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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

New Mexico in Winter

Santa Fe to the Bosque

2015 Tour Narrative

In Brief: The 2015 WINGS venture through central New Mexico in winter was packed with birds even though we experienced unseasonably balmy weather at the beginning and a dramatic cold snap at the end. The group tallied an impressive 148 species in 6 days, traveling as far south as Percha Dam State Park and as far north as the beautiful and snow covered mountains around Santa Fe.  Along the way, we experienced a breadth of habitats that is hard to match in any similar sized area in the country.  From montane coniferous forests, to barren creosote flats, from native shortgrass prairie to bottomland riparian cottonwood forests or extensive Pinyon-juniper forests, New Mexico truly has much to offer! 

Among the many avian highlights was the afternoon at Bosque del Apache NWR, where we were surrounded by 1000+ Sandhill Cranes and an estimated flock of 5000 mixed Snow and Ross’s Geese.  Watching these birds sail overhead in huge waves as they lifted off in the early morning sun against a crystal clear blue sky is an awe-inspiring experience. At the Sandia Crest feeders, the Rosy-Finches put on a memorable show, with a mixed flock of all three species coming in repeatedly and perching in nearby trees for enough time to study the field marks that separate these often similar and beautiful finches. A female Purple Finch, an Eastern Phoebe and female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker added some eastern flavor to the mix.  While birds like Black-billed Magpie, Williamson’s Sapsucker, Juniper Titmouse and Pinyon Jay were all decidedly western in character.  On our day to the south we were treated to an amazing congregation of waterfowl on Elephant Butte Lake, with tens of thousands of birds massing just south of the Three Sisters Point against the setting sun and deep red cliffs.

Another tour favorite was the varied and wonderful New Mexican cuisine.  Whenever possible we ate at independent local restaurants and were constantly pleased by the subtle flavors of New Mexican chilies.  The assortment of soups, salads and tortilla- based dishes was staggering and when one considers the fantastic steaks and surprisingly good fish the cuisine rightly takes on a world class feeling.  Where else but the little Owl Café in San Antonio can one experience the world’s best Green Chili Cheeseburger?  In Albuquerque, at the Church Street Café we dined in an adobe house built in the late 1700’s and allegedly inhabited by a playful female ghost!

In Detail: We began our tour with visits to several picturesque canyons along the west flank of the Sandia Mountains.  Tucked in the cactus and juniper-clad slopes and grassy swales of Embudito Canyon we enjoyed a pleasant introduction to the desert birds of Albuquerque.  Many cooperative Canyon Towhees, Western Scrub-Jays, flocks of Dark-eyed Juncos and White-crowned Sparrows (with one White-throated tucked amongst them) were all prized in turn.  At the head of a narrow canyon we stopped to scope a Townsend’s Solitaire that was perched in a juniper and calling somewhat stridently.  As the sun began to warm the canyon slopes we picked out a vocal Canyon Wren atop a large boulder, and with some patience tracked down a foraging Rufous-crowned Sparrow.  Just as we began to head downslope to the cars a Crissal Thrasher began calling upslope, and with some judicious taping and much scanning we located a pair of these often ephemeral wraiths, perching long enough for good scope views.

During a brief walk in a separate canyon, we located a dapper pair of subtle plumaged but perky Juniper Titmouse, a couple of frenetic Bushtits and our first Western Bluebirds. Also of note at this location was a large and cooperative flock of Dark-eyed Juncos that allowed us to study Pink-sided, Gray-headed and Oregon Juncos in close proximity.  We next stopped along the Rio Grande River in Corrales, NW of Albuquerque, where a staked out Harris’s Sparrow failed to appear.  Not to be disappointed, we made up for it with studies of close Sandhill Cranes and Canada Geese feeding in fallow fields, our first Northern Flickers, White-breasted Nuthatches and Song Sparrows feeding in the large Cottonwoods lining the river.  After lunch in an outstanding local café, we put in a stop to the cozy Rio Grande Nature Center where from the comforts of a large indoor viewing room we picked through a mixed flock of ducks that included several remarkable Wood Ducks, a couple of Lesser Scaup, Gadwall, Mallards and Northern Shovelers. At a larger pond near the parking lot we located a sleeping Coyote basking in the afternoon sun, and an understandably wary flock of Cackling Geese (with a small number of Canada Geese mixed in).  Enroute to our hotel for the next three nights in Socorro we stopped, with the invitation of a local birder, at the tiny hamlet of San Acacia.  Although our main target, a female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was missing in action we enjoyed a cooperative pair of Eastern Bluebirds and a completely unexpected Swamp Sparrow that was hiding in dry saltbushes with a small group of White-crowned Sparrows.  After settling into our hotel in Socorro, we ate a hearty meal at the Socorro Brewing Company then headed off to bed, getting ready for an early rise the next day for our trip to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

