“Looks like all of the perches are taken,” Lee commented as we passed power pole after power pole with a raven or raptor perched on top. Five cars of Central New Mexico Audubon Thursday Birders were on our way to the La Vegas National Wildlife Refuge, a featured site in Birding Hot Spots of Santa Fe, Taos and Northern New Mexico.
While low clouds hung over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, ‘god beams’ shone through the horizon, giving us hope that we would not be rained out.
Flocks of sparrows leaped out of the grasses along NM 281 as we headed towards the refuge and skipped among the grasses. Almost immediately, it became clear that they were mixed flocks – sparrows traveling south together without regards to the species of their traveling partners. Chipping Sparrow was the most prevalent and many were juveniles or adults that already had molted into their blander winter plumage making identification more challenging.
“There’s a Lincoln’s Sparrow,” I said as one popped up momentarily on the top of a stalk, its finely streaked upper breast distinguishing it from the other sparrows with more heavily streaked chests.
There were bland Brewer’s Sparrows with a plainer face pattern, Clay-colored Sparrows with bright orange legs and bills, Vesper Sparrows that flashed their white outer tail feathers as they flew, and heavily streaked Savannah Sparrows. Lou saw the only Lark Sparrow.
Stands of waning sunflowers were interspersed between the fading-green weeds along the road and were alive with Lesser Goldfinches and Pine Siskins gobbling the remaining seeds. An Orange-crowned Warbler flitted in several shrubs.
“I keep hearing Horned Larks twittering as they fly,” Rebecca announced through the two-way radio. We were doing most of our observing using our cars as blinds as we crept down the road in a caravan.
Meadowlarks were perched on fence posts all along the road, and flocks of Mourning Doves clustered in small groups. A Swainson’s Hawk circled overhead.
“Ladderback Woodpecker,” Lou alerted us. Pretty soon it flew in and started pecking at a fence post just opposite our car – and then it scurried off across the field.
As we rounded a bend, the habitat changed from open pasture and grassland to the riparian habitat surrounding several farm houses.
“Magpies,” trip leader Mary Lou exclaimed through her radio. Four different Black-billed Magpies seemed to be playing between the grass in front of the houses and a row of trees.
We stopped to check out the movement in a row of cottonwood trees alongside the road. It was in constant movement, a sure sign of a warbler, but before we could clearly ID it, it had moved into the tree behind us. In the next car, Shelly got a good look and informed us that it was a Yellow-rumped Warbler.
After about 4 miles, we entered the boundary of the refuge. We stopped to check out the waterfowl in Wigeon Pond. There was a small group of Mallards, a few American Coots, a Cinnamon Teal, and Gadwall.
“I saw a Redhead,” Sylvia told us, “but it swam back behind the reeds.”
“I think I see a Zone-tailed Hawk,” Mary Lou exclaimed as she scrambled out of her car and grabbed her scope. She knew I would be excited since it was one of my nemesis birds. Sadly, the white-barring she thought she saw on the end of the tail, was only a reflection from the sun on a soaring Turkey Vulture.
We stopped to check out the sightings board at the Visitor’s Center. “Be sure and look in the fields beyond Crane Lake,” the ranger told us. “Our first Sandhill Cranes have arrived.”
As we piled back into our cars, a swirling flock of mixed blackbirds landed just beyond the building.
As we set up the scopes on the Crane Lake observation deck and munched on our lunches, the sun began to break through. The contented clucking of 14 cranes drifted up to provide background music. A mixed flock of swallows swooped in and out over the lake – Tree, Violet-green and Barn.
A small group of Long-billed Dowitchers probed the mud along one side of the lake. Further along several clusters of Canada Geese rested in the emerging sun. A raft of Ruddy Ducks huddled on the far shore. Several Western Grebes idled in the middle between their dives. A lone Eared Grebe floated and dove in the middle. Several Ring-billed Gulls alternately took surveillance flights and swam lazily. Nine White-faced Ibis huddled on the far shore. Other waterfowl included Northern Shoveler and American Wigeon.
“I counted 60 cormorants,” Rebecca exclaimed.
Brewer’s Blackbirds foraged in the pasture next to the observation deck, while European Starlings squeaked and squawked in the trees adjacent to the parking lot. Mixed flocks of blackbirds whirled up, circled the lake and re-landed. Splashes of color from red wing patches and yellow heads caught the sunlight as they angled past us.
A Cattle Egret flew in and landed at the next to a grazing cow.
Our last stop was at the McAllister Wildlife Management Area just beyond the refuge. As we walked down towards the lake we stopped in amazement at the numbers of Canada Geese (approximately 250) and Ruddy Ducks (roughly 75). In addition, there were Ring-necked Ducks and Redheads, plus many too far away and in eclipse plumage to identify clearly.
“I see avocets,” Sylvia exclaimed as she peered through a scope. “In fact, there are five of them.”
We puzzled over what we initially thought was a tern, but later decided was a Franklin’s Gull that was sitting on the rocks next to the avocets.
The final delight of the day was a Red-naped Sapsucker working in one of the cottonwoods.
When we tallied up the species, we were delighted to discover we had seen 69 species.
While some of the group back-tracked past the Visitor’s Center to share our sightings in the refuge with the ranger, our car and one other headed along the back side of the refuge. We stopped to ponder the ID of a raptor.
As we traveled further down the road, a flock of mostly Yellow-headed Blackbirds landed on the fence next to the road, popped briefly down to the road and then swirled up and landed in the bare branches of a large tree.
And then it was time to make the two-and-a-half hour drive back to Albuquerque.