Searching for Fall Migrants on New Mexico’s Eastern Plains

“There is a flock of Brewer’s Blackbirds at this end of the parking lot,” Rebecca shared through the two-way radios as six cars of auduboners headed out of Four Hills in search of migrants on the eastern plains. Brewer’s Blackbirds in Albuquerque let us know that birds are on the move.

The eastern plains, refreshed by summer rains, unfolded like a green carpet as we headed to Roswell. Red-tailed and Swainson’s Hawks and Common and Chihuahan Ravens stood like sentinels on power poles along our route. Meadowlarks, Mourning Doves, and an occasional American Kestrel rested on wires. A few Turkey Vulture circled.

While not in his original plan, Sei, our trip leader, turned off at the Mesa Rest Stop in hopes that Painted Buntings still might be migrating through. While there were no buntings, the trees produced Wilson’s, Yellow, Orange-crowned and MacGillivray’s Warblers and Chipping and Lark Sparrows bounced up and down in the grassy areas.

We were disappointed to find the new refuge headquarters temporarily closed. After scanning the north pond from the deck, we started along the wildlife viewing road. A Greater Roadrunner crouched in the top of a tree, Northern Mockingbirds chased each other between the mesquite bushes, and a female Bullocks’s Oriole flew into one bush to join them.

Ponds at Bitterlake Wildlife Refuge

Ponds at Bitterlake Wildlife Refuge

There was water in the ponds along the south loop. Blue-wing and Cinnamon Teal, Ring-necked Ducks, Coots, female Northern Shovelers, a Ruddy Duck and a Gadwall were clustered far out in a tight group. Two Mallards were near the road. A Greater Yellowlegs trotted first one way and then the other and looked as though it was walking on tip-toes. A flock of shorebirds was circling over the water and appeared to be Wilson’s Phalaropes. After circling several times, they decided to move on to another area of the refuge.

We stopped at the parking area just before the road heads north again. A Green Heron was perched on a pile of sticks at the far side of the first pond. When we looked north, we could see a group of shorebirds. Even through our binoculars they looked like white blobs, so we started moving slowly towards them.

“Look on that sand bar,” whispered Abby after we had walked a short distance. “There are four, no five, peeps.”

“They are Western Sandpipers,” someone said confidently.

“But they don’t have the white shoulders,” I replied.

“They are Least Sandpipers,” Rebecca replied.

“But they are not leaning over when they feed,” Karen stated. “The most recent issue of Birding said that Least Sandpipers eat from a crouched position.”

The Birding article sums it up, “The peeps…tend to create more identification headaches than the rest of the shorebirds put together.” We had not arrived at a consensus before the peeps, not knowing they were the subject of controversy, wandered beyond our view.

We focused our attention on the larger group, gradually inching closer. There were both Long and Short-billed Dowitchers still in breeding plumage, Black-necked Stilts, Wilson’s Phalaropes.

It was almost noon and the mid 90 degree sun’s rays were penetrating. Time to head back to the cars. A Snowy Egret did a fly-by over our haggard bodies.

We scanned the other wetland areas on the way back to the old headquarters to eat our lunch under the trees. Rebecca spotted a White-faced Ibis to add to our list.

Over lunch we studied the photos in the Birding article on peeps identification and those in O’Brien, Crossley and Karlson’s The Shorebird Guide. While we had a better handle on the differences between Western and Least Sandpipers, there still was no consensus.

Our next stop was Calhoon Park in central Roswell to search for the Mississippi Kites that nest there. “I always have been able to find them here any time between May and the end of August,” Sei assured us.

We scanned the trees and looked for circling raptors and thought we had struck out until Bert looked up at just the right moment and saw a kite silhouetted against the sky on the edge of one of the large trees. A second one flew in for a few moments and then went over to another tree. We all got good looks at them: an adult and a juvenile. Mel and Bert and I walked across the street with our cameras to get more photos. A Roswell policeman drove slowly by and then stopped to inquire what we were doing. “Taking pictures of the kite,” we responded. He rolled his eyes and drove on. I guess we looked harmless.

Adult Mississippi Kite

Adult Mississippi Kite

Our next stop was also a real treat. As Karen and Gary were cruising streets in the agricultural areas the night before, unsuccessfully looking for Upland Sandpipers, they discovered a large prairie dog/Burrowing Owl village.

While this was the official end of the trip, eight of us drove on to Ft. Sumner in order to check for migrating birds at Melrose Trap. In addition to raptors and corvids on power poles, a few migrating Lark Buntings perched on fence wires.

Before dinner we scoped out an area along an irrigation ditch behind Ft. Sumner High School. A Lesser Nighthawk flew by. “A life bird for me,” Dennis said.

Mary Lou spotted the Blue Jay flying over. We could hear a Red-headed Woodpecker calling from the woods, but didn’t see him. When we returned to the cars, the woodpecker was perched on top of a power pole. Everyone got a good look before he flew off again into the trees. Eurasian Collared Doves could be heard ‘hooting.’ And American Robins enjoyed the neighborhood lawns.

We headed for the Melrose migrant trap at 6:30. As we pulled into the reserve, two Turkey Vultures surveyed us from on top of a dead tree. We started scouring the trees. Abby spotted a lone Yellow-headed Blackbird huddled in the middle of small tree. “It’s a first year male,” she told us after consulting her Sibleys.

Mary Lou heard the sharp ‘fik’ call of a Black-headed Grosbeak. The aspen saplings were alive with the buzzy calls of Blue Grosbeaks. Periodically one would come into view.

American Kestrels played tag in the tops of the tall trees. Their calls were interspersed with the loud croaking call of one of the Red-headed Woodpeckers, which was usually followed by one of them shooting out from one of the trees and flying by, their wing beats resembling a breast-stroking swimmer.

We walked along the slight bluff that allowed us to look down into the eastern edge of the tree line, where we saw an occasional Wilson’s and Yellow Warbler.

“Look at that moth,” Abby exclaimed. “It has wings like a hummingbird.”

White-lined Sphiny Moth

White-lined Sphiny Moth

“It’s called a Hummingbird Moth,” Karen said. It was busy pollinating thistle flowers.

We stood along the northern fence line watching birds busy in some oak trees a short distance away. A Western Wood Pewee flew in and out from a small branch. A Ladderback Woodpecker perched on a bare branch. Ash-throated Flycatchers swooped down from the tree, snagged something from the grasses, and then popped back up again. A meadowlark was singing in the nearby field.

As we worked our way back through the trees, we flushed what sounded like an owl as it flew further into the trees.

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker

Back at the parking area, Gary reminded us, “Remember we are in rattlesnake country.” We were resting nonchalantly on some logs.

“We will have scared them away by now,” Sam said, and then added, “maybe.”

As we relaxed, we enjoyed great views of a couple of Ash-throated Flycatchers and the busy antics of a Red-headed Woodpecker.

Then it was time to head back for a good breakfast. As we enjoyed pancakes and huevos rancheros at Sadies, Karen totaled up her list. “I count 73 species,” she shared.

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