“Be sure and put your phones on airplane mode,” I warned the participants in Central New Mexico Audubon’s birding trip to Rio Grande del Norte National Monument’s Orilla Verde site, a featured location in Birding Hot Spots of Santa Fe, Taos and Northern New Mexico. “There is no cell service in the canyon.”
Our first stop was in Pilar where we pulled off at the mail box area. A Brewer’s Blackbird glided in and landed in a tree along the river. “Look at its whitish eye,” I noted.
A little further on, we stopped again. Violet-green Swallows were still perched on a wire over the river.
Barn Swallows soon joined them, and before long, swallows darted over the river snatching up insects. Three Spotted Sandpipers skimmed low over the water also seeking the midges.
We walked across the bridge to the other side. When I had been there earlier in the week with my friend Barb and local birder Meg, a pair of Black Phoebes darted back and forth off the far end of the bridge.
“Look at that,” Keith pointed. One of the Black Phoebes had become tangled in some fishing wire and had not been able to free itself. Its splayed carcass was a testament to the danger of being careless with fishing line. Unfortunately, it was not within reach and we could not rescue its remains.
As we walked along the road bordering some orchards, we were fortunate to get a great view of a Yellow-breasted Chat. A pair of Brown-headed Cowbirds flew into the same tree.
Our next stop was at the Pilar Campground. We hiked up the La Senda del Medio Trail. “This is a good location to see Brewer’s Sparrows,” Meg had told me earlier in the week. The only bird in the sparrow family we heard was a Spotted Towhee.
Every campsite was filled at the Rio Bravo Campground, and the activity of families enjoying their weekend made it difficult to see or hear species like Bullock’s Oriole and Blue Grosbeak that we had enjoyed on our prior visit. A Canada Geese family and some Mallards paddled in the gentle current and a Black-crowned Night Heron flapped gracefully as it sailed down the river.
While the sound of singing Yellow-breasted Chats and Yellow Warblers emanated from the willows, none of them were visible.
A van from a university earth sciences department was just loading. “What are you monitoring?” I asked.
“This is a summer field class,” the driver told me. “This is a very popular location for earth science classes.” Indeed we later saw several vans from another university as we explored the canyon.
Another stop produced a pair of Common Grackles. “At our next stop, we are going to get a good look at a Golden Eagle nest through the scopes,” I told the group. “If anyone asked what we are looking at, we will just say ‘birds.’ We don’t want to put the chicks at risk.”
We located the white-washed area and nest with our binoculars,
and then focused the scope on the mammoth nest where we were lucky to see one of the adults hovering and appearing to tend to the eaglets.
Further down the road, we were fortunate to find a fishing access point that was not being used. Across the road we heard the question and answer song of a Plumbeous Vireo. It was moving around in a juniper tree on the hillside and stayed well out of view.
At Taos Junction Bridge, we headed up the road to the Slide Trail. Near the trailhead we finally got good looks at a Yellow Warbler as it popped into view and flew across the trailhead to another tree.
“This trail follows the Rio Pueblo,” I told the group. “This side of the trail is the national monument and the other side belongs to Taos Pueblo.” The water tumbled over the rocks with the furry of spring run-off.
We hadn’t gone far up the trail when we started hearing a Rock Wren. In typical Rock Wren fashion, it would bounce on the top of a rock for a few moments and then hop off and appear on the top of another rock. We visually chased it back and forth until it flew to the other side of the canyon.
Two slim birds chased each other across the trail in an agitated courtship pursuit. They landed briefly nearby displaying their turquoise backs and rusty bellies – Lazuli Buntings. And, then they were off again in a chase.
Spotted Towhees seemed to be singing everywhere.
We drove into the Taos Junction Bridge Campground in hopes of finding a shady location to eat our lunches, but all of the spots were occupied. As we left, we watched a pair of Rock Wrens feeding their begging chicks.
Our caravan wound up the bumpy dirt road leading up to the mesa and headed north to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge Rest Stop – also–part of the national monument.
As we ate our lunch at one of the covered picnic tables, someone spotted a bird sitting nearby on a rock – a juvenile Sage Thrasher. After looking us over, it hopped down and two-stepped out of sight.
“Let’s see if we can locate some sparrows in the Great Basin scrub habitat adjacent to the rest stop.” I suggested after lunch. “Let me see if I can hear them while you put your things in the car.”
Keith and I headed out across the mesa. Despite the sound of the wind rushing past our ears, I began to hear a Brewer’s Sparrow.
“I see it,” Keith pointed. “It is sitting on top of a sagebrush plant.”
The rest of them caught up with us and everyone got a good look. Nearby a Horned Lark flew up from the dirt flashing its dark tail and headed towards the gorge, landing on another sage plant so we could see its yellow throat. Alas, the Sagebrush Sparrow that I had heard singing earlier in the week, was silent.
“Well, we have seen three of the possible sagebrush species,” I said.
“Not only have I seen some new birds,” Reuben exclaimed, “I have seen some new places.”