“Red-tailed Hawk,” we all said at once. We had just entered our count route for the Sandia Christmas Bird Count. We had just passed some starlings sitting on a power line and hoped they wouldn’t be our first bird of the count.
Our team of five convened at San Antonio, the center of the 15-mile radius count circle and headed north on NM-14. Our first stop was a spot that Lannois, our team leader, called the overlook. Lannois and the others on the team had covered this route since 2000.
While the temperature was hovering right about freezing, the sun was out and there was no wind – a delightful day to be counting birds. Only patches of snow lingered from last week’s storm. In the shade, the hoarfrost-covered grass made interesting patterns.
As we alighted from the car, we could hear the staccato call of a Townsend’s Solitaire. A Northern Flicker flew across the road. American Robins were calling everywhere – we counted 18. Other birds included Western Bluebirds, House Finches, and Dark-eyed Juncos identified from the white flashes of their outer tail feathers as they flushed from under trees at the base of the gully. Next we pulled into a turn-off across the highway where the group had seen flocks of Pinyon Jays on previous counts, but none were present – and then headed north to another overlook with an arroyo that ran under the bridge where we saw the same contingent of birds.
We back-tracked south and turned off to La Madera. We stopped first at the Community Center, which was not very productive, and then wound up into the community of La Madera. There was a mixed flock of birds in some conifers alongside the road – but no place to pull over. Our car paused briefly and saw Pine Siskins and a White-breasted Nuthatch. Melissa’s car had just stopped in the road and was able to add Pygmy Nuthatch and Mountain Chickadee.
We scoured another area next to an abandoned and crumbling adobe building. The house across the street traditionally had feeders that attracted a variety of birds. The warnings from the forest service about bird feeders attracting bears evidently had been heeded; we didn’t see any homes with feeders during our tour of that and another community.
Next we headed along La Vista Road where we parked and walked down a rutted road where we added Juniper Titmouse to our count. “This is where Rebecca and I documented the only nesting of Long Eared Owl in the Sandia Mountains,” Lannois told us.After pulling into a side road to eat our lunch, we stopped at Genie Court a secluded area where we planned to take advantage of the bushes to make a potty stop. I had my pants down when Lannois called “Evening Grosbeaks.” I hurried to finish and hoped they would still be there.
A flock of six was busy devouring piñon seeds. They were hard to spot at first, as they were deep in the shade of the trees. Jeanette pointed out one that was meticulously grooming itself and gave everyone a good look. I kept snapping photos, but the slow speed necessitated by the shade made the shots blurry.
“Come over here,” Melissa called. “There is one right in the open.” While it was easier to see, it was still in a shaded area; however, I got a passable photo.
Melissa left us at that point so she could return to her home in Cedar Crest and count there. The rest of us went on to San Pedro where we spent three hours driving up and down the streets.
We were directly below the Sandia Ski Area and I could see the sun reflecting from the many cars that had flocked to the ski area the day after Christmas. When we looked out to the north, we could see the Sangre de Cristo Mountains towering beyond Santa Fe.
Everywhere we drove were Mountain Bluebirds, their iridescent-blue plumage standing out against the winter grasses. At one point a flock of about 45 birds rose up en masse and flew up before circling and coming back down again. It seemed that every conifer was topped by a bluebird. Other prevalent species were Pine Siskins, Western Bluebirds and American Goldfinches.
“There is a Cassin’s Finch in that flock,” I commented.
“I see it too,” Jeanine chimed. “The red is a strawberry color.”
A Red-tailed Hawk was being harassed by three ravens. Just beyond, we saw more Evening Grosbeaks, this time a flock of seven that flew over the road.
We stopped back by the overlook to scour for possible Pinyon Jays. We ended the day with 24 species.
I joined the compilation party at O’Neill’s Irish Pub where an enthusiastic group of birders reported their sightings amongst bites of dinner and sips of beer. Unusual birds included a Harris’s Sparrow seen in the East Mountains by Mary Lou and Cindy and a Swamp Sparrow spotted by Raymond and Michael in Tijeras. Two teams saw Winter Wrens. The Three-toed Woodpecker, while seen regularly at the Sandia Crest area for the past few years, was seen this year on the Christmas Bird Count for the first time since 1985.
Nick Pederson, compiler, added up the species – 73. “It is the most species seen on this count,” he announced.