The sun was barely up when the Thursday Birders gathered at New Mexico Tech campus in Socorro at Turtle Bay, the duck pond nestled between Macey Center and the golf course. Its unique habitat often attracts migrating birds and we were hoping for a good start for the Birdathon, a day of fun birding to raise funds for Central New Mexico Audubon.
The morning was unseasonably cool and we were bundled in fleece jackets, gloves and warm hats.
Yellow-rumped and Wilson’s Warblers flitted in the willows next to the pond and children’s play area, along with a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, the first of several we would see. A pair of Western Kingbirds called from the tops of one of the trees as they appeared to play tag with each other.
Most of the waterfowl in the pond were domesticated, so not countable; however, we picked up a pair each of American Widgeons, non-domesticated Mallards and American Coots.
A shorebird called from a puddle at the edge of the golf course. We were surprised to see a Solitary Sandpiper, one of my favorites with its distinctive eye-ring.
I suggested we cross the golf course in search of the Phainopepla we had seen in a yard bordering the greens last year – and had been reported recently. As we crossed the course, we spotted a Summer Tanager – and a lone Yellow-headed Blackbird perched on the top of a ponderosa. A large flock of sparrows flew up from the grass and landed a short distance further on, where we could only see their heads above the blades of grass. I counted about 80 Chipping Sparrows and several lark Sparrows.
While most of the rest headed back, a few of us stayed behind to continue scouring for the Phainopepla, without luck. However, we were rewarded with a Gray Flycatcher.
“Hooded Warbler,” someone called as we rejoined the rest of the group. A female, it was foraging in the grass, unperturbed the large crowd of birders roaming nearby.
“There’s a Lincoln’s Sparrow and a Green-tailed Towhee in the shrubs near the construction,” Matt shared.
Our other find of the morning was a Northern Parula – evidently blown off course by the spring winds.
By 8:30 we were on our way to our next location. Some of the group had to stop at a fast-food restaurant to pick up lunch. Those in our car were fortunate to have saved left-overs from dinner the previous night, so headed out to Water Canyon.
While our car missed it, those who had stopped in town to pick up lunch, were lucky to catch a Golden Eagle over the top of the cliffs leading into the canyon. Further along, we call had a chance to see an Acorn Woodpecker as it paused at its granary tree.
We picked up pine-oak species around the campground and then headed up to a higher altitude hoping to see Grace’s and Red-faced Warblers. While we were successful at spotting several Grace’s Warblers, we only heard the melodic song of the Red-faced Warbler. While it was enough for the count, it was a disappointment for those in the group who had never seen one before. Michael imitated an owl’s call hoping to flush one, but with no luck.
“I promised my wife a Red-faced Warbler for her birthday,” moaned the husband of an out-of-state couple who had joined us in the search.“There’s a sapsucker,” Bonnie said. I pulled over so we could get out and get a good look.
We struggled with the ID until it moved slightly to a give us a different view. “It must be a first year,” Mary Lou commented. “I can just barely make out the red on the nape where it is molting in.”
Further along, we stopped again to examine a mixed flock – Ruby-crowned Kinglets and a Cassin’s Vireo. The two-note song of Mountain Chickadees emanated from the trees all through the forest and a Broad-tailed Hummingbird buzzed by.
One car spotted a Painted Redstart. The rest of us looked for it on our way back to the campground, but didn’t find it. However, we were able to see a Black-throated Gray Warbler nearby.
After lunch, we headed to Box Canyon where we were greeted by Black-throated Sparrows flitting in the scrub next to the parking area. A Say’s Phoebe called from a ledge on the cliff.
“There’s an empid,” one of the Dave’s signaled.
Birdathon coordinator, Rebecca, had come prepared for all eventualities and pulled out her sheet from Kenn Kaufman’s Advanced Birding that compared Empidonax species. After she and Dave conferred, the consensus was that it was a Dusky Flycatcher because of its narrow beak and medium-long tail.
Nearby a House Wren foraged at the base of the rocks while a Rock Wren popped up on top of a boulder. We heard the trill of a Canyon Wren across the canyon. At one point, it flew across and landed in front of us, scolding that we were in its territory.
