When I planned my trip to New Mexico, I had two important goals. The first – satisfied on day one and detailed in my first New Mexico Blog Post – was to find 50 species in a single day. I believed a visit to Bosque del Apache would play an important role in doing that. It did but had I known how much I would enjoy that place, I would have made birding there as an essential part of my trip independently of just finding more species. My second goal was to visit Sandia Crest to see the three species of Rosy Finches: Gray Crowned, Brown Capped and Black. I had seen them at the Wildernest Community location in Colorado on April 9, 2016 but the views and photos of Black Rosy Finch were limited and unsatisfactory. Sandia Crest is THE place to go to get good looks at all three species – especially at the feeders maintained by the Sandia Crest Gift Shop and Cafe.
With two days still available, I debated whether to wait until my last day to go to Sandia Crest or to try it on Friday. A heavy wind was projected for Friday afternoon – not good for birding or possible tourist activities. Saturday was supposed to be better. I decided to bird in the foothills outside of Albuquerque in the morning and then maybe head up to Santa Fe later – revisiting one of New Mexico’s major attractions. I chose Embudito Canyon, northeast of Albuquerque as my birding spot. It had rained over night and when I got to the Canyon, it was covered with a few inches of snow and it was snowing very lightly. It was beautiful!!
The Trail at Embudito Canyon
Like in Arizona, habitats here change dramatically and quickly as soon as you leave the flatlands and get into the foothills and gain elevation. I found myself in the land of cactus and sage and low shrubs with some oaks and pines. I also found myself immediately with birds. The first was a Curve Billed Thrasher buried in shrubs at the last house before getting into the Park itself and the second was a Woodhouse’s Scrubjay. I had first seen the latter in Colorado in 2016 and then later had them in Arizona in 2017 and in Texas in 2018. I had photos from those visits, but none were great. This one was much better.
Curve Billed Thrasher
A photo that I missed was of a Cactus Wren. It popped up about 1/4 mile up the trail and then disappeared rather than perching in the open as I have seen them do before. Instead I got a photo of one of what seemed to be a pair of Canyon Towhees, a nondescript but attractive species.
The most numerous birds were Dark Eyed Juncos which seemed to be everywhere. I estimated there to be at least 70 but it well could have been over 100. And there were some of many of the different forms – Slate Colored, Pink Sided and Red Backed. They were extremely skittish and would disappear quickly into the brush.
Dark Eyed Junco – Red Backed
It was great fun to walk alone in the canyon. The snow had no other footprints except for some deer and it was eerily quiet as the snow cover muffled all sounds except for a few bird calls. The vegetation changed the further up I went and it is at times like these that I wish I knew more about plants. I believe the photo below is of a Tree Cholla Cactus. Some Desert Prickly Pear can be seen in the background.
Tree Cholla Cactus
The place was so different from what I see in Washington. It was peaceful and restful but at the same time energizing. The lightly falling snow added to the magic of the place. I think I was still somewhat on a high from the visit to Bosque del Apache and this place took me to a higher place – both literally and emotionally. The last bird I saw in the canyon was a Mountain Chickadee, a species that always brings a smile as well.
A good indication of just how different this habitat was from the ones I birded the previous day is that while there were only 12 species seen, 50% of them were new. Now what? I had so thoroughly enjoyed this visit that I abandoned plans to go to Santa Fe and decided to head to Sandia Crest which was less than 30 miles away. It turned out to be a bad decision.
As I headed further east before going higher into the Sandia mountains and the Cibola National Forest, there was no snow on the roads although some could be seen in the hills. The elevation of Albuquerque is just over 5,200 feet and Embudito Canyon is around 6000 feet. Sandia Crest i is almost 11,000 feet. My rental car was a front wheel drive which I thought would be sufficient as I expected that the road would be plowed since it was the way to a major ski area. But I had not figured in just how much snow had fallen on the mountain the night before or that the snow plows would not have removed much of the snow past the ski area. The last 15 miles of the trip were on a winding road with sharp turns and still some snow. I went very slow and was doing ok until bout a mile before the ski area – which was still 6 miles before the crest. Even though I was following right behind a working plow, I felt there was just no way I was going to make it and if I got stuck I would be in serious trouble. So an hour into the ascent, I turned back. It was now around 11:30 a.m. Where to next?
When I got back to the west side of the Sandia Mountains it was almost 1 p.m. and the wind had picked up substantially. I considered going to Sevilleta NWR – about 30 minutes north of Bosque del Apache. I also considered going to Santa Fe about an hour and a half north. But the wind was a deterrent. I decided to bird a bit at Rio Grande Nature Center, a place highly recommended by one of the better birders on the field trip the previous morning. I added a couple of duck species but the wind was now very strong and when I went into the bosque – the woods – I found almost no birds.
