“Phainopepla,” trip leader Sei signaled as the 10 car caravan of Central New Mexico Audubon Thursday Birders started along the Farm Market Road southeast of Socorro.
After rounding the bend, we stopped at a private residence where Sei knew the owner. A Fox Sparrow, rare for central New Mexico, has been wintering at his home. As we were scanning the feeder, where dozens of Pine Siskins, House Finches and female Red-winged Blackbirds were busily scarfing seed, a few wandered over to the neighbor’s storage area where a Barn Owl has a roost box.
It only took a few on-lookers to spook the owl and it flew out and across the road to the safety of the bosque – but not before most of us got a good look at its long, graceful wings and facial disc as it flew.
The Fox Sparrow was found perched in a tree in the back yard, along with a White-throated Sparrow. As everyone streamed into the area, it flew towards the front.
As I and my passengers were sitting in the car waiting for the group to leave, we kept scanning the ground under the two conifers in the front yard. “I see it,” I told Barb and Kay and they were also able to get on it. It was chicken-scratching near some White-crowned Sparrows. Fortunately, Joe was still standing near his car and was able to capture a photo.
As we drove south along the Farm Market Road, we spotted about 20 Western Meadowlarks in a field. Swirls of Horned Larks rose out of the fields, and then disappeared when they settled back down.
We all pulled over to study a Red-tailed Hawk perched in the nearby bosque – one of three we spotted along this stretch of road. As each car was able to move into a good position to see its details silhouetted against the gray sky, we could see light streaking on the breast, and even though its tail was partially shrouded by the tree limb, it was clear that there was no red – a Harlan’s sub-species. While it is seen every winter in this area, it is not common and a thrill for us to be able to study it closely.
Further along, we stopped and got out to look at an eagle. It was an immature Bald Eagle – probably a third year.
We crossed US-380 and followed a road leading among the farms where there were Savannah Sparrows, European Starlings and more Western Meadowlarks.
Once we were on NM-1, we pulled over next to a field of dairy cattle to search for longspurs among the Horned Larks – and were rewarded with looks at Chestnut-collard Longspurs, a life bird for several in the group.
Closer to the Bosque del Apche (a featured site in Birding Hot Spots of Central New Mexico) visitor center, we pulled over to look at a hawk circling on the horizon – a Rough-legged Hawk, quite rare this far south. “I could see the dark patches on its belly and wrists,” Kay exclaimed – just like the field guide.” It was a life bird for her.
It was wonderful to be able to sit outside in the picnic pavilion in January and eat our lunch.
After eating, we headed into the main part of the refuge, stopping first to admire a pair of adult Bald Eagles perched on the snag in the Flight Deck pond.
Several Buffleheads were swimming close the road.
The ponds along the Marsh Loop were teeming with Northern Pintails, Northern Shovelers and American Coots. On the right side of the road, we stopped to take a look at a Northern Harrier, one of several for the day, that was perched and eating its lunch.
While there was more water in the pond under boardwalk than when I had visited in late fall, the water level was still low, and there was a Killdeer on a patch of exposed mud. A Ring-billed Gull rested near the far end of the boardwalk.
The afternoon sun filtered through the clouds cast a golden glow on the refuge.
As we rounded the bend at the south end of the loop, a largish falcon flew across the road in front of my car and landed on a berm in the field with its back to us. By time I had stopped and gotten my scope out, it had flown away.
At one point along the road, we stopped when we saw two photographers with long lenses focused on a tree not too far from the road. Amazingly, they had spotted a Western Screech Owl sleeping with its head protruded from its roost hole. It did not seem perturbed by so many people stopping to gaze at it and take its photo.
We stopped briefly along the two-way road where some in the group were successful in locating a Wilson’s Snipe on a patch of mossy mud.
Driving along the Farm Loop, we spotted another immature Bald Eagle – our third for the day. We stopped at the Coyote Deck in hopes of seeing the Tundra Swam that had been reported for several days. “When Sei and I saw it earlier in the week, it was like a white-beacon,” Pat told us.
We carefully scanned the flocks of geese and cranes in a pond in the middle of a refuge, without spotting a ‘white beacon.’
“Where are all of the Snow Geese?” Kathy asked. Just then we looked up to see skein after skein of light geese flying in.
As we stood near the flight deck going over the list for the day, the geese continued to fly in and land in the pond behind us.
We drove to where we could get a better look, but hadn’t been there long, when I noticed one of the Bald Eagles fly from its perch. It was almost like the early morning lift-off as the geese rose up en-masse and took to the skies.
Before heading back to Albuquerque, we stopped at one of the ponds along NM-1 where the geese had landed – and had a final look before starting our trip home.
A day at the Bosque del Apache is always wonderful. Not only had we had the opportunity to see several Bald Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks and a Rough-legged Hawk, it had been a two owl day.