Birding New Mexico’s Villanueva State Park

“Is that it?” I asked after hearing a musical trill through the open car window. Four cars of Central New Mexico Audubon birders were driving slowly north on Highway 3 about a mile north of Interstate 40 looking for Cassin’s Sparrows.

“Yes,” Rebecca, our trip leader, replied and signaled for the other cars to pull off on the skimpy shoulder. Almost immediately we saw the sparrow perched across the road on a juniper. Pretty soon it skylarked into the air and trilled again as it glided back down.

“I can see its malar stripe,” Sandra stated.

We watched entranced until everyone had gotten good looks, and then slowly headed north again.

Before long we spotted some Lark Sparrows perched on a fence. Meadowlarks could be heard calling all along the road and occasionally we would see one on a fence or in flight. Northern Mockingbirds seemed to be everywhere. An occasional Barn Swallow was perched on a wire.

“I see a night hawk,” Abby shared over the two-way radio. A short distance down the road I also spotted one, swooping like a swallow, only larger and with a wing patch.

When we arrived at the town of Villanueva, we pulled over by the Pecos River.

Pecos River in Villanueva

Pecos River in Villanueva

“In the past we have seen Eastern Phoebes here,” Rebecca told us as we got out of the cars. We didn’t have to wait long; one was sitting on the bridge railing over the river. “Listen,” Rebecca said. “You can hear it say its name.” There seemed to be several. We watched another one as it flew across the river, landed in some willows, and then flew back to the other side.

We could hear a Yellow-breasted Chat, and then spotted it perched in a willow, its bright yellow body gleaming amongst the leaves.

A Kestrel was perched on a power pole and Robins were everywhere.

I walked down to see if the swallow nests under the bridge were occupied. When I last visited this spot two years ago, swallows darted and swooped over the river, and then made forays to their nest. Today the mud condos sat empty. And then I noticed a bird moving in the willows next to the river. All I could see was the yellow tip on its tail before it flew off. And then I heard Abby calling to me from the bridge. “Cedar Waxwings,” she said.

I moved closer to the river. Sure enough, Cedar Waxwings were acting like flycatchers as they flew out over the river to catch an insect and then landed in the willows.

Just before we got back in the cars, an Ash-throated Flycatcher landed on a nearby post.

At Villanueva State Park our first stop was to park along the river just inside the entrance. We were surprised to spot a Gray Catbird perched in the top of a willow along the river. Primarily an eastern bird, they are rare and localized in this part of the state and had not been seen on prior Audubon trips. As we watched other birds at that spot, it sailed back and forth across the river.

Yellow Warblers were singing and could be seen periodically in the trees. A Hairy Woodpecker flew in and worked its way around and up a cottonwood trunk. Lesser Goldfinches landed briefly on a wire on the opposite bank of the river, and then flew off.

We watched as an Ash-throated Flycatcher caught a large worm and struggled to position it in his bill so we could eat it.

Bullock’s Orioles chattered in the trees. The mandarin-orange male was like a beacon in the trees. Its black throat stripe and black cap periodically popped into view.

A Western Wood Pewee looked too large for its small woven nest tucked on a branch over the parking area.

The swallow nests along the cliff seemed abandoned, and then we saw a Say’s Phoebe fly into one with an enlarged entrance. After making its delivery, it flew out again. Violet-green Swallows flew in and out of crevices at another location along the cliff.

Further into the campground, we stopped again and made our way to the river on a trail that ran through a scout tent encampment. At the river we watched a Black Phoebe catching insects.

We ate our lunch in a less crowded area at the end of the campground. A Black-headed Grosbeak flew in briefly for a visit. Following lunch we studied a flycatcher, trying to decide whether it was a Western Wood Pewee or a Willow Flycatcher. It had a long thin orange bill, faint wing bars and no eye-ring. We were not able to hear it call to make a definitive identification. Several of us really wanted it to be a Willow Flycatcher, but would not be able to claim it for our life lists on that trip.

As we were preparing to leave, we watched a Cassin’s Kingbird perched high in a cottonwood, singing its distinctive ‘kum ear.’

We tallied 47 birds for the day.

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2 thoughts on “Birding New Mexico’s Villanueva State Park

  1. Judy,
    I would like to use your photo of the Pecos River in Villanueva in an exhibit panel which will be part of a new Pecos Watershed Education Center in Santa Rosa. Would you contact me please regarding permission to use the photo.
    Thanks,
    George Lawrence

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