A friend had visited nearby Petroglyphs National Monument and said there were a few birds and the petroglyphs were interesting. My friend had visited before the government shutdown. The Monument was closed to traffic and the visitor center completely shutdown. I tried an alternative entrance which was at least open to parking but by then the wind was gusting over 40 mph. I admitted defeat and returned to my hotel conceding that some additional sleep might be the best idea anyhow. The weather was supposed to be crystal clear the next day, wind free and warmer. I would try Sandia Crest again, but I was still worried about the roads as many parts of the road would not be in the sun and it was unclear how much snow would remain. I had a plan to solve that if my rental car company would help.
My rental car was from Alamo. From my hotel I called customer service and asked if I might be able to exchange my vehicle for an SUV. I spoke with Renee who was very friendly, understanding and helpful.. She checked Alamo’s inventory at the airport and found that they had no SUV’s but did have 2 trucks with 4 wheel drive. She could not reserve it for me but said all I had to do was go to the return center and work it out there being sure not to let them check me out before securing another option. She expected an upgrade fee of not more than $30.00 or so for the one day exchange. To me that was worth it. The return place was barely 5 minutes from the hotel. Bottom line is that Alamo was terrific. Kenny, who turned out to be the manager, got me into a 4 wheel drive pickup within 2 minutes. We modified the paper work and I drove off – without an up charge. The whole process took less than 10 minutes. When I got back to the hotel, I called Customer Service, expressed my gratitude and gave an outstanding review naming both individuals. The representative I talked to was very appreciative since in general people call to complain and not to say thank you. Thank yous are very powerful.
The plan for Saturday was to get to Sandia Crest after 10:00 a.m. which is when the Gift Shop opened. I filled in the early morning with another visit to the foothills, this time to the Elena Gallegos Picnic Area – an Ebird Hotspot. I was hoping to see a Juniper Titmouse but the main target was a Scaled Quail – possible if unlikely. At the entrance building I paid my $3.00 fee and had a great talk with the Ranger. He gave some birding suggestions in the park. We also talked about Sandia Crest and Bosque del Apache. I entered the park and headed off to a spot he said at least had a chance for Scaled Quail. As I approached the area, another visitor came speeding by from the opposite direction. Three birds flushed – one was a Mountain Bluebird, one a Western Bluebird and the other was — a Scaled Quail. It had been on the side of the road and headed into the brush. I prayed that it would land not too far away but no luck and it was gone. It was a “want” and not a “need” as I had a good sighting and photo from Colorado but they are neat little birds. Sigh…
Scaled Quail (from Colorado in 2016)
Missing the flushed Western Bluebird was no problem as they were abundant in the park. I expected to see many Mountain Bluebirds but no more were seen. The skies were also bright blue, so maybe they just blended in too well. Not so colorful were two other birds seen in good numbers: Juniper Titmouse and Townsend’s Solitaire.
As had been the case at Embudito Canyon, there were also lots of Dark Eyed Juncos of several forms and many Woodhouse’s Scrubjays. There was one more new bird, a Ladder Backed Woodpecker. Only 9 species were seen at this spot in the 55 minutes that I was there, but 5 of them were new for my trip. I really enjoyed the place and my first ever truck was performing great. It was time to head to the Crest!!
Ladder Backed Woodpecker
View of Albuquerque from Elena Gallegos
Although it was only 35 miles to the Crest, I knew much of the road was slow going so I expected it take about an hour to get there. The Gift Shop website said they would be open at 10:00, so timing looked good. When I got to the winding road in the mountains it was clear that much of the snow from the previous day had melted. I wondered if the car exchange was necessary. It was. As I got first to the Ski Area – which was jammed – and then beyond there were still a number of spots with some snow that the plows had missed or the sun had not melted. I only got into 4 wheel drive in a few places but I doubt I would have made it with the other car. It was spectacular.
I arrived at the Crest around 10:15. The road to the parking area for the Gift Shop was closed so I parked below. Uh-oh…the stairs up to the Gift Shop were buried in 18″ to 24″ of snow – or more. I trudged up them laboring in the thin air at almost 11,000 feet elevation and when I finally got to the entrance to the Shop, it was blocked by snow and seemed closed. So I trudged back down hoping to get a view of the finches as they came to a feeder that was visible from the parking area.
Sandia Crest gift Shop Entrance
I heard them coming before I saw them. Out of nowhere a large flock of Rosy Finches flew first into the tree next to the platform feeder and then on to the feeder itself. It was a mad swirl of flashing wings and gorging birds. They seemed to be entirely Black Rosy Finches but I picked out a single Gray Crowned Rosy Finch and a few Brown Capped. ones. It was impossible to single any out with the camera in their constant movement, so I just kept taking pictures.
