“Even if we don’t see any birds, it is a beautiful day to be outside and visiting the Bosque del Apache,” Mel commented as our Thursday Birder carpool caravan headed south from San Antonio towards the refuge. The sky was the deep azure of autumn, the grasses in the fields glistened as if they were painted in honey, and the leaves of the Rio Grande Cottonwood trees were turning a golden yellow. It had warmed enough for us to shed our jackets.
We spotted a raptor in the top of a barren tree and stopped at a pull-out right inside the refuge boundaries. It had its back to us, but the consensus was that it was a Red-tailed Hawk because of its rounded shape and short tail. We had already seen them and Northern Harriers soaring over the fields.
Several Western Meadowlarks flew up from the grasses where they were camouflaged, showing us their yellow breasts. A Loggerhead Shrike caught our attention. “We saw a Black-capped Chickadee chasing a shrike as we drove through San Antonio,” Gail relayed.
“I hear pipits,” Rebecca commented. We searched the fields, but were not able to see them.
At the Visitor’s Center we perused the sightings book and made note of the locations where the re-introduced Aplomado Falcons had been seen. White-crowned Sparrows were drinking and bathing in the ponds outside of the viewing window.
Our first stop was the Boy Scout Deck. All of the scopes were focused on a raptor on the far side of the pond, hopeful that it might be the falcon. However, it was at such a distance that we were not able to make an ID.
Wintering waterfowl was starting to congregate. Northern Pintails, Gadwalls, Northern Shovelers and American Wigeons were eating or napping in the pond. A pair of Buffleheads kept diving out of view. Year-round American Coots and Ruddy Ducks swam lazily.
A flock of geese, mostly Ross’s, was resting on the far side of the pond.
We stopped on the other side of the road to check for shore birds in the furrows of the freshly plowed field and rivulets of water seeping into the impoundment. More American Pipits; however, the noise and activity of a tractor working nearby caused them to scatter and most didn’t get a good view. They were constantly moving, “like they had ADD,” Karen commented.
A few mature Ring-billed Gulls flew overhead, their black wing tips flashing as they flew. An occasional Marsh Wren could be heard rustling in the reeds, then popping up into view.
“I counted 24 turtles,” reported Jan. The noses of some Painted Turtles could be seen poking above the water as they swan. However, most were sunning themselves on logs.
Most of the fields were in the process of being prepared for winter flooding. Some of the areas that previously had been flooded for wintering waterfowl are being rotated and planted with wildlife food. Fields of corn were still standing, keeping the early Sandhill Cranes close to the refuge. The cranes could be seen feeding all through the refuge.
After circling the Marsh Loop, which was mostly dry, we stopped again at the field where the pipits were feeding earlier in the day. This time several were walking among the dirt clods close to the road. Everyone got good looks of their narrow bills and streaked breasts which blended in with the terrain. “Notice that they are walking,” commented Sei.
Two Phaiopeplas were perched high in a tree, their black crest clearly visible. Then they were off. Yellow-rumped Warblers flitted throughout the cottonwoods. Five Canada Geese were feeding, their heads and necks barely visible above the tall grasses. In rotation, their heads would disappear momentarily as they bent down to take a bite, and then snaked up again. It reminded me of the action of geese in a shooting gallery.
Not only was it a beautiful day, we DID see birds – 60 different species. Most agreed that the American Pipit was the ‘Bird of the Day.’