Migrating Birds at Sulphur and Cienega Canyons

The air was cool and there was a slight breeze as approximately 20 Thursday Birders piled out of cars at Sulphur Canyon picnic area in the Sandia Mountains. It was not yet 9 a.m. and tiny insects still swarmed over the wet area adjacent to the parking lot. We watched fascinated as Broad-tailed Hummingbirds vaulted into the air to snatch the insects, then dropped down into the bushes, over and over again.

Wilson’s Warblers were migrating through the Sandias. They seemed to be in every other deciduous tree as we wandered up the paved trail. We did see a few other warblers, including Yellow-rumped and Yellow. Chipping Sparrows flew in and out of the grassy area at the end of the parking lot. House Wrens, Hermit Thrushes and Plumbeous Vireos were heard and observed by some.

Part of the group stopped to observe a flycatcher perched on a bare branch. It was back lit, which made identification difficult. “It is a Western Wood Peewee,” Abby explained. “Look at how it turns its head from side to side. When we attended the ABA Flycatcher workshop, it was one of the behavioral characteristics we learned.” That clue helped us to identify other peewees during the morning.
Some also saw an Olive-sided Flycatcher.

White-breasted Nuthatches flew from ponderosa to ponderosa. We heard the tin horn call of Red-breasted Nuthatches, and a few flew into view. Stellar’s Jays sounded like horase crows as they called from the pines. At times we could see more than one jostling in the same tree. Both Downey and Hairy Woodpeckers were busy during our visit. The red feather shafts of a Northern Flicker flashed as one flew through the trees.

We chuckled over the playful antics of two Abert’s Squirrels bopping along and chasing through the trees.

Butterflies abounded, especially the California Sister, which we were able to identify with Jan’s field guide. It is an inhabitant of oak woods and was striking with a white band and orange tips against the black background of the wings.

At mid-morning we headed over to Cienega Canyon. As we walked along the road to the nature trail, we crossed a stream where we stopped to see who might be lurking. “This would be the perfect habitat for Northern Waterthrush,” Dave commented. In fact, Lannois had spotted one, an occasional visitor during migration.

The interpretive trail borders the eastern side of a wet meadow, and we learned from one of the interpretive signs that cienega, in Spanish, means ‘wet meadow.’ The stream that runs through the meadow starts from a spring a half-mile up the canyon.

Another stream runs along the road on the western edge of the meadow. Dense shrubs grew along both sides of the stream bed. I stopped to look, hoping that I too would see a waterthrush. In fact, a small bird was sitting on a branch, its field marks shrouded in the shade.

“That’s your bird,” Barbara exclaimed, as it flew down into the braided roots on the far side of the stream. I had been hoping to see a MacGillivary’s Warbler that day.

Turtle-bear stopped to watch. From her vantage point, she also was able to see the bird. Then it disappeared. The rest of the group headed up to the parking area and birded a trail that wandered through the picnic area, crossing the stream at several places. I stayed back hoping to spot the warbler when it reappeared. Disappointed, I rejoined the group as they were ready to leave and learned they had seen a MacGillivary’s along the stream in that location, as well as Townsend’s and Grace’s Warblers.

With the field marks embedded in my mind, I stared in amazement when I looked out my bedroom window the next morning and discovered a female MacGillivary’s Warbler perched on a branch in the shrub. It sat there long enough for me to see the broken eye-ring. If birds could smile, I would say it was grinning at me.


One thought on “Migrating Birds at Sulphur and Cienega Canyons

  1. I wasn’t able to attend the trip to Sulphur Canyon, but thanks to your write-up, I learned the tip on Western Wood-PeWee identification.

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