Skip to navigation, or go to main content.

WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

New Mexico in Winter

Santa Fe to the Bosque

2023 Narrative

In Summary

It’s hard to express the stark and ancient beauty of New Mexico’s myriad landscapes. You really just need to come witness it for yourself. The ancient land draws you in while its abundant wildlife makes long lasting impressions on your heart. Massive mountains swathed in coniferous forest, and blanketed in snow, rise from the desert like titans. Expansive tracts of riparian woodland line the banks of the Rio Grande for hundreds of miles, providing rich corridors for wildlife movements. The sun unfolds across the morning landscape with unmatched grandeur, and falls away slowly through dreamy tones of gold, red, and purple. We traversed some of the best areas New Mexico has to offer and encountered 134 species of birds as a group.

In Detail:

Saturday, Feb 4: We had a fabulous start to the trip with 65 species by day’s end. We started at Embudito Canyon where Crissal Thrashers gave us a run for our money, but we persevered, getting drop dead views through a scope as the sun was coming up over the distant ridge. In addition we had point blank views of Curve-billed Thrasher, Cactus Wren and Canyon Towhee. Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays were everywhere. From Embudito we made a quick stop at Bear Canyon where we found a Greater Roadrunner bowing his head as he called out to any nearby females. From there we went on a wild goose chase to the famed Balloon Fiesta Park, where the annual Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta is held each fall. The rest of the year its fields are grazing grounds for Geese. We managed to pick out the one overwintering Brant in the area as well as a lone dark morph Snow Goose in amongst the hundreds of Canada and Cackling Geese. After a taco lunch we headed to Tingley Lagoons were we enjoyed close views of many waterfowl. From there we drove to Bosque del Apache NWR with a brief stop in some sagebrush scrub where we quickly located a Sagebruch Sparrow - imagine that, in the sagebrush! A Loggerhead Shrike was hunting nearby. A Verdin sat up for extended views at a nearby rest stop. We stopped just north of the refuge along Hwy 1 and found an incredible male Vermilion Flycatcher sallying for insects along the roadside, while thousands of Snow and Ross’s Geese streamed by in the background on the way to their overnight roosts. A small group of Yellow-headed Blackbirds was mingling with the enormous flocks of Brewer’s and Red-winged Blackbirds while a group of Collared Peccaries and Mule Deer fed nearby.

Sunday, Feb 5: We left dark and early to watch the geese leave their roost for the feeding grounds north of the refuge. We enjoyed a very large flight of geese as others from a neighboring pond flew in to join the group at the flight deck. There was no mass exodus this morning of geese, they trickled out in small groups (of a hundred or so). Such is the way of nature. It was still fabulous watching them interact with each other in the pre-dawn hours while a Western Meadowlark serenaded nearby. Just around the corner we watched Say’s, Black, and Eastern Phoebes all within about 50 feet of each other - this is the best place to do this in the whole country. Red-tailed Hawks of various flavors dotted the roadside throughout the morning. Willow Deck held hundreds of cranes and six eagles, including 3 young birds who had just had their snow goose breakfast stolen by two coyotes. Collared Peccaries were everywhere! We watched three Ferruginous Hawks at the north end of the refuge. An American Avocet, a very good bird this time of year, was on the flight deck pond as we finished the north loop. We stopped at the headquarters for a picnic lunch and enjoyed watching the Gambel’s Quail running about. The feeders allowed for nice comparisons of American and Lesser Goldfinches. After lunch and a brief stop to the Boardwalk Pond we headed eastward into the Chihuahuan desert grasslands of Socorro county where we struggled to get views of Chestnut-collared Longspurs in amongst a large group of Horned Larks. They did eventually settle long enough for everyone to see them coming into breeding plumage.

Monday, Feb 6: After breakfast we headed south to Las Animas Creek, a gorgeous riparian canyon in the heart of the Chihuahuan desert. The northernmost Arizona Sycamores in the state spill down into the flats and allow for an interesting mix of species. Acorn Woodpeckers, Northern Cardinals, and Bridled Titmice, joined Juniper Titmice, and a host of sparrows, including a few Brewer’s Sparrows. The ivory white sycamores were a beautiful sight against the creosote desert wash beyond. At Percha Dam State Park we enjoyed prolonged views of Vermilion Flycatchers, this time joined by Phainopeplas and Pyrrhuloxias. Just below the spillway we enjoyed close views of a pair of Cinnamon Teal. The mistletoe berries had been mostly eaten already but there were still enough to support the Phainopeplas and multiple Western Bluebirds. After lunch we headed to Elephant Butte Lake where we picked out one Red-breasted Merganser with a group of over 200 Commons. We made sure to pay our respects as we passed The Church of the Butt(e) on our way northward. The north end of the lake had a lot more water than last year so we were able to drive right to the shore, resulting in side-by-side comparisons of Clark’s and Western Grebes. American White Pelicans were scattered about the lake.

