Birding the Crest Road in New Mexico’s Sandia Mountains

The parking area adjacent to the Sandia Ranger Station in Tijeras looked bleak with a lot of the trees trimmed severely back and the undergrowth cleared out. It was understandable that aggressive clearing took place, given the prolonged drought and the devastation caused by the fires this spring further south in the Manzano Mountains. We wondered whether we would still see the diversity of birds we normally experience at this location.

The Thursday Birders gathered at the ranger station to check out the birds before carpooling up into the Sandia Mountains. We didn’t have to wait long to spot our first bird as we focused our binoculars on a snag across the road. “It’s a female Bullock’s Oriole,” Gale, the trip leader proclaimed. “I just reviewed the recent female look-alikes article in the most recent Burrowing Owl” (Central New Mexico Audubon newsletter). “See,” she continued, “it has a white belly.” While we watched, a male flew into a tree next to the ranger station.

Chipping Sparrows were working the brush along the arroyo. As we approached the bridge, we could hear baby chippies calling. Parents below the tree busily gathered seeds and took them to the nest; then they were back down again scrounging for their insatiable chicks.

House and Lesser Goldfinches perched along a wire between their forays to get food.

“I see an Ash-throated Flycatcher,” someone said. “I can see rust under the tail when it flits around.” It didn’t stay in one place very long, moving from bush to bush, often deep in the branches. Finally it flew out to the edge of a branch.

We had noticed white patches on its back. “One of the feathers on each of the scapulars is cream-colored,” remarked Richard, who was visiting from Iowa. We speculated on the possibilities for this oddity.

As we turned to head back to the cars, we noticed two Say’s Phoebes perched on a wire and watched while one of them flew under the bridge. “There’s probably a nest under there,” someone speculated.

As we headed up the highway to the crest, evidence of the drought was everywhere. In some locations it appeared as if almost a third of the conifers stood lifeless and barren. Some of the dead trees leaned precariously towards the highway, with their roots exposed by erosion. Yellow tape was stretched across all of the trailheads, and large yellow signs were posted at each picnic area declaring that the national forest was closed. Through my open car window I kept hearing the plaintive, flute-like songs of Hermit Thrushes deep within the forest. The overcast skies leant an eerie cast to the landscape.

The first stop was the parking area for the 10K Trail. Even though we couldn’t venture into the woods, we were able to observe plenty of bird activity. Violet-green Swallows swooped over the meadow. We realized they were catching insects and then taking them back to a nest hole in a dead snag. In and out they went. One of them rested for awhile on the stop of the stump, giving us the opportunity to admire its vibrant emerald green head and back and deep purple tail feathers.

A Red Crossbill flew into the top of a fir tree, looked around, and then it was off again.

A Northern Flicker perched in the top of a dead conifer. Pretty soon two more flew in. “Look,” Rebecca gestured, “one of them is a juvenile. See it is begging.”

In the meadow below, many in the group saw Western Bluebirds. A short distance away, a male Western Tanager flew in briefly.

We heard Broad-tailed Hummingbirds all around us and occasionally caught the blur of one flying by. One landed in the top of a bush adjacent to the highway and paused for awhile. When it turned, we could see it was a male as its rosy red throat caught the light. “Wow,” said Donna, “look at its gorget.”

Pine Siskins and a Yellow-rumped Warbler came in for a drink at a large puddle at the edge of the parking lot.

Across the road we watched Grey-headed Juncos chasing around through a spruce. Then a Hariry Woodpecker flew in and started working not only the trunk of a tree, but also dead branches in a brush pile.

At the Ellis Trail parking area, the only new bird was a Cordilleran Flycatcher calling.

While this was the end of the official trip, three cars proceeded up to the crest. Even though it was late morning, the birds were still active. Several of the group walked a ways along the crest to the overlook, where they saw a Clark’s Nutcracker. From the Crest House windows, they watched a Red Crossbill use its unique bill to retrieve seeds from an unopened cone in a tree just below the deck.

I had to leave the group early, but took time to peruse the parking lot near the ski area on my way down, where I was lucky enough to see a Red-naped Sapsucker working some aspens.

Despite the limitations to our activities, it was reassuring to see the birds go about their lives unperturbed.

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