Fall Birds at Pena Blanca and Cochiti

The temperature hovered just above freezing as we headed out for Pena Blanca and Chochiti Lake; however, by time we arrived, the sun had warmed the air to the mid 40’s. The leaves of most of the trees had fallen; however, a few cottonwoods hung tenaciously to their golden leaves.

We turned down Arroyo Leyba Lane in Pena Blanca to scour the trees and fields for fall birds. While some of us scanned a mixed flock of Starlings and Red-winged Blackbirds and studied a couple of Eurasian Collared Doves in a cottonwood, Rebecca was alerted to the call of American Pipits. A large flock of pipits was working the edges of a drainage ditch while characteristically wagging their tails up and down. We put the scope on them for a better look At first glance they looked like sparrows; however, their legs were noticeably longer and they held their heads up high as they bounced. When a truck drove by, they rose up in a swirl and flew off before returning to the ditch.

As we walked along a side road we spotted flocks of Dark-eyed Juncos, a Stellar’s Jay, a White-breasted Nuthatch, and a Spotted Towhee. We stopped to scrutinize a pale dove sitting on a wire. “There is something different about it,” trip leader Sylvia commented. While pale, it was smaller than the Eurasian Collared Dove and had white under tail coverts. Undoubtedly, a Ringed Turtle Dove, we concluded.

A female American Kestrel was sitting in the bare branches of a distant tree. We saw it fly by several times as we traversed through the village.

As we headed along Arroyo Leyba, we saw a hawk sitting on top of a power pole, with a dark back, white breast and dark streaked feathers above the legs. Then it flew and I could see the white tail – a Ferruginous Hawk, we decided.

“There’s a Lincoln’s Sparrow in the dried sunflowers,” Pat said. “There are actually three of them.” In the same bush were White-crowned Sparrows and Pine Siskins.

When we rounded the corner, Sally alerted us to a Downey Woodpecker drumming on a fence post. Across the road a Loggerhead Shrike posed on top of a small barren tree, while two Western Meadowlarks danced in and out of the weeds. Rebecca heard, and then spotted, a Kildeer in the field.

Several in the group observed a Bald Eagle flying in the distance.

As we finished our drive through Pena Blanca, we were disappointed at not seeing a Black-billed Magpie. Even though Pena Blanca is at the southern edge of its range, it is often seen at this location.

Our next stop was Cochiti. As we drove slowly across the bridge below the spillway, we easily saw a flock of Ring-billed Gulls sitting on some rocks, a large group of Buffleheads, a pair or Common Mergansers and a Belted Kingfisher.

As we stepped from our cars at the Cochiti Lake Overlook, we heard the familiar call of migrating cranes. They came in waves. Different groups seemed to congregate and circle overhead, as if conferring on the route. The undersides of their bodies and wings seemed iridescent as they reflected the sunlight.
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Flashes of bright blue caught our attention in the juniper bushes in the campground below. Both Mountain and Western Blue Birds busily feasted on juniper berries. At one point a number of them rested on branches in the juniper, looking like Christmas tree ornaments. We heard the bell-like tone of a Townsend’s Solitaire, but didn’t see it until it flew out with some of the blue birds.

At the edge of the lake, we were surprised by a pair of Swan Geese, along with some other domesticated waterfowl. Evidently the geese often get fed by picnickers and came out of the water walking towards us and honking. We, of course, were interested in wild birds and set up our scopes to check out the waterfowl and grebes on the far side of the lake. There were large groups of Buffleheads and Coots, along with Western Grebes.
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“I have either a Horned or Eared Grebe,” reported Rebecca. “It definitely has a bustle, but it is too far away to make a definitive identification at this time of year,” she continued.

A Ring-billed Gull flew over, touching down to grab something to eat, and then circled back, over and over.

At the Village of Cochiti Lake, we heard the laughing call of a flock of Pinon Jays as they flew over.

One Western Blue Bird perched high in the top of a tree,
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while a row of others sat on a fence behind the shopping center, taking turns flying down and grabbing seeds from the weeds in the grass below.

In another tree was a Cassin’s Finch, while the chamisas were filled with Bushtits working their way across the field.

As we headed out of the parking lot, we saw our fiftieth bird of the day – a pair of Scrub Jays swooping into the trees.

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