We spotted our first Sandhill Cranes for the day in a field near Isleta. We were heading to the Bosque del Apache. It seemed as if there was a Red-tail Hawk sitting on a power pole about every mile along Interstate 25.
The Thursday Birders gathered in Socorro and then took the Farm-to-Market Road to drive to San Antonio. A Great Blue Heron stood at the edge of a field just beyond an irrigation ditch, but flew off as we approached. Say’s Phoebes sat on fences along the farms. A Meadowlark flashed its golden breast as it flew off a power pole. All along the road, American Kestrels flicked their tails as they perched on electrical wires.
We stopped at Jerry Oldenettel’s yard in Luis Lopez. American Robins called and flew between the trees. White-crowned Sparrows bustled in the lower branches. We looked in vain for the White-throated Sparrow that had been seen cavorting with the White-crowns over the last week. The suet feeder was the prime attraction for a Yellow-rumped Warbler. A Cedar Waxwing sat on a branch in the midst of a mixed flock of juncos and House Finches. As we walked towards the back yard, it flew to a nearby branch. “Its feathers look so smooth,” Larry commented.
We let Allison lead the way to the Barn Owl roost, since this would be a life bird for her. As we quietly approached, two owls flushed and flew to a ponderosa in Jerry’s front yard. One flew across the street, but the other one sat on a visible branch in the middle of the tree for about five minutes, gazing at us with its moon-shaped face.
Further along the road, a Ferruginous Hawk flew over a field and landed on a fence. It didn’t seem interested in the Roadrunner that trotted nearby.
About 80 American Wigeons foraged in one of the fields. Since many of the ponds at the refuge were frozen over, dabbling ducks sought food in nearby fields.
Horned Larks and American Pipits circled over a freshly plowed farm. I could see them as they swirled, but had trouble locating them on the ground. “Just keep looking at the dirt until it moves,” Barbara advised. Pretty soon I began to see ‘dirt clods’ that stirred and could make out the birds.
A Loggerhead Shrike perched in a barren cottonwood. As we looked closer we could see something dangling from its mouth. “It is probably the entrails of its prey,” Sarah commented. “They used to be called butcher birds since they often impale their prey to save for later.”
Driving along the farm road in San Antonio we spotted a White-breasted Nuthatch working its way up a tree in someone’s front yard. A Savannah Sparrow was perched on a fence post, amongst White-crowned and Song Sparrows. A flock of female Red-winged Blackbirds roosted in the branches of a tree. American Goldfinches scrounged the seed heads of a row of sunflower plants.
The trees at the refuge Visitor’s Center were filled with Chihuahuan Ravens. A covey of Gambel’s Quail scurried in the underbrush around the ‘quail pond.’
On the tour loop, we saw two Double-crested Cormorants perched on a snag in the rookery pond. While Karen and Gary had seen a Black-crowned Night Heron there the day before, we were unable to spot it.
Just past the Scout Deck there was movement in a Coyote Willow. Then we saw the yellow head of a Verdin. Further along a Ruby-crowned Kinglet flitted in another willow.
The duck population seemed low; however, according to the refuge counts, it was comparable with February 1 in prior years. Each pond seemed to attract its own species. We stopped at the first overlook. While we were still bundled in our parkas, the weather was starting to warm up and probably was above freezing. We enjoyed watching Buffleheads swim in the thawing water. A Marsh Wren called from the nearby bushes.
As we arrived at the boardwalk, we heard the distinctive call of a Kildeer. As we alighted from our cars, it circled and flew off. We didn’t spend long on the boardwalk, since there was no waterfowl in the pond. Some of the group had seen a Common Merganser in one of the inlets along the road, but it wasn’t visible from the boardwalk. A flock of Northern Pintails hovered in a thawed area of the pond across road.
As we rounded the corner, about ten Ross’s Geese swam by, led by a Snow Goose. Trip leader Sei, stopped to share the distinctions with a group on an Oasis tour. The road followed an alternative route that traveled mostly through open fields. When we arrived at the marshy area again, there was a single Cinnamon Teal, Pied-billed Grebe and Canvasback, along with Ring-necked Ducks. A Greater Yellowlegs worked a grassy area in the pond.
Along the Farm Loop, three Bald Eagles circled overhead. Their heads caught the light as they orbited overhead as if they were dancing. One landed in a tree nearby. It looked majestic on it perch – “just like the dollar bill,” Larry commented. There were several other opportunities to watch eagles along this stretch of the refuge.
The fields and trees along the northern end of the tour road were filled with crows. “I don’t think I have seen this many crows at the refuge before,” Sei stated.
We gathered on the flight deck, but it was too early for the cranes and geese to fly in. When we reviewed our list for the day, we determined that we had seen 68 species.
By time we reached the north end of Socorro County on the drive back to Albuquerque, we watched flock after flock of cranes and geese headed south in the fading light, as if pulled by a magnet to the safety of the refuge ponds.