Late Fall Birding at Bernardo Wildlife Management Area

“We are going follow the route suggested in Birding Hot Spots of Central New Mexico,” I told the Central New Mexico Audubon Thursday Birders gathered at the meeting spot. “Before heading into the wildlife management area, we are going to drive east along NM-60 for about 1 mile, then take a U-turn and park along the shoulder to scout the waterfowl. It is the only spot to get a good luck.”

There was a cover of coots swimming in the pond. On the far side, both Mallards and Northern Shovelers were ‘dabbling.’ Someone alerted us to a Redhead nestled under the over-hanging shrubs.

A Say’s Phoebe flew in and landed not far from where we were standing and a birder visiting from California heard a Song Sparrow singing in the underbrush across the highway. Normally, by time they arrive in central New Mexico for the winter, all we hear is its nasal call note.

Someone spotted a raptor perched on the top of a cottonwood on the far side of the seasonal pond. All the scopes came out. Clearly it was a dark morph. Some thought it was a dark morph Ferruginous Hawk and others thought its shape was more consistent with a dark morph Red-tailed. We could not see the tail, which was obscured by the cottonwood leaves. There was no consensus by time we moved on.

Our first stop inside the refuge was at the tall viewing platform. Some of the group explored the area beyond the bushes on the north side of the viewing area and turned up a Ladder-backed Woodpecker. Others wandered along the drainage channel.

We made our way down the road to the 2nd viewing platform. It was more active. A Western Meadowlark was perched on the top of a fence wire and just above it an American Kestrel surveyed the area from the top of a power pole.

Flocks of Sandhill Cranes flew over us in waves, calling to each other as they cruised overhead.

Sandhill Cranes

Several Song Sparrows foraged in the mud along the edges of the drainage channel. A flock of female Red-winged Blackbirds swooped down, landed briefly on some bare branches, and then disappeared into the grass.

Song Sparrow

“Where are the males?” someone asked.

“During the winter, males and females flock separately,” one of the regulars explained.

We began watching two Red-tailed Hawks circling over the corn fields. One was a dark morph with a very visible red tail and the other appeared to be a Harlan’s with a light tail.

“Do you think that is the same raptor we were studying from the road?” I asked. Even the dark morph Ferruginous Hawk advocates conceded that it was probably one of the two we were watching.

Bewick’s Wrens called from the bushes along the drainage channel. Then we heard the distinctive call of a Marsh Wren. Several were lucky to get a look at it when it popped up.

“They both have a white eyebrow,” Marge confirmed, checking her field guide. “However, the Marsh Wren has barring on its back.”

There were several flocks of White-crowned Sparrows that flew in and landed in some of the higher bushes away from the water. When they took off, others flew in to take their place.

“There’s a Black Phoebe,” John announced.

“And, there’s a Yellow-rumped Warbler,” Paulina stated.

A few of the group spotted a Loggerhead Shrike while we were at this stop.

As we followed the road, there were a few Sandhill Cranes walking along next to the corn field. They looked as if they wished they could get at the ears of corn still attached to the stalks.

frustrated Sandhill Cranes

At the final observation area, we walked along each of the paths to look out of the blind over the wetland. We watched a couple of Mountain Bluebirds in the grass just beyond the blind. They were joined by a Say’s Phoebe that perched precariously on the top of a slim stick. Beyond them Sandhill Cranes were probing in the wet grass and shallow water.

As I was standing back in the parking area, four Snow Geese flew over.

We watched a Northern Harrier fly low over the corn fields and then head over to the dried remains of a cover crop.

Northern Narrier

Several of us walked along the road to see if we could spot the Great Horned Owl that roosts in the cottonwood trees near the service buildings. There were still too many leaves on the tree.

As we walked back, Jeane noticed an accipiter sitting inconspicuously on a limb overhanging the service road. It was a juvenile, and in the shade of the tree looked like a Cooper’s Hawk. Just then a truck drove down the road toward us. As it approached, the raptor flushed and flew over us.

“It is a Sharp-shinned Hawk,” Steve announced. “Its head barely extended beyond the wings – and it had a more choppy wing beat that a Cooper’s.”

The refuge worker stopped to talk with us. “We will cut down the corn after the first Sandhill hunt,” he told us. “We want to encourage the cranes to head down to the Bosque del Apache and make room for wintering Snow Geese,” he explained.

“It would be helpful to have the information clearly available on your website to let the public know when the refuge is closed for hunting,” I told him.

The day had turned delightfully warm for early November and some of us decided to stay and eat our lunches on one of the picnic tables in the area – and perhaps add another species to the 33 we had already seen that morning.


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