Our last bird was a Rufous-crowned Sparrow.
“From now on, we will not stick together,” Rebecca told the group before we left. “We’ll see more birds and it will be more enjoyable if we don’t caravan through the refuge.”
Her car and one other took the route along the Farm to Market Road to see if the Barn Owl was in its usual roosting place.
Our car traveled along the western edge of San Antonio where we were lucky to add Sharp-shinned and Ferruginous Hawk to the list for the day.
“Look, there’s a Collared Lizard,” someone in my car said. I slowed down so we could admire this amazing reptile.
Gambel’s Quail seemed to be wandering everywhere along this route.
On NM-1, just inside the boundary of the refuge, we stopped at the dried area where one of the seasonal wetlands had attracted geese and cranes at sunset during the winter. There was a raptor sitting on the ground we wanted to investigate. After checking it through our scopes and watching it fly up and then return, we decided it was a Merlin.
“There’s a Scott’s Oriole,” Joe signaled. Our car was just getting ready to leave the Visitor Center parking area and his car had just arrived.
“Do you have all of the swallows now?” Bonnie asked me as we watched hundreds of swallows swooping over the remaining wetlands. There were Barn, Bank, Violet-green and Cliff. One of the other cars had spotted some Tree Swallows amongst the flocks.
“There’s a Marbled Godwit,” Matt shared, and then got it in his scope so we could get a good look.
There was a group of White-faced Ibis, the second group our car had seen. “Have you counted them?” I asked Matt. “I don’t want to have to do it, if you already have estimated the numbers.”
“I’m up to 225,” he answered.
A flock of Long-billed Dowitchers rose up, flew in formation and then settled back down again to feed.
A Solitary Sandpiper was probing at the feet of an American Avocet. And then, the sandpiper flew.
On the other side of the road, six Franklin’s Gulls were sitting on a sandbar with a Ring-billed Gull.
On a nearer sandbar, a Killdeer wandered at the feet of a pair of Canada Geese. Some peeps probed nearby. I could identify some Least Sandpipers.
“I think the others are Westerns,” one of the Dave’s said.
Both Neotropic and Double-crested Cormorants rested in the rookery pond.
We headed onto the Seasonal Road. Wilson’s Phalaropes trolled in circles out on one of the ponds. On the far side was a row of American Avocets in breeding plumage. Nearby were two Willets and two more Marbled Godwits. With them was a Long-billed Curlew.
In addition to remaining Northern Shovelers, Gadwalls and a Redhead, were Ruddy Ducks and Cinnamon Teal that will spend the summer at the refuge.
In every pond, there were groups of White-faced Ibis, their iridescent pink and blue feathers of breeding plumage glistened in the late afternoon sun.
We spotted a Ring-necked Pheasant along one of the maintenance roads, and further along was a lone Wild Turkey.
“Look at the contrast in its feathers during breeding plumage,” I said. “And, its crop skin is really red.”
Along the north end of the Farm Loop, we stopped to get a better look at a raptor. Gary, Karen, Dave and Abby had also stopped to check it out.
“It is definitely a buteo,” Karen said.
From the back it was all dark. Mary Lou and I walked down the road a ways to get a view of its chest. It clearly had a bib on a light breast – a Swainson’s Hawk.
“We have half an hour more,” I said at 6:30. “Let’s drive down the two-way part of the Marsh Loop and turn around at the boardwalk. Maybe we’ll catch a nighthawk before we have to call it quits for the day.”
Sure enough, about 6:45, we saw a nighthawk circling with the swallows. Matt and the Dave’s also had stopped to look at it. Matt jumped out of the car and came over to say, “It’s a Lesser. It is buffy underneath and is circling low.”
They went on ahead. As we slowly drove past the boardwalk pond, another nighthawk circled. This one was flying higher, was darker and its wing bars were not as far towards the wing tips – a Common Nighthawk.
After 13 hours of birding, the entire team met for dinner to share sightings and celebrate our success.
“I’m going to read the name of each species on the list,” Rebecca said as she passed out the list of species most likely to be seen.
Our team of 22 people had a total of 159 species for the day. Not only had we raised money for Audubon, we had a wonderful time in the process.