Rosy Finches at the Lower Feeder
I heard some high pitched calls coming from behind me. They were not more Rosy Finches but I was unsure what they were. They sounded like squeaky Jays. Out of the corner of my eye I saw 4 blue forms fly by followed immediately by at least 10 more in a tight flock formation. The common Jay at this location is the Steller’s Jay and I had already seen a couple of individuals on the road up. These birds were solid blue … and had no crests and no black heads. I had only seen them twice before but I was sure they were Pinyon Jays – uncommon but not impossible here. Unfortunately if they stopped and perched at all, it was somewhere beyond the Gift House which was above me. Had I not been diligently searching the Rosy Finches for Gray Crowneds I might have been able to get on them for a photo, but there was no time to switch from binoculars to camera. Additionally disappointing because I only have two photos from the Colorado observation.
Pinyon Jay – Colorado – April 2016
And…the Rosy Finches flew off as well. A few minutes later someone came down the steps from the Gift Shop with a sign saying the shop was open but that access would be via the rear entrance. I followed him up a second set of steps where the snow was more compacted and around to the rear entrance where he had shoveled away the snow so the door could be opened and Voila! I was in the Gift Shop where it was not only warm but where I could watch the feeders AND get some hot chocolate!! Another thank you for his efforts.
Over the next half hour, more people came up to the Gift Shop. Some were birders, some photographers and some were just visitors including two men from Israel. Two of the birders were from Tucson, AZ – veteran birders a little older than me who were also there for the Rosy Finches. We shared war (birding) stories and they liked my 50 State undertaking. One of them, Karen Morley, was a former president of the Maryland Ornithological Society (MOS), a pretty high powered and prestigious organization in my native Maryland where I lived for the first 21 years of my life but never birded. The small world aspect of birding came home twice with this intersection. In 1975, I attended a conference of the Maryland Ornithological Union – predecessor to the MOS. One of the field trips I joined at that conference was led by the legendary Chan Robbins. In an extraordinary day of birding at the height of migration, we had well over 100 species. It is the only 50 species day that I am including retroactively because it allows me to have Mr. Robbins as part of my story. A second small world connection was that Karen was friends with a birding acquaintance of mine from Tacoma, Washington – indeed someone who had a connection with someone in Indiana that led to my birding companion there when I had my 50 species day there last year. A small world indeed.
Back to the Rosy Finches. It was not for at least 30 minutes, but they did make an appearance at the upper feeder and then made several more afterwards. The feeder is directly on the porch behind the Gift Shop. On days without the snow, it is possible to sit on the porch and watch the finches come in to the seed that has been placed there to attract them. They are used to humans gawking at them and tolerate the close presence. This day the porch was closed so the view was through large plate glass windows, but the birds were still very close and the optical distortion was slight. I took MANY photos…many, many, many photos.
Black Rosy Finch Photos
It was not so easy finding and photographing the Brown Capped Rosy Finches and I never again saw the Gray Crowned Rosy Finch that had been in the flock that visited the lower feeder earlier – or did I?
Brown Capped Rosy Finch
Brown Capped Rosy Finch with Black Rosy Finch
This is either a Variant Form of Brown Capped Rosy Finch or is a form of the Gray Crowned Rosy Finch with less than usual gray.
The only other species seen while at the Crest were a few Steller’s Jays, a Sharp Shinned Hawk, a White Breasted Nuthatch and some Mountain Chickadees.
White Breasted Nuthatch
While the highlight of this visit was without question seeing the Rosy Finches, there were so many other great parts as well. All of the birds were superb in this beautiful setting. Sharing stories with Karen and her friend was great fun. The views were spectacular. And engaging the gentlemen from Israel was one of those experiences that is a special part of birding. They were not birders but were aware of the great birding in Israel especially during migration. They did not know anything about the Rosy Finches or how special this place was for birders wishing to see them. Giving them some background and sharing my binoculars was very rewarding. One of the men called his family in Israel and he spoke to his wife and his young daughter. I believe it was 9 hours later there – so around her bedtime. The magic of technology allowed this conversation to be had as clear as if they were in the same room, and with his smart phone he could let her see this beautiful place and even the birds coming to the feeder. Amazing times. An amazing place.
View West from Sandia Crest
It was barely 1 p.m. and the return drive would be about 90 minutes. I considered more birding at another location or possibly some sightseeing in Albuquerque, but it had been a full three days and as is usually the case on these trips, I had gotten less sleep than I should. I needed to get the car back to the rental return and then get back to my hotel by shuttle.Somehow it felt right to end the birding with the high – literally and emotionally with the other world feeling of Sandia Crest. So I called it a day and a fitting end to a wonderful visit and returned to the hotel to work on photos and do some reading.
The visits to the foothills and to Sandia Crest had brought my total species count for the visit to 82 species. There were no new ABA Life birds or photos, but some of my earlier photos had been improved. I had visited New Mexico twice earlier – one a non-birding trip to Santa Fe and once as a brief adjunct to a trip to Southeast Arizona in 2016. Adding species seen on those trips, my New Mexico State List stands at a paltry 95 species. Given that the New Mexico State list is over 550 species, I want to come back and see many more. But regardless of the species count, this visit will be one of my favorites with memories of Barbara Hussey and Judith Liddell, of Bosque del Apache, the foothills and Sandia Crest. I really love these trips!!