A few Barn Swallows dipped and twisted over the drain as our seven-member New Mexico Audubon Birdathon team headed onto the two-way road in the Bosque del Apache NWR at 5 pm. A raft of Ruddy Ducks floated near the road in the year-round pond. A raptor caught our attention on a snag in the distance and we got out the scopes to check it out. Through our binoculars, it appeared to have a white head; however, when we gazed at it through the scope, the white head turned out to be a bleached part of the snag instead of a rare spring sighting of a Bald Eagle.
The wetlands seemed to come alive as we entered the Seasonal Tour Road. The white butts of Northern Shovelers and black tails of Gadwalls bobbed up and down as they dipped for aquatic plants; the russet bodies of Cinnamon Teal stood out against the marsh grass;
Snowy, Cattle and Great Egrets were clustered in groups; and shorebirds probed in the mud – Wilson’s Phalaropes, Long-billed Dowitchers, Black-necked Stilts and American Avocets. We got out to scope the smaller peeps.
The mud was drying out and cracked on the east side of the road. “Stop,” I signaled Steve. Something had moved. As I focused on a tuft of parched grass, I could see the yellow bill of a Sora grasp at something before it scampered back into the higher vegetation, giving its descending whinny as it moved. On the other side of the car we heard the distinct kidik of a Virginia Rail. Common Yellowthroats and Yellow-breasted Chats sang from the dense foliage along the road.
“Here is where I usually pull off and get out of the car,” I told the group. Yellow Warblers called from the trees. A pair of Vermilion Flycatchers repeatedly flew out and back snagging the increasing mosquitoes that materialized as the evening progressed.
We stopped again where the road turns east. A Carolina Wren sang from a nearby tree. Another one seemed to answer it. Suzanne was able to catch a glance of it. A Summer Tanager whistled its melodic song.
The first Lesser Nighthawks appeared.
On the north end of the Farm Loop we heard an oriole call. One shot out the tree and flew east. While Peter was sure that it was an Orchard Oriole, the rest of us didn’t get that clear of a look. Meanwhile in the tree, we had a good look at a Bullock’s Oriole.
We arrived at the Flight Deck about 7:30. The Lesser Nighthawks were swooping everywhere. From the deck we witnessed a different kind of ‘fly-in’ as close to 150 White Ibis streamed in and clustered together.
Beyond them were hundreds of Wilson’s Phalaropes. A flock of Willets flew in flashing their distinctive wing pattern. A few Marbled Godwits were mixed in with them, distinctive in the dim light by their more portly profile.
Our last stop of the day was at the rookery where every snag was laden with roosting egrets and cormorants.
A lone Great Blue Heron hovered at the edge of the pond.
We were at Riverine Park shortly after 6 am where the temperature was registering 36 degrees. As dawn approached, the trees started coming alive: Summer Tanager, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Bullock’s Oriole, Black-headed Grosbeak. We heard a Lucy’s Warbler singing but were not able to see it bouncing around the trees in the dim light. At the end of the river swallows were beginning to hunt for insects and a group of Brown-headed Cowbirds rattled past.
Our next stop was at Turtle Bay on the NM Tech Campus. Yellow-rumped Warblers were singing from the trees near the parking lot, but there were no birds flitting in the thinned-out willows near the pond – a real disappointment. American Robins, Great-tailed and Common Grackles were plentiful. A male Western Tanager, our only one of the count, worked the top of a tree near the playground. In the nearby grass was a Song Sparrow and Lesser Goldfinches. We added Ring-necked Duck and Pine Siskin as we walked back to the cars. As we drove away, Turkey Vultures began to rise from a nearby roost and circle overhead – thirteen.
“Roll down your windows and listen for Scott’s Oriole,” Carol suggested as we drove into The Box. “This is a good place for them.” The junipers were silent.
At the parking lot we heard Rufous-crowned Sparrow calling. We walked down into the canyon a ways. Four White-throated Swifts swooped over the top of the rock face and were joined by a couple of Violet-green Swallows. A Say’s Phoebe hunted insects and then took them into an opening in the cliff where she probably had a nest. We heard the calls of both Canyon and Rock Wren. As we headed back to the cars, a Rock Wren made its appearance on top of a rock.
We inched up the road into piñon-juniper habitat where a pair of Northern Mockingbirds foraged along the hillside. As we headed back down, the other car stopped to ID a large flock of sparrows that flew in – Brewer’s Sparrows and our car stopped when we heard a Scott’s Oriole calling and were rewarded with it flying to the top of a piñon, giving us a good view. When we were almost back to the parking lot, we picked up Black-throated Sparrow sitting on a fence post. While we waited for the other car, we heard juvenile ravens and saw an adult fly towards a nest in the cliff face.
As we drove along the parched and over-grazed ranch land into Water Canyon, our only species were Horned Lark and a pair of fly over Pinyon Jays.
At the mouth of the canyon we got out. Cassin’s Kingbirds were chasing each other and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds buzzed around us. An Acorn Woodpecker was perched on a bare snag.
At the Water Canyon picnic area we walked along the Nature Trail where we heard and saw both Plumbeous and Warbling Vireos and spotted a Western Wood-Pewee. Chipping Sparrows trilled from a juniper, Bushtits buzzed nearby and we saw our only Western Scrub Jay for the trip. We spotted what we suspected was a Juniper Titmouse as it silently skulked in a piñon; however, could never see well enough for a positive ID.
At the first pull-out we stopped and got out of the car. The surprise bird was a Painted Redstart. As we watched it bounce around, it was joined by a second male.
We stopped again near the water tank where some of us had the opportunity to see a pair of Hepatic Tanagers flyover the road. Grace’s Warblers called from the ponderosas, Suzanne heard a Red-tailed Hawk calling as it flew overhead and we caught the call of a White-breasted Nuthatch.
At the 7,500 ft. sign we again parked and got out. We heard a Red-faced Warbler singing, then Carol exclaimed “That’s an Olive Warbler singing.” While we were able to finally spot it, we didn’t get good views.
The Red-faced Warbler came in closer and almost danced around us as it bounced back and forth across the road, giving us excellent views – a life bird for several in our group.
After lunch, we headed back to the refuge, stopping on the San Antonio portion of the Farm-Market Road. While we didn’t spot any Phainopepla, we were surprised by a Vermilion Flycatcher and were able to add Swainson’s Hawk to our list.
At the refuge we toured the Marsh Loop, adding a few lingering ducks, an Eared Grebe and Ring-necked Pheasant. With only an hour remaining, we split up, one car heading over to the Visitor Center where they added Bank Swallow and our car driving the tour route again. We were startled and saddened to see a Sandhill Crane in one of the ponds, undoubtedly not strong enough to make the trip north.
On the north end of the Farm Loop we added our last bird – a Lark Sparrow.
While we slept and ate during our 24-hour Birdathon, we kept a rigorous pace and were rewarded with wonderful sightings that hopefully will raise sufficient funds for Audubon New Mexico’s bird conservation work.