Spring Birding at Bitter Lake and Rattlesnake Springs

“Let’s look along the fence line at the back of the rest stop,” Barb said.

A large flock of sparrows rustled in the grass beyond the fence. We focused our bins as they popped up. Occasionally one of them would briefly fly up and rest on the fence. Most of them had Rufous-striped crowns, but their facial pattern didn’t resemble a Chipping Sparrow. As we studied them closely, we realized we were seeing Rufous-crowned Sparrows. It was a mixed flock that also contained a few chippies and Lark Sparrows. A wonderful start for our trip.

“I got my first life bird of the trip, and it isn’t even 8 a.m.,” Sue exclaimed.

I was traveling on an almost two-week birding trip with my friends Barb, formerly from Albuquerque, but now living in Virginia, and Sue who recently moved to Colorado from Maryland. The first two days would focus on southeastern New Mexico.

A raven was perched on a light pole. “See the whitish feathers under its chin,” I explained. “It’s a Chihuahuan Raven. You can only see those feathers when it is windy.” Another new bird for Sue.

Before we left the rest stop between Moriarty and Cline’s Corners, we added Yellow-rumped Warblers, White-crowned Sparrows, Western Kingbirds and Brewer’s Blackbirds to our trip list.

Our next stop was the Bitter Lake Wildlife Refuge. We scanned the stream and fields behind the visitor’s center. Barn Swallows were building nests under the eaves. We watched as they swooped down to the stream to gather mud. Sue spotted a Wilson’s Snipe working the edges of the stream.

We headed south along the wildlife viewing road and stopped under a small stand of trees – a mini migrant trip. Yellow-rumped and Wilson’s Warblers buzzed from branch to branch.

“I see something black with orange on its wings,” Sue said. And then it disappeared. It popped into view later – an American Redstart.

Peacock surprise

Peacock surprise

“Look at the tree on the right,” Barb exclaimed. “I can’t believe it – it’s a peacock. I wonder where it escaped from.”

Northern Mockingbirds darted back and forth across the still-dry hillside.

A little further, we stopped to look down at one of the impoundments. A small group of White-faced Ibis worked the far edge. Coots bobbed along. A few American Avocets stood in the water, while Black-necked Stilt seemed to prance on their bright-pink spindly legs.

At the south edge, the water was shallower. We watched as a Sora swam along, occasionally darting under some reeds. A Lesser Yellow-legs foraged in the marsh grass.

We parked near the nature trail. A Townsend’s Warbler flitted in a juniper. Just beyond, Barb spotted a Green-tailed Towhee before it scurried into the underbrush and disappeared.

We walked along the spit where we spotted a Snowy Plover near the water’s edge. It was well camouflaged against the dry, clay mud. A small group of Wilson’s Plovers were spinning next to more stilts and avocets.

As we returned to the visitor’s center, we stopped to watch an Eared Grebe in breeding plumage.

Earned Grebe

Earned Grebe

Our next stop was a prairie dog village located just east of the main highway and not far from the south edge of the New Mexico Military Institute campus. We watched three owls near their burrows – another life bird for Sue.

We arrived in Carlsbad and checked into our motel in time to zip down to Rattlesnake Springs for an hour before dusk. The birds were active prior to settling down for the night. Our first bird was a pair of Vermillion Flycatchers. They were the first of many we would see.

Yellow-rumped Warblers were cavorting in the grass as they scrounged for insects. An Orchard Oriole flew in and landed in a tree near the spring, and then a pair of Summer Tanagers landed nearby. Cardinal pairs were everywhere.

As we were leaving, a Lesser Nighthawk began its evening rounds.

“Look at the turkeys. Oh, my God, they are engaged in a courtship display,” Barb said as she slowed to a stop.

Wild Turkey Courtship Dance

Wild Turkey Courtship Dance

The males had their tail feathers fanned like the perennial Thanksgiving image. They were doing the “two-step” as they closed ranks around the nonchalant females.

I rolled down my window to capture the spectacle.

As we were leaving the park and the light was fading, we stopped to gaze at a Great-horned Owl perched majestically on the Washington Ranch sign.

Great-horned Owl

Great-horned Owl

We were back at Rattlesnake Springs by 7 a.m. the next morning. Our first stop was a riparian area and marsh in a small arroyo. A Green Heron stood watch at the back of the wetlands. A male Bullock’s Oriole flew into a tree by the road, followed by its mate.

Opposite the picnic area were Bell’s Vireos and a House Wren. Following along the fence and irrigation ditch, we saw a Spotted Towhee and Black-throated Sparrows. A Ladder-backed Woodpecker flew from one tree to the next. Of course, there were numerous Cardinals, Summer Tanagers, and Vermillion Flycatchers.

“Come here,” I beckoned. “Phainopeplas,” I whispered. We watched a male chase a female from tree to tree.



We could have stayed all day, but had many miles to drive to get to Kerrville, TX. As we left the park, we flushed a flock of chippies on the highway.

There was no time for the Carlsbad Caverns tour; however, we wanted to see the swarms of Cave Swallows. We parked where we could see down into the entrance to the caverns. The swallows were circling in the opening.

I couldn’t see their distinguishing characteristics – one of my criteria for adding a life bird. Suddenly the flock circled up and up and then flew out over our heads. I was able to clearly see their dark rusty-colored foreheads and buffy throats.

We traversed across the Black River Village Road to Malaga. While Scissor-tailed Flycatchers would be everywhere once we entered Texas, this was our first sighting in New Mexico.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

We also stopped to get good looks at a Harris’s Hawk perched majestically on top of a power pole.

It was time to head to Texas.


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