Hot air balloons began to ascend from the balloon field north of Alameda Blvd. as I headed to the Alameda Open Space to lead a walk for Central New Mexico Audubon. By time I reached the parking lot, the sky was filled with balloons participating in the Friends and Lovers Balloon Rally. While they were beautiful to look at, I was glad they were some distance away from the Open Space, so the birds would not be disturbed by the sound of the burners.
As people began to gather, a flock of 14 American Robins flew over the parking lot.
Two people had never been to this location. “The last time I was here was before the area was developed into an Open Space,” Jeff commented. Two of the people visit here often – in fact, I had run into them on New Year’s Day.Our first stop was the Alameda Wetlands just south of the parking area. Wood Ducks and a few Mallards, an American Coot and Northern Shovelers were hovering near the shores. Then a bird popped up – a male Common Merganser. I had never seen a diving duck in the wetlands pond before.
As we walked to the river, a flock of Bushtits flew into the bushes next to us. Some in the group commented that it was the closest they had been to these busy and diminutive birds.
“We are going to play ‘Where’s Waldo,’” I told the group when we had assembled at the river. “There are three different rare gulls that have been seen within the past week. We need to systematically scan the flocks on the sandbars to see if we can spot any of them. We are looking for a Franklin’s Gull in breeding plumage. I saw it earlier in the week; it has a black hood and red bill.”
I went on to describe the characteristics of the Mew and immature Thayer’s Gulls.
Before long, we spotted the Franklin’s Gull. It kept disappearing as it walked behind Ring-billed Gulls until it was finally out on the edge where everyone got a good view. “I can see its red bill,” someone exclaimed.
“I think that is the Thayer’s Gull with that flock,” I pointed. “Look, it is brownish, lighter on the top of the head and is larger than the gulls near it.” Michelle peered through my scope and confirmed that it was similar to the Herring Gulls she was familiar with in the Midwest. We looked at a comparison of the two gulls on the Sibley’s app on my phone, and she agreed that it was a Thayer’s and not a Herring.
We had no luck locating the Mew Gull, which would look like a Ring-billed, but with no black or red coloration on the bill.
While we were searching for the gulls, we carefully checked the other waterfowl on the river and noticed a female Common Merganser taking a morning snooze with some Mallards.
Searching for unusual gulls was certainly like looking for Waldo – or a needle in a haystack.
We walked through the bosque, stopping to watch a mixed flock of Black-capped Chickadee, White-breasted Nuthatch and Downey Woodpecker, and then continued under the bridges.
“This is a good location to see nesting Cliff Swallows in late spring,” I told the group – pointing to the underside of the old bridge. “And, of course, the bosque attracts Blue Grosbeak, Summer Tanager and Yellow-breasted Chat, among other riparian species.
As we headed north through the bosque, a Bald Eagle zipped overhead. The gulls resting on the sandbar north of the bridge swirled up, but fortunately settled back down again.
We walked through the clearing in the willows that took us out to the water’s edge and provided a good vantage point for the gulls resting in that area. We again scanned the flocks and discovered that the Franklin’s Gull had flown north and was now among these gulls.
There were a few American Coots mingling with the gulls.
Beyond the gulls were four Gadwalls. “You can identify them by their black butts,” I shared.
Before long, the eagle was back. This time when it stirred up the flock of gulls, they headed south rather than settling back down in the same location.
“Once the gulls leave, the coots will be fair game for the eagle,” someone commented. “I used to see that all the time on the Mississippi.”
Our next stop was the old bridge where we watched a Great Blue Heron and three Black-crowned Night-Herons poised in their respective fishing spots along the west shore of the river.
Our final area to explore was north along the drain. Yellow-rumped Warblers – all of which were Myrtle’s with white throats – did fly-catching from the willows, while Ruby-crowned Kinglets flitted in trees.
“I saw the red on its head,” someone exclaimed after one of the kinglets stayed immobile for almost half a minute.
Song Sparrows appeared at the edge of the drain to take a drink and then disappeared into the shrubs.
A Black Phoebe, our first for the morning, was perched on a small tree on the levee, rather than near the water.
White-crowned Sparrows searched for seeds in some scrub between the drain and the levee.
We were intent on finding the Winter Wren that had been reported along the drain a few days earlier. All of a sudden a wren appeared at the water’s edge. While we were disappointed that it was not the wren we were seeking, we were delighted to have good looks at the usually-elusive Marsh Wren. The white-striped black triangle pattern on its back was clearly visible.
A robin-sized bird with a long tail flew over the drain and then landed on a limb over the water. “It’s a Sharp-shinned Hawk,” I said.
After waiting for quite a while for a chance to see or hear the Winter Wren, we decided to call it quits and headed back towards the parking area. A flock of Canada Geese flew down to join others that were floating in the drain.
When we gathered at the parking lot, we were surprised to discover that it was past noon. It had been a delightful morning sharing one of my favorite winter birding locations with others.