On day three we had a remarkable sunny day at the incredible Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.  Perhaps due to the unusually warm weather all of the ponds were ice free, and as a result the Bald Eagles flushed the geese out early from the flight deck ponds.  We watched the outer ponds along the entrance road as geese flew in from the refuge, enjoying close views of Ross’s and Snow Geese by the hundreds.  Approximately 800 Sandhill Cranes were tucked in with the geese, and as the first rays of sunlight hit the flock they took flight, heading north, in a rush of wings and a deafening chorus of yelps, bugles, and honks.  At the refuge headquarters we lingered, watching the feeders and walking through the cactus garden where we were rewarded with views of two more White-throated Sparrows, a Green-tailed Towhee, a male Yellow-headed Blackbird, our first comical Gambel’s Quail and several female and immature Pyrrhuloxias.  As luck would have it we visited the refuge on a federal holiday, and the northern loop road around the farm fields was open.  We opted to explore this area (open just a few days a year) for much of the morning.  Enroute we stopped to admire a male Cinnamon Teal that was foraging in a roadside ditch.  Having one of these glowing mahogany colored ducks at such close range was a treat!  We discovered the fields were quiet, but the raptors were patrolling them with vigor.  Several Bald Eagles, Northern Harriers and American Kestrels were spotted, as were a seemingly endless collection of Red-tailed Hawks (including one Harlan’s).  Some of our group had quick views of a foraging Rough-legged Hawk as well, but it unfortunately flew away before everyone was able to locate it.  A stroll through a scrubby bosque produced Western Bluebirds, Ruby-crowned Kinglets and a nice array of Juncos (along with some amazingly persistent mud).  After the northern loop, we drove the roads around the farm fields outside of the refuge, where we found several more Sandhill Cranes and white Geese, plus numerous Greater Roadrunners that looked to be everywhere (perhaps enjoying the warm weather and active lizards).  As we headed to San Antonio for lunch we stopped to enjoy a stunning Ferruginous Hawk circling above the road.  Lunch was a big hit, as we wolfed down the world famous Green Chile Cheeseburgers from San Antonio’s Owl Café.  We then headed east, into the Trinity Valley grasslands (site of the world’s first atomic bomb test), and drove out to a cattle pond where we watched as Horned Larks and Chestnut-collared Longspurs coursed over, briefly settling along the water’s edge.  The golden grasslands, ringed by mountains and dotted liberally with yuccas provided a gorgeous background for birding.  In the afternoon we returned to Bosque to cover the southern auto loop, where several impoundments held good numbers of waterfowl.  An immature swan that we had spotted earlier, at some distance, revealed itself to be an unexpected Trumpeter Swan (rather than the much more common Tundra).  At one of our stops we found a few Greater Yellowlegs and a flock of Long-billed Dowitchers probing around a small muddy island.  Birds were seemingly everywhere, and after the waders we paused to watch a huge flock of Pine Siskins and American Goldfinches foraging amongst mistletoe clumps in a cluster of large trees.  Minutes later we were looking at a field with 14 Bald Eagles, throngs of Sandhill Cranes and Canada Geese and even some Mule Deer!  As we completed the loop we realized that (possibly due to the nearly 70 degree weather) the usual masses of geese and cranes were not feeding in their expected afternoon fields.  We waited on the main flight deck, watching as flocks of blackbirds coursed overhead to their roosts, but the expected fly-in never occurred. It was a notable and beautiful evening, under a vibrant purple, gold and pink sunset that without doubt appealed to the photographers in the group.

