Early Spring Birding – Pena Blanca and Cochiti Lake

Meadowlarks were singing as the caravan of Central New Mexico Audubon Thursday Birders pulled onto a loop road through Pena Blanca and continued to serenade us as we drove through the village. While the sky was still clear, a cold wind was blowing and a bank of storm clouds clung to the western horizon.

There was a tree full of female Red-winged Blackbirds and a few White-crowned Sparrows braving the elements.

“A merganser just flew over the car,” Chuck, a visiting birder who was riding with me, reported. “I am pretty sure it was a Red-breasted.” I saw the distinctive merganser profile disappear over an irrigation canal.

A little further along, we stopped to check out a possible owl – which turned out to be part of a tree limb.

As we rounded the corner, we watched a flock of Brewer’s Blackbirds foraging. An American Kestrel, the first of three we saw in Pena Blanca, was perched on a nearby fence post, and in the back of the field beyond were both Mountain and Western Bluebirds.

“Look in front of the arbor in the next yard,” Chuck directed us. “There is a Black-billed Magpie.” While we often spot one in Pena Blanca, it is not a given. We were delighted to watch this self-confident corvid.

As we headed back north, we noticed a large flock of about 25 gulls circling around a field. We weren’t able to get close enough to make a positive ID, but presumed they were Ring-billed Gulls. Frolicking with them were many American Crows.

A Turkey Vulture circled high above the fields.

Winding back towards the main highway, another merganser – this time a Common Merganser – flew low over the irrigation channel.

We drove by the Osprey platform, but didn’t see any signs of nesting.

As we eased over the out-flow channel below Cochiti Dam we could see Buffleheads swimming down river. Violet-green Swallows circled overhead. A Great Blue Heron stood watch along the bank and a Red-tailed Hawk perched almost hidden on a nearby cottonwood limb.

When we alighted from our vehicles at the rest area above Cochiti Lake, we realized that there were White-throated Swifts circling with the swallows.

We parked along the lake, where we had to brace ourselves against the wind. The lake was choppy, which made waterfowl ID difficult. However, we were able to spot a Western Grebe, five Gadwalls, and a Red-breasted Merganser. A Double-crested Cormorant flew low over the water in front of us.

We stood along the north side of the restroom building to shield us from the wind while we went over the bird list for the day. As we were about to head for our cars and return to Albuquerque, someone announced “There’s a different grebe out there.”

Eared Grebe

We got the scopes on it and focused in on an Eared Grebe starting to molt into its breeding plumage. The perfect ending to our day.

(These locations are featured in Birding Hot Spots of Santa Fe, Taos and Northern New Mexico.)


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