It was eerily quiet as we approached the first pond at Ohkay Owingeh Fishing Lakes (a featured site in Birding Hot Spots of Santa Fe, Taos and Northern New Mexico), just north of Espanola on the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo. We were the only individuals there. “If the gate is locked,” the pueblo’s wildlife biologist told us, “just park along the side of the road and walk around the edge of the gate.” We told her we were on a quest to see a Barrow’s Goldeneye that had been reported in the river near the fishing lakes since the first of the year.
“Are you like the birders in that movie?” she had laughingly asked.
Even though the goldeneyes had been seen by others along the Rio Grande, which runs along the back edge of the fishing lakes, we approached the first pond cautiously – just in case. There was a large flock of Common Mergansers. The white bodies of the males glistened in the mid-day sun. The mergansers all of a sudden realized they were not alone, rising up en-masse and flying north. As they flew overhead, I counted 28 of them.
“There are still three birds swimming at the far end of the lake,” Barb announced. These were smaller than the mergansers and we set up the scope to get a better look. “There are two male goldeneyes and one female. The closest male keeps diving, so it is difficult to tell the shape of the cheek patch.”
We kept inching closer. Two of the goldeneyes disappeared. We kept watching the remaining male. It had a round cheek patch – a Common Goldeneye, not the rare Barrow’s we were seeking.
There was a group of waterfowl on the far side of the larger lake – Canada Geese, a few Common Mergansers and a Common Goldeneye.
We were startled to hear a Song Sparrow singing so early in the year. It was in the bushes behind the south end of the lake.
A Northern Flicker flew in – and then another one.
“Look, a Bald Eagle,” I told Barb and gestured towards first lake. It gracefully winged it way over the fishing lake and then headed for the river.
We walked towards the river where we saw more Song Sparrows and a Townsend’s Solitaire.
“Those must be the mergansers that flew out of the first lake,” Barb pointed to the bend in the river where a large group of mergansers had congregated. We took a few steps and they flew further down river.
We followed the service road north along the river where we encountered a small group of Buffleheads. And then they lifted off and flew further up-river.
A small bird landed in a nearby tree. “It’s a Western Bluebird,” I stated.
“There must be six of them in there,” Barb replied.
A flock of about eight American Robins flew into the tops of some cottonwoods and then flew across the river into the bosque beyond.
There were three Common Goldeneyes on the river – two males and one female, perhaps the same group we had encountered when we first arrived.
We walked past the nature trail through an area where the natural habitat had been preserved, but didn’t follow it, since we were still on our Barrow’s Goldeneye quest.
We turned around when we reached the yellow fence that marks the northern boundary of the fishing lakes property.
On our way back, we flushed a pair of Bufflehead that had been resting under the shrubs growing along the side of a drainage pond.
A Red-tailed Hawk circled over the bosque.
The afternoon sun was now behind us and the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains were reflected in the large fishing pond where additional waterfowl species had arrived to dabble and nap – a pair of Hooded Mergansers, a pair of Canvasbacks and several Ring-necked Ducks. The solitary Common Goldeneye we had seen earlier was still there.
Our final bird was a Black-billed Magpie that flew into the trees beyond the first fishing lake as we were heading back to our car.
While the Barrow’s Goldeneye was elusive, it was a wonderful three hours of winter birding.