As we pulled into the parking lot by the Visitor’s Center at the Bosque del Apache, we stopped to admire a male Kestrel perched on top of some dead branches. Movement lower in the tree caught our attention. We were surprised to see a Roadrunner trying to sneak up through the branches towards the Kestrel. Before it was too late, the Kestrel took off, leaving a stymied Roadrunner.
After admiring the hummingbirds swarming the three feeders on the side of the Visitor’s Center, we moseyed inside to check out the recent sightings book. The refuge staff at the reception area warned us about wasps. “People have been stung on the boardwalks and viewing decks,” he cautioned. “The wasps get disturbed as the boards creek, they fly out the cracks between the boards as people move and then attack them.”
The day was warm; however, a light breeze kept mosquitoes at bay most of the day. The cattails were starting to turn brown and grasses were yellowing. The native marsh plants in some of the impoundments already had been plowed under in preparation for refuge flooding in October.
The refuge is an important stopping point for migrating birds of all kinds. We were specifically interested in shorebird migration.
While part of the group decided to brave the Eagle Scout deck, the rest of us, including myself who has strong reactions to insect bites of any kind, decided to scope the pond at a location where we could observe the waterfowl and shorebirds from the road. At first all of the ducks, in eclipse plumage, looked like brown blobs. Rather than using color for field identification, we had to rely on size and shape. Only the male Ruddy Duck, with its blue bill, had any color.
Avocets and Black-necked Stilts appeared to tip toe thru the water. White-faced Ibis flew overhead. Individual Wilson’s Phalaropes spun like whirligigs to stir up aquatic fly larvae. Both Least and Western Sandpipers were foraging on the edges of the pond. A Black Phoebe repeatedly flew out from its perch on top of one of the water intake valves to nab one of the prevalent insects. As we walked back to the cars, we stopped to admire a Blue Grosbeak singing from the top of a nearby cottonwood. Lark Sparrows flushed as we drove along the Marsh Loop.
As we approached the Boardwalk, we stopped to peer through a low place in the rushes at six White Pelicans in the adjacent pond. Western and Clark’s Grebes swam by. Following them was a smaller grebe. In fall plumage, it was hard to tell whether it was an Eared or Horned Grebe, and its identification was hotly debated as different field guides were consulted. As we dickered over the grebes, the pelicans took to the air and circled overhead, their black wing-tips visible during their graceful flight.
“Look at the Peregrine Falcon,” Rebecca announced. It was dive-bombing some grebes that would dive under the water just before the peregrine reached them. What a show! Neotropic Cormorants sunned themselves on the snags. A Wilson’s Warbler flitted in the willows along the Boardwalk Trail.
Olive-sided Flycatchers were abundant as we drove along the other side of the loop. When we stopped to look at a tree that had three of them perched at various locations, we were able to watch a Swainson’s Hawk circle overhead. It is the only hawk that can eat its prey while it continues to fly, which in migration is often large insects.
Several species of swallow swirled around the rookery pond. Every so often, they would all settle down on the branches of a dead tree, where they looked like decorative Easter Egg trees.
At the parking lot next to the Marsh Overlook Trail, we stopped to gaze at a bat curled up in a crevice outside the restroom entrance. There are six species of bat that spend the summer at the refuge. In its curled up position, it was difficult to make an ID.
A juvenile Prairie Falcon circled overhead. A straggling coot tried to make it across the road to the safety of the ditch. As he waddled, the falcon swooped down and nailed it.
As we headed for the cars, Black Terns circled overhead. At the Flight Deck the Least and Western Sandpipers were close enough to help us hone our fall shorebird identification skills, noting the size differential and the variation in the bills.
We were hoping to see a Virginia Rail. One scooted between clumps of marsh grass. Suddenly it flushed. “There it goes,” I exclaimed. Its tailless cinnamon body quickly disappeared into another stand of long grass.
A couple of cars stopped at the Belen Marsh on the way back to Albuquerque, where in addition to the shorebirds seen at the Bosque like the Least and Western Sandpiper and Kildeer, they saw a Semipalmated Plover, 2-3 Solitary Sandpipers, 2-3 Lesser Yellowlegs, and at least 4 Baird’s Sandpipers. While there were prairie dogs in the nearby field, there was no evidence of Burrowing Owls. The area was overgrown with weeds. “This is not their habitat,” Sei reminded the group.
Counting all of the birds seen and heard during the day, there were 74 species!