Meadowlarks, Northern Mockingbirds, and kingbirds dotted the landscape as 14 Central New Mexico Audubon Thursday Birders headed north from Clines Corners on NM-285 for the fourteen-mile trek to White Lakes Road to start our search for Mountain Plovers and Long-billed Curlews.
Our first stop was at a dried playa, about 1.5 miles west. We piled out of our cars, set up the scopes and started scanning the fields on either side of the road.
The air was alive with the chittering of Horned Larks. The stiff clumps of grass hid them from view; however, occasionally one or two would fly out of the scrub and land a short ways away.
“Do some have white throats?” someone asked and then started thumbing through a field guide. “They’re females or juveniles,” she later informed us.
Two raptors soared just above the horizon. One of them flashed its white tail – a Ferruginous Hawk. The other one turned out to be a Swainson’s.
“That rock on the berm over near the main highway just moved,” Gale reported excitedly. “I think it is a Mountain Plover.”
Those with scopes began to focus on it. Sure enough, it was the plover, doing its two steps and then stop and listen routine. We watched it for quite a while, making sure everyone got good looks. Unfortunately, it was too far away to get a photo.
“I think it is a life bird for me,” Bonnie exclaimed.
We drove along White Lakes Road with our car windows open, listening for Cassin’s Sparrows. “I can hear one,” Rebecca, the trip leader, reported from the first car. We all pulled over.
“We should see them sky lark when they sing,” Rebecca told those who were not familiar with the species. It took awhile to locate the single bird – perched on top of a small shrub a couple hundred feet away. When it sang, it flew up and over to the top of a nearby similarly sized shrub. It flew back and forth while we watched it – singing with each flight.
An American Kestrel circled on the other side of the road, and someone spotted a Curve-billed Thrasher on top of a cholla. Several Common Ravens soared over the farmlands. A few Lark Sparrows foraged in the grasses beside the road.
A short ways further along, a Loggerhead Shrike sat on a power line next to the road.
We turned right on NM-41 and headed north for about three miles to Simmons Road, where we turned west.
A Red-tailed Hawk flew up from its perch on a fence, flashing its red tail. We began to see Chihuahuan Ravens nesting on top of power poles and in the outer angles of the upper structural support of several large power towers. Our ID was confirmed when we heard the mates call. We watched one pair as they switched incubating duties.We stopped at the location where Rebecca had seen Long-billed Curlews on her scouting trip. Sure enough, a male and female stood watch on the top of a small knoll, their necks and heads towering over the short grasses. While I only glimpsed one baby, another birder saw three.
“There’s a Burrowing Owl half-way up the hill,” someone signaled. It seemed unperturbed by 14 birders peering at it sitting at the opening of its nest hole.
We drove a short ways up the hill, where we have seen Burrowing Owls in the past; however, there was no activity.
Back on NM-14, we headed south towards Moriarty, stopping to admire a row of Chihuahuan Ravens perched in a row on the top of an old truck.
“Pull over,” my passenger encouraged me as we were heading south on NM-41. “I want to look at those raptors chasing each other.” Only a Swanson’s and Turkey Vulture she concluded.
“I think one of those raptors was a Zone-tailed Hawk,” Gary relayed when they compared notes at the next stop.
“I was thinking the same thing,” she confided, but it seemed so out of place, I didn’t think I should say anything. I could see the pattern under the wing when it turned. I wasn’t sure about the bands on the trail.”
“I have seen them at angles where both bands are not visible,” Gale relayed.We stopped at a ranch with a resident Barn Owl. Phil and Judy welcome us each year – even though this year they were setting up for their daughter’s wedding reception for 300 people. The owl didn’t like the commotion, and retreated inside the foliage of a large tree. The Brewer’s Blackbirds didn’t like it roosting in that tree and harassed it until it flew to another tree – where it peered out at us.
The ranch acts like a migrant trap. Even though most migration was finished, we spotted a late Wilson’s Warbler darting around in a large tree next to the house.“Oh, look,” someone pointed. A Black-chinned Hummingbird had made her next on the lowest portion of an electrical conduit just under the eaves. The crowd bothered her, but when most had moved on, she settled back onto her diminutive nest. Nearby, a Barn Swallow snuggled in its mud nest.
“Check out the nest in the small conifers near the highway,” Judy encouraged us. It must have been a Brewer’s Blackbird nest, since a gang of ten gathered in a nearby tree and scolded us when we found the nest with baby birds. We quickly moved away.
Closer to Moriarty, we pulled over to check out a Swainson’s Hawk nest. A young bird peered out over the edge. A juvenile Mountain Bluebird hopped in the dry grass on the other side of the highway.
We went over the list for the day while eating lunch in Moriarty – 38 species, including life birds for several. It was a wonderful day to be on the eastern plains.