“I’m pretty sure this is a Ferruginous Hawk nest with a female on it,” Rebecca, organizer of the Central New Mexico Audubon Thursday Birder Birdathon, told us as we pulled up along NM-203 into Sumner Lake State Park. “We need it for our count.” She had her scope focused on it and while its head was barely visible above the top of the nest, the rusty-colored feathers of its back were blowing in the breeze.
The nest structure, perched atop some type of tower with a platform, was the only raised structure for miles. The nest, about three feet high, clearly had been added to for many years.
Another car pulled up. “We stopped to look at the Scaled Quail,” they said.
I offered to drive back in hopes they would still be there at 10 am, the start of our 24-hour count period. While there were no quail visible, right at the starting time, I heard the distinctive call of a Scaled Quail – heard birds are definitely countable.
A flock of Lark Sparrows landed on the fence and in the desert scrub beyond.
I then drove back to pick up Kay and Mike, my passengers, and we proceeded towards the state park, stopping to tick off a Loggerhead Shrike on a power line. When we reached a stand of cholla cactus, I stopped again in the hopes of a Cactus Wren. While they have been seen here in the past, there have been no recent reports from this location – but it didn’t hurt to scan the cholla, just in case. I spotted a nest in one of the cholla, but no wren. We did pick up a Curve-billed Thrasher.
Rebecca asked two of the cars, including ours, to head to the west side of the Pecos River below the dam, while the rest covered the east side. Our car crossed the dam and dropped down to the camping area on the west side of the river.
Swallows – mostly Cliff and Barn – swirled over the river. I did spot 3 Violet-green Swallows. As we approached, a Double-crested Cormorant lifted off with two Mallards and flew downstream. A Bullock’s Oriole flashed its deep orange plumage in the top of a tree.
Almost immediately I heard the distinctive call of an Eastern Phoebe and finally located it. The willows across the river were alive with warblers darting in and out – Yellow, Yellow-rumped, Common Yellowthroat, Wilson’s, and one Virginia’s. The folks on the other side of the river spotted a Northern Waterthursh.
We watched a House Wren in the grass beneath a tree near where we were standing.
“I hear a Bell’s Vireo,” I heard Rebecca telling those across the river. They walked towards a large tree. We kept hoping it might make its way to our side, but no such luck.
A Turkey Vulture circled overhead along with another buteo that disappeared over the side of the hill. From the other side of the river, the buteo was identified as a Broad-winged Hawk.
We stopped to gaze in amazement at a rainbow-colored cloud formation that formed to the east. They are called ‘fire rainbows’ according to a weather report on the Internet.
Our next stop was near the Visitor Center on the west side of Sumner Lake. There was a raft of Ruddy Ducks on the far side of the lake, along with some American Coots, a Snowy Egret and a Snow Goose. A Great Blue Heron stood watch on a nearby sandbar.
“I see an aechmophorus grebe,” Rebecca said. “See if anyone can determine which one it is.” Six scopes focused on the grebe. The consensus was a Western, although Kim, who had wandered to the opposite side of the lake and was closer, later told us it was a Clark’s Grebe.
We turned our attention to some shorebirds walking along our side of the lake – a Killdeer, Snowy Plover and Baird’s Sandpiper.
A flock of terns began circling over the lake and finally landed on something. “They are clearly Forster’s Terns,” someone concluded.
A flock of American Pipits flew in and landed near the shorebirds, wagging their tails up and down.
Kay spotted a Western Tanager in a bare tree as we drove up to the picnic area for lunch. During lunch, Lefty called our attention to a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher foraging in a small shrub nearby.
We stopped at the shore one more time after lunch and picked up a Willet and two Ring-billed Gulls.
As we drove into Fort Sumner, a surprising Common Nighthawk flew across the road in front of our car – our only nighthawk sighting for the count.
Our next stop was along the canal behind Fort Sumner High School. In the trees and shrubs dividing someone’s house from the open space were a Hermit Thrush and MacGillivray’s and Orange-crowned Warblers. A Northern Flicker flew into the trees beyond. The edge of the football field was hoping – Lazuli and Indigo Buntings and Blue and Black-headed Grosbeaks. The grass was covered with Chipping Sparrows and Pine Siskins.
When we returned to the car, Sei told us that he and Gary had seen a Blue Jay. After much scanning of the nearby trees, we finally caught a glimpse of it as it dove into adjacent shrubbery.
On our way to Bosque Redondo Lake, we stopped to admire the Bullock’s Oriole’s at the feeders in someone’s yard.
At the lake two American Avocets and four Cinnamon Teal stood out against a multitude of bobbin American Coots. Red-winged Blackbirds were busy establishing territories in the cattails. A small flock of American Goldfinches in breeding plumage looked like tiny yellow beacons among the tree limbs.
