Searching for the Elusive Gray Vireo

I was excited to get the invitation from Nancy Kassner, Civ USAF AFMC MDA/AL, with the subject line: “Birding for the elusive Gray Vireo at Kirtland Air Force Base–23 Jun 09 0730 (TUESDAY) (UNCLASSIFIED).”

Kirkland Air Force Base is one of the few reliable locations to see the Gray Vireo in central New Mexico. However, since 9/11, access to the base has become restrictive. And, it is even more restrictive in the area where the bird nests.

The e-mail continued: “Because the base is so restrictive, I can only lead two car loads of birders (NO CAMERAS or Recording devices) onto base for a three hour birding trip. You must have your passport with you.”

I jumped at the opportunity and immediately responded. Our birding location was to be the Starfire Optical Range.

Six of us met Nancy outside the base and squeezed ourselves into her car for the drive to our birding location. As we headed across the base, we spotted both Swainson’s and Red-tailed Hawk perched atop power poles.

At the gate to the fenced-in Starfire Optical Range, we stopped to show Suzanne our passports so she could log us into the system. Stationed as this remote area, she has taken an interest in birds and maintains both seed and hummingbird feeders, as well a bird bath. “There hasn’t been much exciting so far this morning she said,” motioning to the feeders. “Primarily House Finches.”

In the parking lot outside of the office building, we met Jack Drummond, a long-time birder and the laboratory’s Directed Energy Directorate astronomer. He would be our escort and guide for the morning.

Barn Swallows were swooping in and out from their nests affixed under the eaves on the outside of the building.

As we started walking down the road, we heard and then spotted a Say’s Phoebe. A Northern Mockingbird called. It turned out to be the most prevalent bird of the morning.

“Scott’s Oriole,” someone exclaimed. I turned back to take a look.

“Go up to the 3rd landing, and then out on the cross bar,” Donna said. A male was singing his heart out. When I focused my binoculars on him, I could see his mouth opening in song.

“I hear an Eastern Meadowlark,” Tom said. Pretty soon, we zeroed in on two of them in some low bushes. When they flew, they flashed white on the outside of their tails.

“The southwestern race of the Eastern Meadowlark has more white on its outer tail feathers,” Sei told us.

A Cassin’s Kingbird flew in and landed on a wire, and a little further on, we identified a Western Kingbird from its ‘fast-forward tape-recorder’ call. A Cassin’s flew into the power pole where the Western Kingbird was sitting. It was not pleased to share its space and took chase after the Cassin’s. By time we returned to the parking lot, we had seen multiple kingbirds of both species.

A Lark Sparrow flew in and perched on top of a shrub. It stayed there long enough for everyone to get a good look.

Just outside the fence we spotted a Blue Grosbeak. Its blue plumage was highlighted against the gray-green foliage. “It is just left of the tamarisk,” Donna relayed to one of the group who was having trouble spotting it. The female flew in, and the male took off.

I heard the tinkling sound of Black-throated Sparrows. They were popping up all along the dirt road. They didn’t stay up for long before they dove into the middle of the bush.

“This is where I have heard Gray Vireo’s calling,” Jack told us. It was an area where there was a dense stand of junipers. Today it was quiet. “They may be nesting,” Jack said. “Let’s try further down the road.”

When we didn’t hear them at the next location, Pat took out her iPod and played the vireo’s call, but we didn’t get a response.

“There’s a rattlesnake on the road,” Nancy exclaimed.

“Leave it to our security person to spot it,” Cheri laughed.

Jack, who told us he had run a snake show in the past, lifted the snake with a long stick. It hissed and rattled as he put it on the side of the road. “It has a dark tail,” Jack stated, “so it is probably a Timber Rattlesnake.”

When we were safely past, we stopped to watch an Ash-throated Flycatcher. A flock of House Finches settled in the bushes.

We had worked our way around the knoll where the telescope is located, and were back near Suzanne’s entry station. Jack unlocked the gate so we could get back to the parking lot without having to re-trace our steps.

Suzanne came out to meet us. “You just missed a Scott’s Oriole and a bird that I think is one of the vireos,” she stated. Sadly, we could not hang around.

A Western Scrub Jay flew between two bushes as we finished our walk.

“Anyone interested in seeing a Great-horned Owl?” Jack asked when we were back at the parking lot. “It roosts in that Quonset hut over there.”

We followed him over to the open-ended storage facility, and quietly approached. When we got opposite the opening, the owl took flight and cruised silently just above our heads.

“My office is on the 2nd floor over there,” Jack pointed. “I can sit at my desk and watch it fly out at dusk in the winter.”

And then it was time for us to head back out. Jack promised to let Nancy know when he heard the vireos singing again and said he would be willing to lead another walk.

About half-way back we slowed down when we spotted some prairie dogs running around.

“There’s a Burrowing Owl,” I stated. “It is sitting on that ‘No Parking’ sign over there.” And, across the street there was another one perched on a fence. I wished that I had been able to bring my camera with me.

Back at our cars we thanked Nancy for the wonderful opportunity and savored the memories of the morning.

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