Migrating Shorebirds at Belen Marsh

The rain came down steadily as we cruised down Interstate 25 towards Belen. However, it was only misting when the Thursday Birders assembled in the parking lot behind Taco Bell, and by time we had gathered at the side of the marsh, it had almost stopped. The good news was that we would not be looking into the sun while trying to identify shorebirds.

Peeps were working the edge of the main pond. Most were Western Sandpipers; however, with diligence we picked out Least Sandpipers with their straighter bills and greenish legs. They really looked diminutive next to the Killdeer that were grazing near by. As the shorebirds scattered and reassembled, we identified some Baird’s Sandpipers. They were slightly larger than the Least and Westerns and had a brown wash across their chests.

Phalaropes were swimming in circles in the middle of the pond. Without looking too closely, we assumed they were Wilson’s who regularly make a stop at this location during migration. Bev made us take a closer look. “I think they are Red-necked Phalaropes,” she asserted. “Look, they have a black mask. Wilson’s don’t have that during the fall.” This was a new bird for many and we all took turns looking through the many scopes.

Watching the shorebirds forage made me ponder the wonders of migration. Three months ago I saw the Red-necked Phalarope, Western Sandpiper and Long-billed Dowitcher on their breeding grounds on the arctic tundra. I fantasized that the Red-necked Phalaropes were among those I saw displaying in the partially frozen ponds in Barrow. However, since it was a mixed group of males and females, they undoubtedly were juveniles on their way to their wintering grounds off the Western coast of Mexico or Chile.

We watched a Wilson’s Snipe and two Long-billed Dowitchers on the far side of the pond. A Yellow-rumped Warbler landed briefly in a small bush, and then flew off. A few Barn Swallows sailed in and out. A mixed flock of Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds flew in synchronization. A Belted Kingfisher sat patiently on a wire beyond the marsh and a Cooper’s Hawk was almost camouflaged in the bare branches of a small tree.

A number of waterfowl were enjoying the pond: Mallards, Gadwall, Northern Shovelers, Ruddy Duck, both Blue and Green-winged Teal, and Cinnamon Teal. The real surprise was a pair of Red Heads.

“A Sora,” Gail exclaimed, and our attention focused on the reeds on the north end of the pond. It ducked back between the grasses, but pretty soon a Virginia Rail made an appearance. After watching patiently, the Sora reappeared so everyone could get a good look.

Most of the group made their way across the grasses at the south end of the pond to the dirt road on the other side. As we walked north, we saw an early White-crowned Sparrow, a Green-tailed Towhee, Western Meadowlarks, a Kestrel, a Black Phoebe and a lingering Western Kingbird. As we made our way back across the brushy weeds to the parking lot, Rebecca spotted a Brewer’s Sparrow.

When we went over the checklist over lunch at Jason’s in Los Lunas, we were delighted with a total of 48 species for the day.


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