Following the Southwest Birding Trail

We exit Interstate 25 at Caballo Lake and head south. The aroma of onions wafts through the windows of the car as we pass fields ready for harvest. Yellow-breasted Chats call from the Russian Olives as we ease the car down the access road to Percha Dam State Park, our first stop along the Southwest Birding Trail (#34).

At the state park, which is nestled among the cottonwood trees along the Rio Grande River, we plan to look for nesting and juvenile birds. We spot a number of silky black Phainopeplas perched in trees laden with mistletoe – one of their favorite treats. Their crest gives them a perky appearance. When they fly, we can see the white wing patches on the tips of their wings.

One of our target birds is the Vermillion Flycatcher and we don’t have to wait long. A female whose belly and flanks are washed in pink sits in a small tree in a grassy area. On the ground below her is the dead body of her mate, its bright red feathers still glistening against the grass. Ray Reed took this photo of the perched bird.

Vermillion Flycatcher

Vermillion Flycatcher

“Blue Grosbeak,” I call out quietly, but it flies off before the others can see it.

The tinny calls of Great-tailed Grackles provide a tropical ambiance, even though the area is fairly parched. Robins, Western Kingbirds and House Finches are everywhere. When someone starts to discount House Finch sightings, Karen tells us that they are endemic to New Mexico and a sign of a healthy ecosystem.

The willows and cottonwoods bordering the Rio Grande are alive with bird song and I feel good about being able to recognize the song of a Black-headed Grosbeak before I spot it sitting on a nearby branch. Yellow Warblers are also singing.

Just before we head into the undeveloped area beyond the campground, the group stops to watch a Bullocks Oriole through the scope.

As we walk along the trail, we flush a Green Heron from its hiding place along the shore. I find myself ahead of the group when I see a bird sitting on a small limb over the river. When I raise my binoculars, I can see the red head and clown face of an Acorn Woodpecker and I remember hearing its laughing call. It flies off before the others arrive.

Further along we are startled when a flash of red and orange shoots from the foliage and lands briefly in the branch of a cottonwood before heading across the river. As we pull out our field guides hoping it is a Flame-colored Tanager, we are equally delighted to identify it as a first spring Summer Tanager.

We watch two Western Wood Peewees on their perches across the river. Mockingbirds provide background music as they demonstrate their musical repertoire.

We are disappointed not to find any Lucy’s Warblers, which are usually prevalent in the mesquite during late spring and summer.

Barn and Cliff Swallows are alternately swooping over the irrigation ditch catching insects and then flying into their mud nests under the bridge. I can see their tails peeking out from beneath the bridge supports.

We stop briefly below Caballo Dam where Yellowthroats are calling, and then head to the boat launch area at Caballo Lake State Park, both #32 on the Southwest Birding Trail. The lake is quiet; however, we pause on our way out to watch a Curbed-bill Thrasher tentatively stalking a Tarantula Wasp. Two Swainson’s Hawks are circle overhead.

Then we head west on state highway 152 through fairly barren terrain as the road slowly climbs to the foothills. We stop briefly in Hillsboro, glad for a brief respite under the large cottonwood trees that line the street in the main part of the former ghost town.

The road curves and winds its way up to Emory Pass at a little over 8200 feet, and we take the turnoff leading to the Forest Service lookout, stop #31 on the Southwest Birding Trail. While the view over the valley and ghost town of Kingston is spectacular, it is birds we are here to see. A Mountain Chickadee is busy in the trees adjacent to the parking area. We catch glimpse of a warbler-sized bird flitting from branch to branch.

“I can see white on the edges of the tails when it flies,” Abby says. We are pretty sure it is an Olive Warbler, but it doesn’t stay still long enough for us to see its head amongst the foliage. As we are craning to see this bird, Sei, the trip leader, has called one in below us on the access road.

We park in the pull-off across from the forest look-out road to watch a Violet-green Swallow going in and out of its nest in a secondary cavity high up on the dead trunk of a Ponderosa Pine. Several of us walk along the trail where we hear a Hermit Thrush singing.

Our next stop is the Iron Creek Campground (Stop #30), a pine-oak habitat. A man sitting on a lawn chair at one of the sites reading a magazine spots our binoculars and tells us that he has just seen “a red and black bird that flashed white on its wings,” – a perfect description of a Painted Redstart.

Even though we can hear the Redstart calling, it will have to wait. A flycatcher grabs our attention with its ‘tail quiver’ each time it lands. Those darned empidomaxes! We began the group detective work to make our ID. Short-notched tail, eye ring, very short, narrow bill. “I can see the yellow on the base of the bill,” Mary says. When we narrow it down to a Hammond’s, we play the song and call note on Nancy’s iPod to verify our conclusion.

Then a Painted Redstart flies in, which is a life bird for some of our group. It flashes its tail at us and sings its melodic whistle each time it moves from branch to branch. As it finally flies off, a Red-faced Warbler lands in the tree in front of us. How good can it get!

We linger in the campground, following the road along the creek. More Painted Redstarts dance in the trees. Hermit Thrushes sing, House Wrens scamper in the brush along the creek, and Northern Flickers and Acorn Woodpeckers fly to their nesting holes. A male Western Tanager pops by for a visit.

I see a flash of gray and white, and then red as a small bird flies down into the still dry weeds. Pretty soon it flies back out – a Red-faced Warbler. “They hide their nests in the weeds along creek banks,” Ray tells me.

