Airport at 5:25 p.m. I am always early, but this time I wanted to be sure to allow time – just in case…
I got through security in exactly two minutes. I thanked everyone for coming to work despite the shutdown. I was now 90 minutes ahead of departure time. Travel last year had earned me MVP status with Alaska Airlines and I had been upgraded to Premium Class. More leg room and more importantly to me – early boarding and sitting closer to the front, I would get off the plane early as well. The trip was off to a good start. Landing in Albuquerque 10 minutes early, a quick shuttle to the rental car center, an unasked for upgrade and quick processing by Alamo, and a 10 minute drive to my hotel continued the good start. Clear skies and without wind was forecast the next day. All good. I was ready to bird.
In planning the trip as part of my 50/50/50 project, the key was to find a good local resource hopefully to be able to join in the field or at least to get useful input to help find my needed 50 species in a day. As I often do, I started with the local Audubon Chapter – in this case Central New Mexico Audubon. It turned out to be a great one stop answer to my needs. I found a field trip to the Alameda Open Space and Bridge scheduled for January 17 led by Barbara Hussey. Her contact information was included and I sent her an introductory e-mail. She responded positively saying I could join their group. She shared probable species to be seen and over the course of other e-mails and a phone conversation, she helped me plan an itinerary both to get my 50 species and also to see some of the birds and places I hoped to visit. She was terrific.
If I had done my homework a little better I would have found that Barbara was the author of “Birding Hotspots of Central New Mexico. She and co-author Judith Liddell knew as much about birding in this area as anyone. Both were also very active in the birding community and as it turned out Judith was also going to be on the field trip. Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.
The Audubon trip was scheduled to start at 9:00. I wanted to arrive early figuring to do a little birding on my own, knowing that since the maximum number of species to expect was between 25 and 30, I would have to leave before the projected 12:00 p.m ending to be able to get to other places. On the way over I was struck by the number of Rock Pigeons. They seemed to be on every wire and flying over every road – I must have seen 200. This theme continued during my entire visit. I saw far more Rock Pigeons in and around Albuquerque than I have seen anywhere else – even in big cities.
Next I picked up a few species in the adjoining neighborhood including Great Tailed Grackle which had not been on my radar screen but is common in the area. At the Alameda Open Space Park, my first birding was a small pond immediately next to the parking area. It was full of ducks but only a couple of species – almost exclusively Wood Ducks – at least 70. What a beautiful start to the day.
A Black Crowned Night Heron was also in the pond. It turned out to be a good thing that I saw it early as it was not there later and to see one would have extended my stay on the trip. I did not know that at the time, or if they were easy to find anywhere else.
Black Crowned Night Heron
The meet up place for the trip was the parking lot and by 8:45 birders were starting to arrive. Lots of birders. Lots and lots of birders. I met Barbara and saw that she was going to have her hands full leading this big group. When the decision was made to split the group into two, with the second group led by Judy Liddell, I decided to join her group not wanting Barbara to feel she had to “hold my hand”. Judy was great and the group was fun. It was mostly beginning birders although a couple of them were well beyond that. Trips like these are great for birding and are one of the important things that Audubon chapters do all over the country. I am sure that there were at least 50 people and all seemed to enjoy the time – seeing birds and learning about them – and just having a good time. A large group is not the best way to maximize the number of species seen, but Judy was excellent and the area along the Rio Grand River was good habitat with a mix of water birds, passerines and a few of these and a few of those. I spent about 90 minutes with the group and ended up with 32 species – more than expected and a good start to the day.
Barbara, Judy and a couple of the local birders gave lots of suggestions for next places to go, but it was clear to me that my best chance to maximize species would be to get to Bosque del Apache NWR – high on my “I want to visit this place” list. This had been a great start to the visit at least as much due to the people as the birds. Birding can be a very social activity and this was such at its best. I am sure I would greatly enjoy more time with Barbara and Judy and with many of the birders…particularly…well that would take me off topic. 😉
I have learned that often in trying to get to 50 species in a day, there are flybys on the roads between birding destinations that could prove to be a much needed sighting for the day. On my way to Tingley Ponds I picked up an American Kestrel and a Downy Woodpecker. I expected to see more of the former but the Woodpecker was a miss at Alameda so I was glad to see one. I was unsure of how to cover Tingley Ponds which I was told would add several duck species plus a Neotropic Cormorant. I never saw the Cormorant although I learned later that I had been looking in the right place. I added only two duck species and a Pied Billed Grebe. There were lots of people walking or fishing in the area and I probably just did not give it much of a chance. I left after just 10 minutes with my species count at 37 for the day.
My pre-trip research had identified Valle de Oro NWR as a good place to bird and it was also highly recommended by Barbara and Judy. It was on the way to Bosque del Apache and just off the main road. The first four birds I saw there were new for the day: European Starling, Say’s Phoebe, Common Raven and Chihuahuan Raven. The latter was a challenging ID. I saw more than 50 Ravens. At least two of them were much smaller with relatively small bills. They were in flight so I could not see any white feathers on the neck a feature not always visible and which was the basis for them previously being called White Necked Ravens. They are regular at this location, so I was good with the check mark on my list.
