The traffic jam on the Marsh Loop reminded me of bison sightings at Yellowstone. Cars were parked in the middle of the road, heads hung out of car windows and a photographer peered through his huge camouflage-colored lens. I pulled over to the shoulder and got out of my vehicle. On the edge of the road near the photographer were a group of Snow Geese foraging in the grass, completely undeterred by the onlookers.
Knowing that the geese and Sandhill Cranes would begin migrating north in the next few days, my daughter and I decided to spend the day at the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge. The sun shone brightly and temperatures were mild for February. The golden hued winter grasses glowed and the azure pond waters sparkled.
Our first surprise was the sighting of an Eastern Phoebe as we sat eating our lunch. I had just pointed out to Breanne the identifying marks of a Say’s Phoebe. “There’s a bird that looks similar, but its chest is white,” Breanne commented.
“It must be the way the light is shining on it,” I dismissed her. Then I put down my lunch and focused my binoculars.
“You have good observation skills,” I told her as I flipped through my field guide to the Eastern Phoebe which I knew had been sighted at the refuge.
Two Tree Swallows flew across the road. I thought I might have been mistaken until I chatted with another birder who also had seen them. “They are early migrators,” he told me. I remembered seeing them beginning to nest at a park in Seattle in mid March.
As we passed the ponds we saw the various ducks that make the refuge their winter home: Coots, Gadwalls, Northern Pintails, Lesser Scaups, Green-winged Teals, Mallards and Cinnamon Teal.
There were five or six Neotropic Cormorants sunning themselves on a low snag in the pond by the boardwalk. With the exception of a couple of Northern Shovelers trolling the far end of the pond, there were no other waterfowl.
We stopped at the end of the Marsh Loop to enjoy a hike along the Rio Viejo Trail, something I had not done before. On all of my previous winter visits, the weather was frigid and we always were anxious to get back into the car after our stops to study the birds. The 1.7 mile trail wound through a variety of native vegetation which was alive with birds. White-crowned Sparrows nibbled on dried seeds. The flash of white tail feathers let us know when juncos were present. Yellow-rumped Warblers ‘chitted’ as they worked the upper story of the Rio Grande Cottonwood trees. An occasional Ruby-crowned Kinglet with its white eye-ring giving it a wide-eyed look let us know its presence with its ‘chatter.’
As I crossed the bridge to the Chupadera Deck along the Farm Loop, I heard a sharp chit. I recognized it as the call note of a Winter Wren. In November I had chased it around a corner of the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge before I could get a look at it. I patiently focused my binoculars on the underbrush alongside the ditch bank. Before long it hopped onto a branch within view and I was able to confirm the identification.
At the end of the road there was a group of birders standing with their scopes focused north. I quickly parked the car and walked over to see what they were watching. It was a continuing education class from New Mexico State University and they were watching two Bianchi Pheasants, a sub-species of the Ring-necked Pheasant.
We walked to the Norton Blind where we saw a large group of Long-billed Dowitchers, large shorebirds, cruising through the shallow water, pecking in the mud as they traveled. A Ferruginous Hawk kept circling about, the feather of its white undersides gleaming in the late afternoon sun.
When we reached the Flight Deck, it was only 5 PM. While most of the cranes and geese would not be flying in for an hour, two Bald Eagles kept watch from their perch on a tall snag at the end of the pond. All we could see of the waterfowl was a mass of ‘duck butts,’ as they fed.
As we headed home we both agreed that a trip to the Bosque del Apache is always a treat!