Winter New Mexico Jan 03—09, 2009
We stood on the dike of a large water impoundment at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, gazing out at a sea of white formed by a huge flock of geese. It seemed that every square inch of the pond was covered with birds (an estimated 24,000 were on the refuge) and some of them were literally 10–15 feet away. We had superb side by side comparisons of Snow and Ross's geese, and the photographic opportunities were unsurpassed. Sandhill Cranes began arriving at the pond as we stood watching the geese, a continual parade of small groups rattling as they descended to their roosting sites. The afternoon was warm (mid 50s) and sunny, as we enjoyed the avian spectacle. The sky was an incredible collection of pastel pinks, oranges, and yellows as the late afternoon sun began to set. Suddenly, something spooked the geese and thousands of birds rose as one into the air in a spectacle of sight and sound that we will never forget. Literally a blizzard of white covered the sky, and we stood in awe watching one of nature's great shows.
Our 2009 Winter New Mexico tour was possibly our most successful ever. From the deserts of El Paso through the irrigation impoundments and river valleys of the Rio Grande to the highest peaks of the Sandia Mountains east of Albuquerque, we scoured the region, tallying a very impressive 162 species of birds. Many southwestern/western specialties were seen including the likes of Harris's Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk, Prairie Falcon (an amazing 8 seen), Golden Eagle, Burrowing Owl (a pair less than 20 feet away), Red-naped and Williamson's sapsuckers, Bridled and Juniper titmice, all three bluebirds (does any bird top a male Mountain Bluebird?), Canyon Wren, the always elusive Crissal Thrasher, Sage Thrasher, Phainopepla, Green-tailed Towhee, and Rufous-crowned, Brewer's, Black-chinned, Sage, and Black-throated sparrows.
This area also plays host to huge wintering concentrations of birds (especially waterfowl, raptors, and sparrows) leading to great avian spectacles like the one mentioned above. In addition to the goose show, we watched over 1,000 Yellow-headed Blackbirds (all males) gathering to roost at sunset, studied a flock of 1,200 Common Mergansers to seek out the few Red-breasteds mixed in, and marveled at the Christmas tree appearance of an old bare juniper decorated in a kaleidoscope of colors with 40 or more bluebirds of two species, Pine Siskins, Lesser Goldfinches, and House Finches all mixed in. At 10,000 feet on Sandia Crest on our last day, we watched swirling groups of rosy-finches descend on feeders just 15 feet away. Blacks, Brown-cappeds, Gray-crowneds, and "Hepburn's" were studied at length, as Steller's Jays, Red-breasted and White-breasted nuthatches, and Hairy Woodpeckers joined in the mix.
All the previously mentioned highlights are just the tour "regulars." This trip was also characterized by an impressive list of rarities. In the El Paso area, we had a slew of unexpected species including two immature Black-legged Kittiwakes, an adult male Rufous Hummingbird, Northern Parula (a third county record ever), Rusty Blackbird, and three Hooded Orioles that were wintering in my yard. Near Las Cruces, a male Broad-billed Hummingbird and a lingering Plumbeous Vireo provided rare treats. Further upriver at Percha State Park, we found Hammond's Flycatcher, Eastern Phoebe, Vermilion Flycatcher (a stunning male), and our rarest bird of the trip, an eastern Palm Warbler. Water Canyon yielded a small group of Band-tailed Pigeons. In all, we added 6 new species to the cumulative tour list—no small feat since this tour has been run 15 times. We also had very good weather overall (one windy day) with highs ranging from the low 50s up to 70 degrees, and nighttime lows around freezing or above. I can't think of a better or more exciting place in the U.S. to bird in January than New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment.