Winter New Mexico Jan 06—12, 2016

Posted by Barry Zimmer


Barry Zimmer

Barry Zimmer has been birding since the age of eight. His main areas of expertise lie in North and Central America, but his travels have taken him throughout much of the wo...

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We arrived at breathtaking Sandia Crest (literally, as we were at 10,678 feet elevation) around midday on the last day of our tour. The scenery was jaw-dropping, with every spruce and aspen decorated with a thick frosting of snow under a sea of azure-blue skies.

Reluctantly, we left the refuge behind and headed up to Sandia Crest at 10,600 feet. It was a gorgeous day in this winter wonderland.

Sandia Crest – a winter wonderland.— Photo: Barry Zimmer


From the café inside the Crest House, the jagged peaks of the Sandia Mountains dropped dramatically down to the Rio Grande Valley and the city of Albuquerque below. The amazing scenery temporarily distracted us from the feeder that hung along the deck railing. Quickly though, we were drawn to the frenzied activity of birds coming and going. Countless Mountain Chickadees, Red-breasted and White-breasted nuthatches, bold Steller’s Jays, and Dark-eyed Juncos (Gray-headed race) all competed for the sunflower seeds on the tray. Our targets here were the rosy-finches, however, and they are notoriously nomadic and erratic. Sandia Crest is one of the best and most reliable places to find all three species in winter though, so we waited hopefully. Fewer than ten minutes had passed when one Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch appeared quietly on the tray. It is somewhat unusual for these gregarious birds to appear alone, but this one bird allowed great studies as we waited for the rest. Then, suddenly, the flock appeared; like snowflakes swirling in a blizzard, they circled about for a moment or two and then descended en masse. The tray was quickly covered in rosy-finches of all three species gorging themselves as if they hadn’t eaten in days. For a couple of minutes we enjoyed the spectacle from just fifteen feet away. Then, as quickly and mysteriously as they had arrived, they all burst into flight and disappeared downslope in the snap of a finger. Twenty-five Black Rosy-Finches, three Brown-cappeds, and 30 or so Gray-crowneds (including two of the very distinctive Hepburn’s race)—what an incredible show!

Black Rosy-Finch may be the hardest of all to add to one's list. We saw at least 25 and likely more of these U.S. endemics.

Black Rosy-Finch — Photo: Barry Zimmer


This was, of course, just one moment of our very successful Winter New Mexico tour. From El Paso to Albuquerque, we scoured the Rio Grande Valley and adjoining mountains for a wide variety of southwestern specialties, as well as impressive numbers of waterfowl, raptors, and sparrows. 

In the El Paso area, we marveled at the spectacle of 8,000 or more Yellow-headed Blackbirds coming in to roost on our first afternoon. Additionally, we tallied a rare (for mid-winter) drake Cinnamon Teal and a vagrant Lesser Black-backed Gull among others. The next day, stunning Hooded Mergansers, seven Harris’s Hawks, a wonderful adult Golden Eagle, six Black-necked Stilts, two Burrowing Owls at close range, a very rare Blue-throated Hummingbird, Red-naped Sapsucker, an especially cooperative Crissal Thrasher, Green-tailed Towhee, Black-throated Sparrow, Lark Bunting, and a rare wintering Hooded Oriole were among the many highlights.

The birds were gathering on the wires in the late afternoon light, practically right over our heads.

Yellow-headed Blackbirds — Photo: Barry Zimmer







In the vicinity of Las Cruces, we had (after much effort) our main target, Sagebrush Sparrow, from no more than ten feet away. Western and Eastern bluebirds, Canyon Towhee, and Black-chinned and Rufous-crowned sparrows rounded out the list. Moving northward through Hatch and up to Percha, Caballo, and Elephant Butte state parks, our list continued to grow. Western and Clark’s grebes side by side, a regal Ferruginous Hawk, Acorn Woodpeckers, the discovery of a very rare “Western” Flycatcher (probably Pacific-slope given its response to playback), a flock of 17 Mountain Bluebirds (completing the bluebird “hat trick”), Phainopepla, and Brewer’s Sparrow were among the more noteworthy. However, a cut alfalfa field with an astounding 12 Greater Roadrunners in view at once probably took the cake.

Then it was on to the juniper/oak woodlands of Water Canyon. Here we tallied two more Red-naped Sapsuckers, four Juniper Titmice, six Townsend’s Solitaires, Western Scrub-Jays, Bushtit, and more. On the way out, a lovely, perched Prairie Falcon gave superb views.

An estimated 6,000 white geese (Snow and Ross's) took to the air at once in an awesome spectacle of sight and sound.

Snow and Ross’s Geese — Photo: Barry Zimmer


Finally, at world-famous Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, we enjoyed the unforgettable sights and sounds of thousands of Snow and Ross’s geese bursting into flight and going right over our heads; countless, majestic Sandhill Cranes uttering their prehistoric calls; ten or more Bald Eagles; and a lovely, close Wilson’s Snipe.

In all, we tallied 21 species of waterfowl, 14 species of raptors, and 17 species of sparrows, in addition to such highly sought southwestern/western specialties as Ferruginous Hawk, Prairie Falcon, Golden Eagle, Juniper Titmouse, Mountain Bluebird, Crissal Thrasher, and Black-chinned and Sagebrush sparrows. Perhaps it was the bird spectacles that we will remember most of all—the Yellow-headed Blackbirds, the amazing geese and cranes at Bosque, and, of course, those incredible rosy-finches!