Swallows, mostly Cliff, darted back and forth as four cars of Central New Mexico Audubon Thursday Birders convened just off of I-40 on our way to Villanueva State Park. A Lark Sparrow landed in the middle of NM-3 and a Juniper Titmouse popped into a juniper alongside the road – a life bird for Rick, a visiting birder from Long Island. As we headed north, there were more Lark Sparrows.
As we drove along the state road, the habitat gradually changed from desert scrub to piñon-juniper. In addition to Lark Sparrows, we saw Chipping Sparrows, Morning Doves, an occasional meadowlark and a Swainson’s Hawk. An American Kestrel caught insects from a power line, and at one point was harassed by three sparrows as it flew up from its perch. A pair of Black-headed Grosbeaks flew into a piñon pine.
“The next stretch of road is narrow and winding,” Gary cautioned from the lead vehicle as we descended into the agricultural valley along the Pecos River. The irrigated farm land contrasted with the reddish soil of the cliffs as we descended.
At the bridge, we met up with another car of birders.
“Yellow Warblers,” Rick announced as we parked off the road and got out. “That’s a sound I hear all of the time.” The trees seemed to be full of their sweet, sweet, sweet melodic song. I was only able to catch a glimpse of a couple of them as they raced from one tree to the next.
This is always a reliable location for a nesting Eastern Phoebe. Sure enough, it was perched on some bare branches in the dry grasses next to the river. We could see it from the bridge. It was hard to focus on it to get a good picture.Fortunately, Joe had one that turned out better than mine.
“Oh, look,” someone called. “There are two Spotted Sandpipers standing on a rock where the river turns.”
Cliff Swallows swarmed over the river. It appeared that the babies had fledged and they also were swooping with the adults. Their creaking voices filled the air.
“There is a Blue Grosbeak,” someone pointed to the tip of a tree towards the top of the river bank. It was a male and its blue body and rust-colored wing bars stood out against the sky.
Black-headed Grosbeaks were singing, and then one popped into view. Yellow-breasted Chats also hooted, gurgled and rattled from the trees. Most of the birders were able to get good looks when one appeared at the edge of one of the trees.
“A Rufous Hummingbird,” Bev exclaimed. Sure enough an adult male landed near where the phoebe was perched.
After half an hour of enjoying the birds along the river, we made our way into the state park. The songs of Ash-throated Flycatchers greeted us as we drove along the entrance road. And, more Yellow Warblers and Yellow-breasted Chats were singing from the willows along the river at this location.
We were joined by a camper from out-of-state after the camp host alerted him to our presence.
Someone noticed a Western Wood Pewee and then followed it with his binoculars as it flew into its nest, barely visible in the crook of a tree right in front of us. He pointed it out to the rest of us. Joe was able to get a photo of the parent and chick at the nest.
And, right overhead we were surprised as an American Robin flew in and fed its chick.
Swallows were flying in and out from nests nestled in the crevices of the cliff face nearby. In the past we have seen Cliff Swallows nesting there, so we were surprised to see that these were Violet-green Swallows.
“Violet-green Swallows, who are cavity nesters, often use Cliff Swallow nests after the young are fledged,” trip leader Karen explained to us. “In fact, they have been known to assist with feeding the Cliff Swallow chicks while they wait to hurry the process along and then take over the mud nest.”
A pair of Cassin’s Kingbirds claimed this area as their territory, while further along in the park we saw Western Kingbirds.
We moved along to another location where we could walk out on a footbridge over the Pecos River where there were more Yellow Warblers and Yellow-breasted Chats.
Rock Wrens are often heard and/or seen along the cliffs. This time we heard one calling, but didn’t see it. Rebecca also heard a Canyon Wren. Bushtits also called from the bushes.
After lunch we explored the far end of the park where we were surprised to find a Townsend’s Solitaire.
A Great Blue Heron flapped its long wings steadily as it flew along over the river. There were more Yellow Warblers, Yellow-breasted Chats, Western Wood Pewees and a Blue Grosbeak.
As we headed back to our cars, I spotted another flycatcher. We agreed that it was an Olive-sided Flycatcher, as it was slightly bigger than the pewees and more elongated in shape.
When we went over the list, we had totaled 48 species for the day. Villanueva State Park is always one of our favorite birding locations each summer.