As we are about to leave we notice a bird with gray wings, white wing bars and a yellow head. Is it the Olive Warbler we are coveting or is it a female Western Tanager? The bill is too long and slender for a tanager and when it flies, we can see white under the tail. We conclude it is an Olive Warbler – a life bird for me!

We spend the night in Silver City and head out at 6 a.m. for the McMillan campground beyond Pinos Altos, #23 on the Southwest Birding Trail. A Dark-eyed Junco is singing its heart out at the top of a ponderosa where the sun has reached, and we can hear a Cordilleran Flycatcher’s high pitched peet. We can’t see it yet in the shaded foliage.

As the sun begins to warm patches of the road, a large hummingbird flies by, and briefly lands on a nearby branch. Its green throat and purple crown flashes. “A Magnificent.” Karen gasps.

We admire the blossoms on the New Mexico Locust growing profusely along the road.

Reluctantly we head for our next stop – Mangas Springs, located about 18 miles northwest of Silver City. We exit off of US 180 onto a stretch of the old highway where cottonwood trees tower alongside Mangas Creek and adjacent wetlands.

Nancy plays the call of a Virginia Rail and two answer her, but don’t come into view. Male Red-winged Blackbirds are calling on territory. As we wander down the road, we notice a male and female Vermillion Flycatcher flying in and out of a tree and surmise there must be a nest. After a while we locate a mossy nest with a female just settling down. We presume it is a Vermillion Flycatcher, but can’t see enough of her to make a positive ID.

We hear a Northern Cardinal singing and soon spot him amongst the foliage. A first year Summer Tanager flies by and we easily identify it this time. Then we see a male Western Tanager and soon afterwards a Black-headed Grosbeak. Western Wood Peewees are present and Yellow Warblers are singing.

Gary beckons us down the road where he has spotted a Great-horned Owl sitting on a low branch in the shade of the cottonwoods. Dave sets up his scope so we can get a good look.

My legs ache from standing for over an hour and I head back to sit on the bumper of Donna and Bob’s camper. As I sit there I become fascinated by the collaboration in a nearby ant colony. I see an ant approaching with a seed that must be ten times its length. It has trouble maneuvering it into the hole. Immediately another ant stops to help and soon a third joins in until they position the seed to be able to enter the entrance to the nest.

Our next turn-off is on Bill Evans Lake Road and we stop at a riparian area along the Gila River. Amongst a flock of Turkey Vultures we notice a Common Black Hawk.

The only birds at Bill Evans Lake are Common Ravens and American Crows. Mel, Donna and Abby find the only shade.

We drive further down the road until it dead ends at a riparian area along the river, #20 on the Southwest Birding Trail. Cliff Swallows are sailing over the area adjacent to the parking area. We head down a trail to eat lunch under the trees where the only birds we see are a House Wren and Yellow Warbler.

We finish birding for the day at the Catwalk National Recreation Trail (#15 on the Southwest Birding Trail) a few miles northeast of Glenwood. Some of the group head up the trail before the rest of us and make it all the way to the hanging bridge. Karen spots a Bridled Titmouse in one of the sycamore trees just off the parking area, but none of the rest of us can find it when we arrive moments later. Western Kingbirds fly between the trees.

We start up the paved trail through the picnic area where children are splashing in Whitewater Creek. We stop to admire a Collared Lizard sunning itself on a burl.

When we cross over to the ‘easy’ trail, we scout the rapids for signs of a Dipper, but didn’t see one. Karen spots a male Hepatic Tanager and points out its grayish flanks, compared with the more brilliant Summer Tanager. Further up the trail we find the female, which is more orangish-yellow than the pale yellow Summer Tanager.

We gather at the Glenwood Fish Hatchery (#14 on the Southwest Birding Trail) at 7 a.m. the last morning and enjoy watching the Belted Kingfishers gather and begin feeding. Northern Cardinals and Acorn Woodpeckers announce their presence.

We wander down to the other end of the property in search of the Black Hawk’s nest and are rewarded with a female sitting on her nest high in the ‘V’ of a dead trunk. Both Western and Cassin’s Kingbirds are perched on a nearby fence awaiting insects, which gives us a good opportunity to notice the differences. A juvenile Say’s Phoebe is also scouting insects. Its wing bars are a light orange, as opposed to the two-toned gray wings of an adult. A Bullock’s Oriole calls from a sycamore tree and then we see two American Kestrels perched nearby.

We head back to the Double T Guest House, where some of the group spent the night, to watch the birds at their many feeders while we enjoyed coffee. Nineteen different species pay a visit, including Bullocks and Hooded Orioles, Black-chinned and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds, Ladderback and Acorn Woodpeckers, Lesser Goldfinches and Pine Siskins.

Our final stop is the Apache Creek Campground, just past Reserve. As we cross over the creek, we spot a Great Blue Heron standing along the creek bank. After we alight from our cars at the campground we see Lewis’s Woodpeckers flying between various Ponderosa Pines.

Lewis\'s Woodpecker

Lewis's Woodpecker

Ray took a photo of one perched on the trunk of a Ponderosa Pine. Spotted Towhees and Western Wood Peewee’s are calling. As we explore the campground we find Western Blue Birds and Acorn Woodpeckers. A pygmy Nuthatch flies in and starts scaling one of the ponderosas.

As we pull out the last of our provisions to eat lunch, Ray notices Wild Turkeys wandering between the trees at the edge of the campground. While we eat lunch we go through our lists and are delighted to tally up 80 different species.

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