Most notable at Valle de Oro were the flocks of Sandhill Cranes and Snow Ross’s, Canada and Cackling Geese. All of the geese except the Canada Geese were new for the day. I am sure there were more mixed in, but I was pleased to identify a handful of the smaller Ross’s Geese among the Snow Geese. These are very uncommon in Washington. I would see many more later in the day. Recent visits to the Refuge had produced Ferruginous Hawk, Greater Roadrunner, Prairie Falcon and several other good birds, but I found none of them. More time and local birder input would likely have made a difference but I was now at 44 species and thought some of these misses might be found at Bosque del Apache and I was eager to visit this famous place. It was 92 miles south but with the speed limit at 75 (I love you New Mexico) and a bit of a fudge factor that seemed to be used by New Mexico drivers that meant it was barely 75 minutes away – lots of time.
There will be lots of details to follow but the bottom line is that Bosque del Apache was FANTASTIC!! Overall the “Woods of the Apaches” is over 55,000 acres with the heart of the refuge being about 4,000 acres easily accessed by a double loop road that is about 12 miles long. I spent about 3 hours at the Refuge which was not nearly enough – driving most of the loop road and getting to the very birdy visitor center after it closed and too late for as much birding as it justified in the fading light. Ebird shows 366 species for the refuge – an incredible list. However it is the number of individuals that may be more impressive as many waterfowl species are present in the thousands as are the Sandhill Cranes. It was easily one of the favorite places I have birded.
On the road into the Refuge I had a single Prairie Falcon, a single Greater Yellowlegs (joining Killdeer as my only shorebirds for the day), several Loggerhead Shrikes and two Western Meadowlarks – surprisingly the only ones I saw. I also added a Northern Harrier, Mourning Doves, Green Winged Teal and Northern Pintails to reach 50 species for the day. With that mission accomplished, all pressure was off and I forgot about numbers and just enjoyed the beautiful day at an amazing place.
Western Meadowlark (Eastern Meadowlarks are also at the Refuge but have a white malar) – This was the 50th species for the day.
Loggerhead Shrike (Northern Shrikes are also found in Winter but are much rarer and have a much narrower eye stripe/patch)
Twenty-six duck species have been reported at the Refuge – with 17 present in January. I did not check every duck there and had 11 species with Northern Pintails seemingly the most numerous. The biggest waterfowl show was the large numbers of both Snow Geese and Ross’s Geese in mixed flocks.
Ross’s Geese (with Snow Geese) – Can readily see size difference
I saw fewer raptors than expected – only a few Red Tails, a half dozen Bald Eagles and a few American Kestrels. The one exception was a good number of Northern Harriers. One was feasting on a Snow Goose in shallow water. I have never seen a Harrier kill a Snow Goose in Skagit and Snohomish Counties in my home state Washington although both species are plentiful there. I do not know if this was a kill or scavenging but a good photo opportunity.
Northern Harrier with Snow Goose
A typical scene in the many fields would be flocks of Sandhill Cranes with Snow, Canada and Ross’s Geese and some duck species. I did not try to count the individuals or scan for different species – just enjoyed the spectacle. Thousands of birds.
Towards the end of the loop, it was getting later and many Cranes, Geese and Ducks were on the move. It was still four days away from the full (Wolf) moon, but the already large moon did provide an interesting photo opportunity as a backdrop for the birds in flight.
Another treat as dusk approached was a large flock of Wild Turkeys – over 125 in a single group. I had hoped to see quail on the drive but to this point the Turkeys were the only gallinaceous species found.
I wish I had had more time and especially wish I had processed how good the birding was at the Visitor Center. It was almost 5 p.m. when I got there and the light was getting low. There were lots of birds including more than 125 Gambel’s Quail, They seemed to flush from everywhere. Other treats there were a Curve Billed Thrasher, some Lesser Goldfinches and a couple of Pyrrhuloxias – one of my favorites. 273 species have been record at the Visitor Center with over 70 reported just this January. I only had ten in the 20+ minutes I was there – completely alone. There are feeders and native plants – really a great place. I will get back.
Now the light was really low with the sun setting over the low hills to the west. Time to go. It had been a fabulous visit. Without really trying to get a high species count, I had seen 38 species at the Refuge, so so but the quality of the experience was outstanding. There would be one more species and a closing spectacle. I headed to two ponds at the North end of the Refuge on the main road. It was the “fly-in” spot at dusk for the Sandhill Cranes. Just before getting there, I saw a familiar silhouette on one of the telephone poles – a Great Horned Owl. It would turn out to be the only Owl I saw on my entire trip so I include the photo despite the poor light.
Great Horned Owl
The Sandhill Crane fly-in was as fitting a way to end a great day as one could hope for. There were already many photographers and gawkers there when I arrived. There were hundreds of Cranes already in the pool, their raucous calls filling surrounding us and they just kept coming and coming. I did not stay until the end so I do not know the total, but there are many thousand Cranes on the refuge. I took some videos and lots of photos. An almost spiritual experience.
Sand Hill Crane Fly-in Spot
It seemed like ages ago that I had left the Audubon Group at Alameda Open Space. The wonders of Bosque del Apache had not erased but had overshadowed the birding in the morning. The Great Horned Owl was the 62nd species seen during this day making New Mexico the 24th state where I have now seen 50 species in a day. All of those days have been great and this one ranks high. There are many places I have birded that I hope to revisit. This is definitely one of them.
Bosque del Apache