While a bank of dark clouds hugged the horizon west of Albuquerque, the weather report had promised a snow-free day for the Central New Mexico Audubon Thursday Birder trip to the Bosque del Apache. The sky kept getting clearer as we headed south; however, as we approached the hill over-looking the Socorro-valley, it was hidden under a cloud. After a stop to refresh and pick up others who were joining us, we headed towards the refuge in a fine mist of snow.
Our caravan spent an hour wandering the back roads of San Antonio, where the snow was short-lived. Our first sightings were of White-crowned Sparrows and Western Bluebirds.
“We need to check this field for possible Horned Larks or pipits,” I told those in my car. As if they heard us, a flock of Horned Larks swirled up – and a little further on were several meadowlarks.
On the western edge of San Antonio we paused by a house with several feeders. American Goldfinches clung to the tube feeder, while other birds foraged below it. Some of the cars ahead of ours saw Pine Siskins in addition to the goldfinches.
“A Phainopepla,” Sarah announced to those in our car. I had seen it fly across the road. Unfortunately, it had moved on before the other two in our car could spot it.
“Yellow-headed blackbirds in the flock,” came the message over the two-way radio. Several fields were covered with feeding blackbirds. I kept scanning the flocks, but couldn’t spot any yellow heads until one group rose up and flew to another part of the field. As they streaked past my binoculars, I could catch several yellow heads.
Back on NM-1, we stopped at a stock pond where Sonja, riding with trip leader Sei Tokuda, had seen a Common Golden-eye the prior weekend. There were several Mallards, a Gadwall and a Lesser Scaup, but we didn’t spot the golden-eye.
Just as we crossed the refuge boundary, Cindy reported a group of Western Scrub Jays perched on a bush alongside the road.
We stopped to peruse the seasonal ponds along the highway and spotted the first Northern Harrier – of the eight we would see – making sorties over the field just beyond one of the ponds. There was a preponderance of Northern Shovelers and Pintail in the wetlands.
“I like to call the pintails ‘butler birds,” Sarah told us. “They look so prim and proper, just like butlers.”
On the far side of the 2nd seasonal pond was an American Eagle sitting on the branch of a cottonwood. We would see two more eagles during the day, one of them a juvenile.
Further down the road, a flock of Mountain Bluebirds flew into a small tree on the left. Although the snow had stopped, the sky was still so gray, it was difficult to catch their brilliant color.
The lead cars signaled that a flock of Eastern Bluebirds were in a tree almost to the Visitor Center. By time our car, which was bringing up the rear of the caravan, arrived, a Red-tailed Hawk had flown into the next tree and the bluebirds had disappeared. We spotted a total of eight Red-tailed Hawks during the day, including a dark morph.
One of the large trees near the Visitor Center was filled with American Goldfinches and another tree was laden with blackbirds.
A female American Kestrel was perched on top of a sign along the highway. Before long it was doing its helicopter hover nearby.
A covey of Gambel Quail scurried across the parking area as we were getting ready to head out to the tour route.
“Neotropical Cormorant,” the lead car alerted. It had its head tucked under its wing. Trolling nearby was a Canvasback. Its head was under the water and I could only glimpse a snatch of its red head. Its light gray back feathers made it look like a slow-floating turtle.
Two Greater Roadrunners seemed frozen in the weeds next to the road – their feathers fluffed out. We couldn’t figure out what caused them to act that way until we spotted a Cooper’s Hawk waiting patiently in the tree above them. As soon as I took a photo of the one next to my car and drove on, they both ducked into the weeds and disappeared from sight. Marge, who will be moving to Florida soon, was delighted to get good looks at the roadrunners.
“Yellow-legs,” called out Rebecca over the radio. Its yellow legs glistened as it foraged in the shallow water along the Marsh Loop.
Common Mergansers – 16 of them – and a few Ruddy Ducks – were resting in the Boardwalk Pond. On the far side of the boardwalk, a Great Blue Heron stood in its watchful pose.
As we drove along the Farm Loop, we could hear Song Sparrows and Yellow-rumped Warbler. I caught sight of the warbler when it popped up on the limb of a bush near our car. Killdeer flew into a small spit along the edge of the wetlands.The seasonal wetlands off the Coyote Deck were swarming with activity. Several Sandhill Cranes pranced through the water close by. Two of them called loudly and then approached to each other. “Pair bonding,” Donna explained.
“Rebecca, can you get your scope on one of the American Wigeons?” Sei asked. One of the group had never seen them before. Six of them were swimming lazily a short distance out.
“Just a minute and I will,” Rebecca replied. I am scanning for Ross’s Geese. A few minutes later, she reported that she had found one and refocused her scope.
A Sharp-shinned Hawk winged its way across the end of the farm loop as the final three cars rounded the bend.
“I think I see turkeys walking in the trees beyond the fields,” Sarah reported. I got out my scope – there were 12 Wild Turkeys!
“That is the first time I have seen them here,” Jeane said.
Near the trail to the Norton Blind was a tree full of Mountain Bluebirds. Their iridescent blue really popped in the mid afternoon sun that had peeked through.A Loggerhead Shrike was perched just past the Flight Deck. I tried to back up slowly; however, it flew across the road, landing first on a swig and finally on a sign, giving me the perfect photo opportunity – even through the passenger car window. Since it was mid afternoon, we didn’t stop at the Flight Deck and instead headed south on NM-1 to the spot where Sonja had spotted the White-tailed Kite a few days earlier. As we gathered at the edge of the road, Sonia gave a blow-by-blow of the kite’s flight to help those who had not yet spotted it. It was careening and diving over the fields on the far side of the irrigation ditch, while two Northern Harriers were engaging in the same flight pattern just below the cliff. Even though it was some distance away, Rebecca got a photo of it. We agreed that the kite was the Bird of the Day.
We gathered back at the Visitor Center to go over the list. We had seen 73 species for the day.
As we drove back to Albuquerque and the rain, we all agreed the weather had been our favor and it had been a wonderful day of birding.