Early Spring Birding in Southwest New Mexico

The snow was coming down steadily as my friend Sue and I headed south on I-25 after I picked her up from her flight from Denver. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to traverse the dirt roads north of Magdalena in search of a Bendire’s Thrasher in this kind of weather. However, by time we headed west from Socorro, the snow was tapering off and we decided to give it a try.

We turned north on Main Street in Magdalena. Just past the old railroad station we turned right on forest service road 354, which passed the sewage ponds and a cemetery, before heading into and over some low foothills. Our directions led us onto another forest service road. The piñon-juniper habit quickly phased into desert scrub and we drove through a stand of cholla. The snow had ended and birds were beginning to stir. We stopped across from a dilapidated corral – and there was a Bendire’s Thrasher perched on the top of a cholla. Smaller than a Curve-billed Thrasher, with a yellow, rather than orange eye, it had a shorter, straighter bill. It gave a series of quiet chucks before flying down and out of sight. We got out of the car. Another one flew up and perched where we could see it. A life bird for both of us.

As we passed the sewage ponds on the way back to the highway, there was a flock of Franklin Gulls.

Our next stop was the Apache Creek Forest Campground, where I had seen Lewis’s Woodpeckers nesting a few years ago and hoped to find one for Sue. The Lewis’s is one of her nemesis birds. We were entertained by a flock of Pygmy Nuthatches and enjoyed Cinnamon Teal in the pond, but didn’t find the woodpecker we were seeking.

It was late afternoon by time we rolled into Glenwood and registered at the Double T Homestead east of town where we had reserved a cabin. After dinner, we stopped to watch the Turkey Vultures cruise in and settle into their roost tree along the road to the Catwalk.

Turkey Vulture roost tree

We were at the parking lot of the Catwalk National Recreation Area by 8:30 the next morning and discovered that most of the birds were not yet venturing out into the 34 F shade of the canyon. Only the trill of a Canyon Wren serenaded us as we walked along the north side of the canyon.

“There’s your redstart,” I stated as I pointed into the trees above our head on one of the grated platforms on the trail, as the sun began to peer into the canyon. A Painted Redstart sang and then flew – over and over. Unfortunately, it was too fast for me to capture its picture. Sue was enthralled by its crimson breast and white wing-patches on its black wings. Another redstart flew in nearby. Before we left the recreation area, we spotted six of the colorful warblers.

Near the beginning of the trail, we spotted Bridled Titmouse, another life bird for Sue. A flock of Chipping Sparrows foraged in the picnic area. I searched unsuccessfully for MY New Mexico nemesis bird – American Dipper. Lucy’s Warbler’s were singing in the scrub on either side of the parking area.

The next morning on our way to Silver City, we turned off to drive towards Bill Evans Lake, in hopes of spotting a Common Black Hawk. We hadn’t gone far when we saw three of them still perched on the branches of a weathered cottonwood tree. Another life bird for Sue.

Common Black Hawk

At Mangas Springs we heard, but didn’t see several Virginia’s Rails and Soras.

In the afternoon, we headed towards Lordsburg, and then northeast back to Red Rock. The desert habitat might have been drab at another time of year; however, we were treated to mile after mile of California poppies and other yellow wildflowers.

We also encountered a flock of over 100 Lark Buntings, just beginning to molt into their breeding plumage.

migrating Lark Buntings

At the bridge over the Gila River, we spotted three lingering Common Mergansers.

Gila River

The willows on either side of the river were alive with Yellow Warblers,

Yellow Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warblers and a Vermilion Flycatcher. A few Barn and Northern Rough-winged Swallows swooped over the river.

On our way back, we stopped next to a farm to watch another pair of Vermilion Flycatchers and a Northern Cardinal. I heard tapping in the large cottonwood next to the road and finally located the source – a Gila Woodpecker.

Back in Silver City, we settled into The Cabin, a delightful guest house on the outskirts of town that was teeming with birds. “Rather than spend the evening in a restaurant,” I suggested, “let’s go get take-out and bring it back and eat on the patio and watch the birds.

During dinner, we watched Say’s Phoebe, Townsend’s Solitaire, Chipping Sparrows, 11 Gambel’s Quail, Juniper Titmouse and both Oregon and Pink-sided Dark-eyed Juncos. A Chihuahuan Raven clucked from a shrub nearby.

View from The Cabin - photo by Sue Clasen

As I lay in bed that night, I could watch the full moon out of the window above my head before my eyes began to droop.

The next morning on our way to Pino Altos, we stopped to watch small flock of Mexican Jays, another life bird for Sue. Cherry Creek and McMillen Campgrounds had more Painted Redstarts, but no other warblers. At Lake Roberts, we were surprised that there were still 12 Buffleheads among the other waterfowl. As we were about to leave, a Snowy Egret flapped low over the lake.

That evening I discussed Birding Hot Spots of Central New Mexico< to a record 60 people at the Southwest New Mexico Audubon meeting.

Unfortunately, we were not able to do much birding when we arrived at Percha State Park. There were wall-to-wall campers on every spot of grass. It was hard to hear bird calls above the din of happy families enjoying Easter weekend. In an isolated area, we did see a pair of Vermilion Flycatchers.

Vermilion Flycatcher

Caballo State Park below the dam was equally crowded – so we didn’t even stop.

“There is time for you to get your avocet fix before I have to drop you at the airport,” I told Sue when we approached Belen. She wasn’t disappointed. There were four pairs.

American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts

Twelve Black-necked Stilts busily probed the wetlands, occasionally calling as they flew from one side of the pond to the other. Four Franklin’s Gulls also plied the water.

Franklin's Gulls

As I headed out, I pulled behind Taco Bell so Sue could get a good look at the Burrowing Owl that has taken up residence near the dirt service road.

Burrowing Owl

It had been a fun and productive five-day tour of southwest New Mexico.


6 thoughts on “Early Spring Birding in Southwest New Mexico

  1. This report allows me to peak over your shoulder from my computer. Thanks for taking me along with you.
    Jan Micali

  2. Lovely tour Judy, thanks for sharing all the photos and taking the time to write out the highlights of your trip – great post.

  3. Judy: What a wonderful trip; it proves that one doesn’t have to go far from home to see and experience the wonders of nature, friendship and beauty. Jeane

  4. shelby grimm
    judy what a great commentary and pictures. You’ve given me a great tour to follow as I head out to NM to bird
    with my sister Diane next month. I’ll be ecstatic to see half of what you were able to enjoy on your adventure. Thanks. Shelby

    • Shelby, I would not try to head into the wilderness to see the Bendire’s Thrasher as it is a really remote area. Unfortunately, the Catwalk at Glenwood is only partially open due to last summer’s wildfires – but definitely worth a stop as it is a sure place for Bridled Titmouse in the first part of the picnic area. I really recommend The Cabin as a place to stay in Silver City – much more pleasant than a motel and LOTS of birds. Percha State Park was only crowded as it was Easter weekend – traditionally a big family camping time in southern NM. I would definitely plan on stopping there for the Vermilion Flycatchers.

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