A Black-chinned Hummingbird buzzed by – our first hummer of the day.
In a nearby flooded field, we stopped to watch a flock of White-faced Ibis scrounge for insects in the wet mud – at times almost obscured by the plants.
As we rounded the bend, there was a male Wild Turkey displaying in a nearby field. “Just like a Thanksgiving turkey,” Kay exclaimed.
By time I pulled the car over and we got out snap photos, he had lowered his tail and was leading his harem across the pasture.
We stopped at another farm just in time to see a flock of gulls rise up and fly towards the river. “I see at least one black head in the flock,” Kay said. Behind them a group of shorebirds seemed to dance in unison as they swirled back and forth, getting lower and lower and finally landing – deep in the grass where it was impossible to get an ID.
Nearby Yellow-headed Blackbirds flew out of a bare tree to join the Red-winged Blackbirds for a late afternoon feeding frenzy. Brown-headed Cowbirds and European Starlings strutted beneath grazing cows.
By 5:15 we had joined the rest of the group at Melrose Woods. I had not been at the migrant trap since a wild-fire had whipped through the area. The still-scorched trunks of the dense stand of trees seemed stark in the late afternoon sun.
A cacophony of sound reverberated from the grove as Western Kingbirds and European Starlings squawked from the tree tops.
“Where is the Great Horned Owl fledgling?” I asked Joe who had told us about it over lunch.
“He is still there, tucked away amidst a tangle of branches,” Joe replied. “He is likely to be fully fledged any day now.”
He was barely visible amidst the branches.
Besides the starlings and kingbirds, the area seemed relatively quiet. “Yesterday at this time, the area was literally dripping with Hermit Thrushes and House Wrens,” Rebecca told us.
And then, as if on cue, a thrush rustled in the dry leaves. “It’s a Swainson’s Thrush,” Lefty said. “Notice its buff eye-ring and lack of rusty tail,” he continued. It was a state bird for me – and another $5 added to my pledge for the Birdathon.
Just as we were getting discouraged, a Summer Tanager flew in and landed in the top of a leafed-out cottonwood.
Since we would be coming back shortly after dawn, we headed down the road towards a prairie dog village that Ken had located – with a Burrowing Owl. Before we reached the appropriate mile marker, two cars were pulled over on the other side of the road. I opened my window to find out what they had located.
“Rebecca spotted two Scissor-tailed Flycatchers on the top of this tree – while we were traveling at 60 mph,” Joe told us. “One flew off, but the other one landed on top of a small yucca plant.”
We pulled over to have a look. It was a life bird for both of my passengers.
It was clouding up and the wind was blowing when we reached the prairie dog colony. With the wind and traffic, I could not open my car door to get out. Fortunately, one of the owls flew and landed across the road from me – enabling me to count it.
We were back at Melrose early the next morning – and it was definitely livelier than the previous evening.
I wanted to see if the owl was still there. It had flown from its tangled den and was now perched in a limb in full view.
In the meadow beneath the owl’s tree, birds were darting in and out of the grass – Blue Grosbeak, Lazuli Bunting , Bullock’s Oriole and Yellow-rumped Warblers. We finally saw the Red-headed Woodpecker, as well as a Ladder-backed Woodpecker.
Along the hillside were Green-tailed and Spotted Towhees and MacGillivray’s Warbler. Under the trees were both Swainson’s and Hermit Thrush. Summer and Western Tanagers were high in the tree tops.
“Blackpoll Warbler,” John Parmeter called as he made the rounds of birders scattered throughout the trees. “It is in the southeast corner.”
A cluster of birders had their bins focused on a tree at eye-level. They had already seen the warbler, one of those migration strays that sought shelter and food after a night of flying. Its normal migration path is much further east. I didn’t have to wait long before it worked its way into view for me. I had seen it in Alaska, but was not able to study it as well as I was this time – and had never seen the yellow legs.
Birds were still arriving from the south. Before long, the low shrubs were hopping with Ruby-crowned Kinglets. Then an Eastern Kingbird dropped down.
Joe emerged from the woods and showed me his camera screen – a picture of a Sora strutting among the dry grasses! According to John Parmeter, a long-time member of the New Mexico Bird Records Committee, it is only the 3rd time it has been recorded at this location.
We decided to return to Bosque Redondo Lake to see what might have landed there. By time we arrived, there were only 20 minutes remaining until our 24-hour Birdathon period would be over.
We were not disappointed. Kim located a Rose-breasted Grosbeak in the willows at the north end of the lake. And for those who had not had a good look the day before, a Blue Jay flew into the same tree.
When we went over the list – our team had racked up 137 species. While not as impressive as younger birders who keep up the pace for the full 24 hours, we had seen an impressive number of birds – and had gotten a good night’s sleep!