“There are dowitchers feeding in the flooded area,” Sam exclaimed as we pulled into the turnout along the road leading from San Antonio to the Bosque del Apache. The tight flock of 15 – 20 was exhibiting the characteristic ‘sewing-machine’ probe in the shallow water. I concluded they must be Long-billed Dowitchers, since they had the ‘swallowed a grapefruit’ look I remembered Kevin Karlson pointing out to me and my friend Barb when we met him on the upper Texas coast last spring.
“We don’t get Short-billed Dowitchers in New Mexico,” Mary Lou confirmed.
Keeping them company were Northern Shovelers, Green-winged and Cinnamon Teal and American Wigeon. A Killdeer foraged in the mud at the edge of the pond and a Greater Yellowlegs paced on the far shore.
Invisible until they rose up into the air, a small flock of Horned Larks swirled around over the pond and then landed nearby. An American Kestrel perched on the top of a small tree across the highway. It was the first of many we would see during our swing through the refuge.
Our next stop was the backside of the Norton Blind pond. A gaggle of about 10 Snow Geese floated on the far side of the pond. The distinctive call of Sandhill Cranes caught our attention as they flew in a ‘V’ overhead. Most of the cranes already had headed for Alamosa, CO, and less than a thousand remained on the refuge.
Our eyes searched the bare branches of a large tree the corner of the parking lot at the Visitor’s Center where we heard the chatter of Pine Siskins and American Goldfinches. Some of us wandered through the cactus garden. Some of the cacti were bathed in a purple hue – a protection against the cold weather.
Birds flew in and out from a feeder outside the residences behind the cactus garden – House finches, Pine Siskins, American Goldfinches, Cassin’s finches and a single waxwing.
“Look there’s a Verdin on the feeder,” Mary announced.
The rest of the group scoured the bushes around the parking lot where they spotted a pair of Verdins trying out two different nests.
Various waterfowl rested in the pond – Buffleheads, Gadwalls, Coots, Northern Pintails, Pied-billed Grebes. As they tipped their heads into the water, we could see the long tails of the Northern Pintails’ breeding plumage.
“Mallards mating,” Rebecca exclaimed as she scanned the water through her scopes.
A mature Bald Eagle sat majestically on a snag across the road. “I can see its white head with my bare eyes,” Donna stated.
There weren’t many waterfowl on the boardwalk pond. However, the dried reeds resonated with the calls of male Red-winged Black Birds, and a Marsh Wren made its check-chuck call as it darted amongst the dry stems. Out on a snag, two Big Bend Slider Turtles sat facing each other as they sunned themselves. Nearby a male Neotropic Cormorant protested when a rival male approached his mate.
At the south end of the Marsh Loop, a Greater Yellowlegs worked the edge of the water and two American Pipits paraded next to it. A small group of Ross’s geese languished on the opposite side of the road. Their smaller size was noticeable and they lacked the black ‘lips’ of Snow Geese.
Further along were Ring-necked and Ruddy Ducks and a group of Lesser Scaup. “Their heads are pointy and petite,” laughed Sam as she shared her ID clue for this species.
A Belted Kingfisher sat in studied concentration on a bare branch hanging over one of the irrigation ditches.
A Red-tailed Hawk, one of many we saw that day, sat in a cottonwood next to the road.
At the north end of the Farm Loop, crows and blackbirds gathered behind a farmer as he plowed under the cornfield that had fed the cranes and geese all winter. During the summer months the refuge staff cooperates with local farmers to grow alfalfa and corn on some of the land. The farmers harvest the alfalfa and leave the corn standing for the wintering geese and cranes.
A Ring-necked Pheasant scurried along a ditch next to the road.
It was almost 4 p.m. when we gathered on the flight deck. What a difference a few weeks makes. The air was warm and the ambiance was calm. It seemed strange not to see the cranes and geese that began gathering at this time during the winter.
We checked off the species seen during the day – 67, which was pretty good for a between seasons visit.