Fall Birding in the Sandia Mountains

As soon as we got out our cars at the 10K trailhead parking, we noticed flocks of birds high in the conifers.

“Cassin’s Finches,” Mary Lou confirmed. “Notice that the male has a pale pink chest and the streaking on the female is crisper with a whiter background.” They would perch in the tree tops, then fly off together and land in another tree.

Grey-headed Juncos were also flying in small flocks, but tended to work the lower branches.

The day was cool and crisp and the wind was blowing. We zipped up our windbreakers and fleeces against the chilly air and started north on the trail. We hadn’t gone far, when trip leader Melissa signaled for us to turn around and return to the parking lot.

“Based on the recent report from the Sandia District Ranger Station of the potential for dead trees to fall, I think that it is not safe for us to continue walking in the woods,” Melissa told us.

We resumed watching the Cassin’s Finches. “I wish there would be some Red Crossbills,” Robert said. Almost as soon as he had uttered his desire, someone noticed female crossbills mixed with the finch flock.

“Crossbill in the scope,” Rebecca announced. As we peered through her scope, the female crossbill’s yellow wash was evident, as was the crossed bill, which can be difficult to see with binoculars when they are perched in the tree tops.

We decided to regroup at the Doc Long Picnic area at a much lower elevation, where there would not be the danger of dead trees.

There was less wind as we headed down the trail at the picnic area and we reveled in the trees beginning to turn.

The first birds we encountered were more Cassin’s Finches.

“I wonder if this is going to be an irruptive year,” Lannois pondered. “Perhaps it bodes well for winter birds,” she continued hopefully.

There were two groups of Ruby-Crowned Kinglets. It gave me a good opportunity to look for the dark bar behind the second white wing bar. It was something I had not paid close attention to until I was trying to differentiate a Hutton’s Vireo from a Ruby-crowned Kinglet while in Arizona.

A couple of Robins popped in and out of the trees along the trail.

After circling back to the picnic area, most of the group decided to call it a day. Two car-loads decided to bird up the trail on the other side of the picnic area. It proved to be a good decision.

Almost immediately the squeaky call of a Pygmy Nuthatch attracted our attention. Then, a White-breasted Nuthatch flew in. A Mountain Chickadee called nearby.

A male Red-naped Sapsucker landed and began to work the trees on the right side of the trail, while a Hairy Woodpecker kept busy on the left.

“Look at the Raven sitting on the picnic table,” Robert motioned. “From this angle it looks as big as a Red-tailed Hawk.”

Then another woodpecker flew in. “It has a back like a ladder-back, but it is larger,” I relayed.

“Does it have a brown head?” Rebecca asked. “It may be a Williamson’s Sapsucker.”

The bird never landed anywhere long, but as it flew near where I stood, I could see its head briefly. “Yes, it is a tannish color, much like a Gila Woodpecker,” I reported.

We followed it as it moved from tree to tree, usually quickly working its way to the back of a trunk. Finally, it flew in where we could get a good look and see the head and yellow patch on its upper breast. A definitive Williamson’s Sapsucker ID.

While the morning ended with a list only in the 20’s, the group concluded that we had seen a great variety of birds we don’t see often.


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