New Mexico’s Rio Grande Nature Center Saturday Bird Walk

A Robin was perched on a bare limb as I pulled into a parking place. It didn’t startle and we perused each other for a few minutes before it flew off. It seemed like a good omen for a fruitful Saturday morning bird walk.

A crowd had already gathered at the parking lot blinds, several from out of state, as well as regulars.

“Look at the ducks swimming around in a circle,” Val exclaimed.

“Those are Northern Shovelers,” Gale explained. “They are dabbling ducks. When they troll in a circle, they stir up aquatic matter, making it easier for them to scoop it into their long, wide bills.”

The group was amazed at the number of Canvasbacks lounging in the pond. Someone counted 46.

Three of the five turkeys, which had been dropped off at the Nature Center a few weeks ago, looked longingly through the chain link fence into a neighbor’s yard. They have managed to elude the trapping attempts of New Mexico Fish and Game.

We wandered towards the back of the Visitor’s Center, stopping to watch a Yellow-rumped Warbler in the willows.

At the observation pond, we admired the Wood Ducks and Gadwalls. The early morning light made the green heads of the male Mallards appear almost iridescent.

It was the first day the Rio Grande Bird Research (RGBR) group began banding winter birds and nets were set up at strategic points. A Song Sparrow was caught in the first net we passed.

At the back of the wetlands, a Great Blue Heron stood expectantly, and then took flight. A Northern Harrier swooped low over the area.

Three Sandhill Cranes flew in and landed in the adjacent field and joined other cranes already feeding. Song Sparrows flitted amongst the grasses, sometimes sitting on top of dried reeds to survey the terrain.

“Notice how the Song Sparrows twitch,” Sei commented. “Even when they fly, they are jerky.”

A Ring-necked Pheasant scooted across the road and disappeared behind the dried grass.

Steve Cox, with RGBR, was waiting for us with four birds hanging in colorful net bags. “It’s quite an average day for winter birds,” he told the group and pulled the first bird out of a bag.

It was a three-year, previously-banded White-crowned Sparrow. “It has traveled to Canada or Alaska three times since it was first banded,” Steve told the group to illustrate that the band does not hamper the bird from its travels. He asked one person in the group to read the information on the band, noting that it was also in Spanish.

“We have banded over 50,000 birds since we started over 25 years ago,” Steve explained. “Our bands have been found on birds as far north as Edmonton, Canada and as far south as Mazatlan.”

As part of RGBR’s educational mission, Steve showed the assembled group that this bird is of the Gambel’s race, which is distinguished by a yellowish bill and white lores.

Before letting the bird go, he explained that a bird’s skin is transparent. By blowing on its feathers, the bird bander can determine the amount of fat deposits and its muscle mass. He then placed the bird in someone’s hand for release into the woods.

The second bird was a hatch-year White-crowned Sparrow. Its crown stripes were brown, rather than black. It was of the mountain or Rocky Mountain race. The crown stripes came all the way to the eye.

The third bag contained a smaller sparrow. “Is it a juvenile?” someone asked. Steve explained that when sparrows learn to fly, they are as big as they get.

“Notice the streaking on the breast,” Steve pointed out. “There was no streaking on the breast of the White-crowned Sparrows.” It was a Song Sparrow.

Steve let the group ferret out the race of the White-crowned Sparrow in the final bag, using the information they had gleaned from examining the first two birds. It was a juvenile Gambel’s and was half-way through its molt. “By time they are ready to fly north,” Steve explained, “they will be in full adult plumage.”

Some of the group wandered over to the Herb Garden before calling it a day and were rewarded with two Bald Eagles circling over the bosque.

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