Marshes of Valencia County

Binoculars are probably the most essential piece of gear for a birding trip leader. On Wednesday nights, I always put mine on the kitchen table so they will be ready when I roll out of the house early in the morning. As I was this week’s trip leader to the marshes and flooded fields in Belen and Isleta, I also set out my scope.

The scope and tripod were still in their cases from their ride back from New Orleans in my friend Barb’s suitcase. Before I left the house I attempted to assemble them for easy retrieval. However, the tilt handle seemed jammed between the legs of the tripod, and I couldn’t loosen them. Frustrated, I put them in the trunk of my car hoping a more experienced scope-user could assist me. When I arrived at the carpool rendezvous spot, I realized I had left my binoculars on the table.

On site the tilt handle suddenly cooperated and I set up my scope. It worked well for watching the mating of Black-necked Stilts, peering at the brilliant golden heads of Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and following the paddling and dabbling of summer and lingering winter waterfowl. Thanks to Dr. Weinstein, I could rely on my bionic eyes to decipher the field marks and flying patterns of the four different species of swallows we observed during the day: Barn Swallows with their forked tails and steel blue backs, stocky-looking Cliff Swallows with squared-off tails, Northern Rough-winged Swallows with brown backs and throats, and Bank Swallows with their dark chest bands.

The morning was chilly for mid April as we arrived at the parking lot behind the Taco Bell in Belen to observe the Burrowing Owls that nest in the vacant lots to the south and west of the restaurant. Perhaps they were snug in their abandoned prairie dog burrows, as none were standing guard next to their holes in their usual fashion. So we proceeded down the street to the two ponds in the marsh.

“What’s that tall duck on the far side of the pond?” Sei asked. The group gathered and focused their scopes and binoculars. Field guide were consulted as this bird became the focus of intense observation and discussion. Was it a Gadwall, a hybrid, an escaped bird? There was no firm consensus.

Following lunch, two carloads of birders remained as we traveled to the marsh in Isleta. We had a clear view since the winter snows had flattened the reeds surrounding the pond. There were single birds of several species of water fowl. A lone Canada Goose languished, a single Lesser Scaup swam to one end of the pond and back several times, a Redhead buzzed in and out of the reeds. Insects must have been swarming because periodically all of the swallows gathered together and flew in a tight circle high above the water, then resuming their normal low swoops and sails.

Seven Black-necked Stilts danced through the water in a flooded field just north of the marsh and a pair or Cinnamon Teal swam through the shallow water. With my bare eyes I could see a scurrying movement on the far side of the water. We had been watching through the car windows as the wind was picking up. Rebecca leapt out of her car and came hurrying towards us. “Common Snipe,” she told us as we piled out of the car.

The pattered feathers of this ‘shorebird’ that is slightly larger than a robin, helped it blend into the yellow and brown grasses. Donna handed me her binoculars so I could see the white stripes on its head and back and its long probing beak.

As we savored the end of the trip and our 38 bird trip list, the nasal gurgling of Red-winged Blackbirds echoed around us.


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