Nesting and Fledglings Galore at Villanueva State Park

It had been two years since I had birded in Villanueva State Park, one of the sites featured in Birding Hot Spots of Santa Fe, Taos and Northern New Mexico and was looking forward to leading the Thursday Birders there.

I decided to scout the route a couple of days ahead of time with my friend Annmarie.

Barbara Hussey and I had written in the site description for Villanueva State Park that Cassin’s Sparrows can be found 1 mile north of I-40; however, I needed to find a place where multiple cars could pull off onto the shoulder, which turned out to be 3 miles north. When Annmarie and I pulled over, a herd of cows in a nearby field were curious what we were doing.


We could hear Cassin’s Sparrows and located them as they sang and skylarked some distance from the road. Their melodious trill echoed in the cool summer morning. The Thursday Birders were luckier – there was one that repeatedly displayed from the top of a juniper near the road,


Cassin’s Sparrow – photo by Joe Schelling (cropped to show detail)

And even landed a few times on the fence line.

During our 30 minute stop, we also saw Lark Sparrow, Horned Lark, Northern Mockingbird and Western Meadowlark.

Our next stop was at the bridge over the Pecos River just south of the village of Villanueva. Our target bird was Eastern Phoebe, one of the locations where this species regularly nests in New Mexico. We managed to see three of them. I captured this photo on our scouting day after it returned from bathing in the river and was arranging its feathers.


Eastern Phoebe

While Black-billed Magpie is fairly common a short distance north of Villanueva, I have never seen one at this location before, so was surprised to see one briefly land on the bridge railing while scouting and fly into a nearby tree with the group.

Yellow-breasted Chats vocalized from the willows along the river, and a couple of Ash-throated Flycatchers were present. The Cliff Swallows, that nest under the bridge had finished nesting.

“Let’s walk down the road and see what might be in the field,” I suggested. It turned out to be productive. We added Black Phoebe, Western Bluebird and Ladder-backed Woodpecker to our sightings list.

When we arrived at the state park, we immediately started searching for birds along the river. We can usually find a Western Wood-Pewee nest in that vicinity. We watched a pewee perch for insects along the river and fly into the trees, but could never find a nest.

We were lucky to see a Bullock’s Oriole enter its pendulous nest, evidently bringing food to chicks inside.

It was definitely a time for birds sitting on nests and feeding their young.  Next to the camp host’s site we located a Western Wood-Pewee sitting on the nest, barely visible on the fork of a branch and resembling an over-sized hummingbird nest.  As we watched, she left the nest, flew to a nearby branch to fly catch for insects. Since the female does all of the incubating, she has no alternative but to leave periodically.

A Western Kingbird was sitting on the nest across from the Visitor Center.


Nesting Western Kingbird

While the female does all of the incubating, the male keeps a watch by frequently perching nearby.

We walked out on the bridge over the river


Pecos River

where we could hear more Yellow-breasted Chats,


Yellow-breasted Chat

Yellow Warblers and Lesser Goldfinches.

“Listen,” Barbara alerted the group, and we were treated to the cascading song of a Canyon Wren.

While we were eating lunch, a bright red bird shot from the hillside and landed in a nearby cottonwood. “Summer Tanager,” someone called.  I was pretty sure that it was a Hepatic Tanager but needed to see the bill. By time I reached the tree where it had landed, it had darted into another tree; however, I was able to see its dark bill before it settled into the foliage.

“It’s a Hepatic Tanager,” I told the group when I returned to the picnic table.

“Behind us,” Annmarie had motioned on our scouting day as we were eating. I turned slowly around to find a recently fledged Black-headed Grosbeak pecking in the nearby grass.


Black-headed Grosbeak juvenile

A Black-headed Grosbeak also visited the Thursday Birder lunch bunch.

On our scouting day, Annmarie and I had seen a pair of Northern Flickers fly back and forth from a tree while we were eating lunch. We were sure there must be a nest, but we couldn’t see the hole. After eating, we looked on the other side of the tree and discovered the perfectly round flicker hole. As we watched a juvenile poked its head out briefly looking for a parent to bring food.

I showed our birding group the hole and after lunch, the photographers in the group huddled around the tree enjoying the antics when a parent returned and all three heads emerged hungrily.



Northern Flickers being fed – photo by Larry Kuo

It had been a wonderful morning. After going over the checklist we had seen over 40 species!



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