The sun barely illuminated Socorro Peak behind the NM Tech campus as we arrived at Turtle Bay, a pond nestled between the golf course and Macy Center, for the Thursday Birder’s (Central New Mexico Audubon ) Birdathon. Before long there were 20 birders scouring the area.
Robins were romping in the damp grass and Yellow-rumped (Audubon’s) Warblers called and buzzed in the willows that lined the water. A plethora of American Wigeons, accompanied by an amalgamation of uniquely patterned (non-countable) domesticated and feral waterfowl and a lone Ring-necked Duck cruised the pond. A variety of swallows began to course over the water’s surface and Black-chinned Hummingbirds buzzed in the trees.
There was barely a breeze – and we felt hopeful.
Four of us headed across the still-quiet greens to check out the trees near the homes bordering the golf course. We heard the buzz of Lesser Goldfinches, and as we focused our bins on the tree, discovered it was full of both Lesser and American Goldfinches.
“I’m going to check out the tree with clumps of mistletoe,” Karen stated. Before long she found a Phainopepla.
A Cooper’s Hawk chased a Turkey Vulture as it soared over the grassy slopes and a Say’s Phoebe hunted insects, unperturbed by the activity above it.
“They found the Cassin’s Vireo,” Birdathon organizer, Rebecca, announced when we returned. The vireo would be a life bird for me and I had announced I would add $5 to my pledge for the first lifer I got.
I joined those still watching the bushes where the vireo had been spotted. I didn’t have to wait long for it to pop into view – and pause long enough for me to observe the salient identifying marks: white spectacles, blue-gray head, white throat, yellow sides, two wing bars.
Also flitting in the bushes was a Yellow Warbler and a couple of Wilson’s. Someone had seen a Gray Catbird and other observed a Spotted Sandpiper along the edges of the pond.
“It’s time to head over to Water Canyon,” Rebecca announced. By time we left, we had accumulated 33 species.
As we headed out on the grassy plains west of Socorro, the wind was picking up.
The drive into Water Canyon added Mountain Bluebird, Horned Lark, Brewer’s and Lark Sparrow. In the lower part of the canyon, the birders in different cars got Bushtits, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Rufous-capped Sparrow and Acorn Woodpecker. Several Chihuahuan Ravens frolicked over the mountain ridges.
Three more people, who had driven from Datil, arrived to join the team. At the picnic area we fanned out to see what was in the piñon-juniper habitat and added White-breasted Nuthatch, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Juniper Titmouse, Mountain Chickadee and Hermit Thrush.
“There’s actually water flowing down Water Canyon,” someone exclaimed as our cars forged the water that was rushing across the road and began snaking our way further up in the canyon to search for Red-faced and Grace’s Warblers, normally seen between roadside markers 15 an 18.
There was no sign of either warbler, even after Cheri played their calls on her iPod.
“Red-tailed Hawk,” Roger signaled. Its tail glistened in the morning sun as it flew in the canyon’s thermals. We were disappointed not to see any White-throated Swifts, normally seen here.
Several watched a Northern Flicker who appeared to be excavating a nest hole high in a ponderosa.
Most of the group returned to the picnic area to eat our lunches. Two cars that had already devoured their food by the side of the road, stayed behind and headed further up the canyon to try and add to the day’s list. We were jealous when they returned to report they spotted the Red-faced and Grace’s Warblers at roadside marker 19, plus Pine Siskin. We had to be content with watching chippies play near the picnic shelter.
Box Canyon served as a wind tunnel as we carefully picked our way over the boulders while the gusts buffeted us. The roar of the wind almost obliterated the calls of Rock Wren.
Larry, who had decided to search near the mouth of the canyon, found Black-throated Sparrows.
“Our next stop is the Bosque del Apache,” Rebecca explained. “You can take whatever route you want to get there and can explore on your own. That way we have the best chance of getting the most species. We’ll meet at the restaurant in Socorro at 7:30.
Our car chose to wind our way along the back roads on the west side of San Antonio where we say a Green Heron as it flushed from an irrigation ditch and the day’s only Swainson’s Hawk.
“Brown-headed Cowbird and Yellow-headed Blackbird in the fields with Redwings,” came over the two-way radio.
At the Visitor Center, several were delighted by a Bullock’s Oriole at the feeder. I missed the Oriole, but spotted a Canyon Towhee in the cactus gardens.
A Canada Goose was sitting on her nest in the wetlands opposite the Visitor Center and a Greater Yellow-legs probed the south edge of the marshy area.
Our car started along the central two-way road. The wind blew furiously as we peered out the car windows to look at Long-billed Dowitchers, Wilson’s Phalaropes, Cinnamon, Blue-winged, and Green-winged Teal and Northern Shovelers.Neotropical Cormorants posed on a low snag in the rookery pond. While we couldn’t spot any Black-crowned Nigh Herons, one of the cars caught a glimpse of one there later in the afternoon.
Across from the rookery, Sei watched a Vermillion Flycatcher before it flew off, while Cheri and I watched a group of swallows snuggle against the grass to protect themselves from the wind.
The wind roared outside the car as we headed through the seasonal road and if we opened the windows, dirt ‘rained’ into the car. Birding by ear was not possible. Every bird would have to be a seen bird.
A lone Bufflehead floated in one of the white-capped ponds, along with some Gadwalls, Coots and Pied-billed Grebes. There was one location along the road where there appeared to be warbler activity. Most were Yellow-rumped, but as we studied the trees, we spotted both a Townsend’s and one of the Northern Parulas that has been reported. We studied a flycatcher and decided it was a Western Wood Peewee.
“Look,” Cheri pointed, “a Summer Tanager.” Its red body was like a beacon in the trees.We stopped to watch the egrets and ibis: Great, Snowy, and one Cattle Egret. There were literally hundreds of White-faced Ibis. In breeding plumage, they seemed almost iridescent. Along the Marsh Loop, we saw American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts and Killdeer.
We traveled south along NM-1 for a ways to look down on the ponds in the refuge and were able to see Ruddy Ducks and an aechmophorus grebe.
We looped back through the Visitor Center and watched a Cooper’s Hawk swoop through the parking lot.
It was dusk as we passed the RV park. “Let’s drive through here again,” Cheri said. “to see if the quail are out.” Sure enough, a large covey of Gambel’s Quail bobbed along next to the house. There were many more as we made our way through San Antonio.
White-crowned Sparrows flitted in the grasses along the road. They would be headed north within days.
“Stop,” I told Cheri. “I missed the oriole at the Visitor Center, but there is one in that yard.” Its orange body looked even more brilliant in the fading light.
We headed back to Socorro by way of the Farm-to-Market Road, but didn’t add any new species.
After we ordered our dinner, we went through the list and shared stories. We were delighted that our total species for the day was 136.
I headed back to Albuquerque at 9 p.m. I had been worried about getting drowsy after the long day and big meal; however, the wind had not let up at sun down. Holding on tightly to the steering wheel, as gusts upward from 65 mph slammed into the car, kept me alert and gave me a chance to relish the wonderful birds we saw – despite the weather.