Tuesday, Feb 7:The next morning we awoke to snow - not a lot - but just enough to make the roads exciting. We made a spin around Bernardo WMA to watch the Sandhill Cranes in the snow. In the nearby grasslands we found a large covey of Scaled Quails dashing back and forth between stands of cholla cactus. A bit further along we stopped in the town of Mountainair for a coffee pick me up. Sadly we got a whole lot more than we bargained for during this stop, as a snow plow and gravel truck got too close to our parked van, shattering out our back window as they went by. Nobody was hurt (only Raymond was in the car at the time) but it delayed us a bit. The owner of the coffee shop had some spare plastic and duct tape in the back and she patched us up so we could get back on the road for a bit of birding before driving back to Albuquerque to switch out vans. It looked like she’d patched a window a few times before. Just north of Mountainair we scoped a beautiful Prairie Falcon on a pole. The grasslands were windy and snowy but we did manage to find another Chesnut-collared Longspur with Horned Larks. After lunch, and a van swap, we returned to our original plan of driving to the Sandia Crest for our first shot at Rosy-Finches. Halfway up the mountain we encountered a flock of Evening Grosbeaks that was 75 strong! As we arrived at the crest out first Rosies flew down for a bite to eat at the feeders, alongside many Cassin’s Finches. We enjoyed close views of Brown and Black Rosy-Finches before deciding to get off the mountain before the roads got too snowy. We made our way to Santa Fe for a delicious East African meal and some much-needed sleep, but not before stopping for a roadside flock of Cedar Waxwings!

Wednesday, Feb 8: We rose early, hit a Starbucks and were on our way to Georgia O’Keefe country in northern New Mexico. Our first stop of the day was along the Rio Chama near the town of Abiquiu to search for a flock of Bohemian Waxwings that’d been mixing with the Cedar Waxwings this winter. It wasn’t long before we’d found the flock of waxwings, including about 25 Bohemians in the top of Cottonwood. Meanwhile the nearby Russian Olives were teaming with Cedar Waxwings, American Robins, Evening Grosbeaks, Western Bluebirds, and Townsend’s Solitaires. The dense stands of willows provided cover for both Black-capped and Mountain Chickadees. Just upstream we found a large group of Common Goldeneyes. After we’d had our fill of waxwings we drove north to Abiquiu Lake and enjoyed Mountain Bluebirds in superb light. Bird diversity in far northern New Mexico is low during the winter but the views of the surrounding desertscape easily made up for the lack of birds. Just outside of Espanola we watched a Lewis’s Woodpecker guarding an old, twisted cottonwood tree. In the late afternoon we made a trip to the Santa Fe ski basin where we found 3 American Three-toed Woodpeckers in the trees above the ski resort. How many toes is that? I think it’s 18…

Thursday, Feb 9: More snow!!! Another Starbucks run and a trip to Pecos for more mountain birding! As we arrived in the small village of Pecos a flash of blue caught out attention behind the dog and cat grooming shop… a whole flock of Pinyon Jays! We deposited the van in the bank parking lot and wandered across the street for a closer look. As we enjoyed very close views of Pinyon Jays a pair of Black-billed Magpies flew past in the distance. As a bonus we got to meet a very sweet sheep dog that was very proud of its new stick. We continued up the mountain, but the snow was really coming down at this point and the roads became far too slick to continue further. We bailed on our Dipper search and headed back towards Albuquerque. Raymond had a little trick up his sleeve though; an American Dipper had been spending its winter on an irrigation canal in Albuquerque so all was not lost. When we arrived in the big city we stopped at a known roost box for a Western Screech-Owl. As we arrived it was sitting there in the sunshine looking cute as ever. Five minutes down the road we trekked out to the irrigation canal along the banks of the Rio Grande and found the wintering American Dipper feeding amongst a pile of partially submerged rocks. After a bit more birding we checked-in to Hotel Albuquerque to drop our bags. After a quick break we gathered back at the van to head for the Albuquerque foothills to enjoy a sunset hike at the Elena Gallegos Open Space. Things were winding down a bit but we still managed to find many Townsend’s Solitaires and another group of Cedar Waxwings. At our final stop of the day a Black-throated Sparrow came out to sing to us as the sun painted shades of pink across the Sandia Mountains, marking the end of a fabulous tour of the Land of Enchantment.


Raymond VanBuskirk, 2023

Created: 28 February 2023