“I’m going to pull off on this dirt road,” Rebecca said as she eased off of highway 25 in Belen. “Check the prairie dog burrows to see if there are any Burrowing Owls.” Rebecca and I were taking Albuquerque Journal writer Toby Smith to see the birds at the Belen Marsh behind the Taco Bell.
On the west of the road, the land had been cleared and graded and there weren’t any new burrows. On the east, the dirt was still covered with high dried grass. While there were some holes that had prairie dogs perched on the rim, the owls would not share those burrows because there is no way to spot predators. We had not seen Burrowing Owls here since the summer of 2006, but keep hoping.
Toby’s photographer, Richard, and our friend Donna joined us when we reached the parking lot. After two months dealing with health problems, if felt good to be out looking at birds.
An accipiter circled high above the marsh. “Probably a Sharp-shinned Hawk,” Rebecca commented.
Black-necked Stilts and American Avocets had returned from their wintering grounds in Mexico. The stilts would soon be nesting, while the avocets would be heading north. Even at midday, both species continued to feed. The stilts appeared to tip-toe through the shallow water as they picked in the water. The avocets moved their upturned bills from side to side just below the surface of the water to capture its food. Rebecca pointed out how the avocet rests on one leg.
“Look at the Wilson’s Phalaropes in the scope,” Rebecca beckoned to Toby. “See how they swim in circles? That’s how they stir up their food.”
Long-billed Dowitchers probed the mud on the edges of the pond. The pond is a way stop for them as well. They will reach their breeding grounds on Alaska’s northernmost shore by the end of May.
A group of small birds flew up and circled in synchronized motion. “We call those peeps,” Rebecca explained. “There are several kinds of sandpipers that look very similar. I will see if I can get them in the scope so we can figure out what they are.” After scrutinizing, she determined they were Least Sandpipers.
A few male Red-winged Blackbirds each perched tenuously on the tops of their territorial dry reed, undoubtedly protecting an incubating female nestled at the base. Two Great-tailed Grackles squawked from some bare snags. A Western Meadowlark called from the nearby field.
A local resident stopped to chat when we returned to the parking lot. “The wetland is special to those of us who live around here. If I win the lottery,” she proclaimed, “I am going purchase the land and have it set aside as a refuge.”
The marsh, only discovered by birders in the past few years, is nestled across the street from Wal-Mart. Hopefully, it will remain an oasis for wintering and breeding waterfowl, as well as migrating shorebirds.
“Look out the high window,” I pointed, as we enjoyed our lunch at Taco Bell. A Swainson’s Hawk, only seen during the late spring and summer, was patiently circling.
It had been a delightful morning sharing our passion for birds.