The following day we drove south to visit a series of wetlands, parks and canyons in Sierra County.  The unseasonably warm weather continued and we located an enjoyable suite of new species amid the craggy buttes, rolling creosote flats, cottonwood gallery forests and cactus filled draws.  Driving further we stopped at the sand flats just above Caballo Dam.  In the brushy thickets we located a large flock of sparrows, and with some searching found several Brewer’s and a few dapper Black-throateds amongst the throngs of House Finches and White-crowned Sparrows. Later we stopped in at Percha State Park where several Phainopeplas and Western Bluebirds were found feeding on fruiting clumps of mistletoe, while Black Phoebes plied the riverbank.  Diligent searching along the forested areas of the campground revealed a delightful Purple Finch (a vagrant in NM), no fewer than 6 White-throated Sparrows and an Eastern Phoebe.  In the campground itself we found two Orange-crowned Warblers (here only in warmer years) foraging in some isolated junipers and a somewhat cooperative Verdin that remained perched in the open for almost a minute!  After lunch in Truth or Consequences (unbelievably named after an old gameshow) we toured the Animas Valley. This pretty canyon holds permanent water that flows out of the eastern edge of the Gila Wilderness Area, and the riparian vegetation is dominated by huge and twisted Arizona Sycamore trees, with a few shrubby Emory Oaks along the banks.  As all the adjacent washes flowing east from the mountains are dry and covered in creosote bushes this lush canyon is a real attraction for birds.  The bushes were full of assortment Dark-eyed Juncos and Chipping Sparrows, and in the larger sycamore trees we located a couple of family groups of gaudy Acorn Woodpeckers.  Later in the afternoon we concentrated on the vast area of Elephant Butte Lake, which has significantly shrunk from its once immense size, after five years of drought.  Along the southern tip of the lake we watched Rock Wrens bouncing around the rocks and rubble near the base of a cliff and tried to visualize an elephant out of the large butte at the center of the lake (without much success).  A few stops along the west shore produced impressive numbers of Western Grebes, with several Clarke’s Grebes for close comparison, a flock of lounging American White Pelicans, Double-crested Cormorants, and a smattering of Ring-billed and Herring Gulls.  Along one of the entrance roads to the lake we found a snappy trio of Sage Thrashers perched in the open, remaining for extended views.  Our last stop for the day will likely leave a long-lasting impression on this year’s participants.  At Three Sisters Point we located where seemingly every duck along the Rio Grande was congregated along the south shore of the grassy point.  We recored a conservative estimate of 30000 birds in the masses, with hundreds more in flight above us.  A fairly close count of at least 3500 American Wigeons alone was amazing enough, but the full spectacle was staggering, and a great way to wrap up the day.  As we picked through a small part of the flock we happily found a flock of Redhead, and then, as the setting sun began to diffuse in to a deep purple glow across the lake, we turned north for Socorro.

With a forecasted change in the weather and impending snowfall in the mountains we decided to switch our intended locations and visit the high country of the Sandias on the way to Santa Fe. But first we made an early morning pilgrimage back to Bosque where after a short wait we enjoyed a remarkable en-masse flyout of geese.  After several false starts the entire flock (numbering about 5000 birds) surged up as one and wheeled over our heads.  The cacophony of their calls and whirs of their wings filled the sky, seemingly dropping the air pressure as they coursed overhead.  We then took a productive walk into the sagebrush country along the canyon trail, where we tracked down a very cooperative Sagebrush Sparrow amongst a large flock of Brewer’s and White-crowned. 

As we drove north from Bosque the skies were ominously dark, but we made time to visit the little town of San Acacia, where we successfully located the female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker that was wintering in a yard of a local residence, the same person who earlier had invited us to visit his feeders. As we drove closer to the Sandias we found a big weather change, the temperatures had dropped to about 13 degrees, and snow began to fall.  Soon after we arrived at the peak, a good-sized flock of Rosy Finches put in an appearance.  We were lucky to have close views of all three species, and several individuals of the coastal breeding Hepburn’s Gray-crowned as well before the flock flew down the ridge. The bright pinks, bold browns and rich black of these birds are astounding and having the opportunity to view all three species, in side-by-side comparison is unique to this location in New Mexico.  After lunch at Sandia Crest House, we watched Steller’s Jays, Mountain Chickadees and Dark-eyed Juncos vie for position at the feeders, along with flocks of Rosy Finches as they descended en-masse to gorge briefly and then depart into the dark of falling snow.  Near the base of the mountain, and in fairly heavy snow we located a flock of Pygmy Nuthatches foraging amongst roadside Ponderosa Pines.  As we descended down the mountain the snow became thicker, and we spent the afternoon driving to Santa Fe on back roads, pausing for our first Cassin’s Finches along the way.  The forecast for the following day was varied, ranging from light snow accumulation to almost a foot depending on where you were!  So after a hearty dinner at a nearby steak and BBQ house we then went to bed curious to see what the next day’s weather had in store for us.

With a comfortable 8am start, the next day revealed only a few inches of snow had fallen overnight, and the skies seemed to be clearing (not so to our SE, where over 15 inches fell on the plains).  Our first stop was at the nature conservancy’s Santa Fe Canyon Preserve, where we found two gorgeous male Evening Grosbeaks, a few raucous American Black-billed Magpies, several Townsend’s Solitaires and a female Williamson’s Sapsucker and all easily seen from the parking lot!  A brief walk on a snowy trail revealed our only Hairy Woodpeckers of the tour.  Further up the canyon we stopped at the Randall Davies Audubon Society feeders where we found our first perky Black-capped Chickadees.  The real treat was a male Williamson’s Sapsucker that was quietly feeding in a short juniper tree next to the feeder.  These unobtrusive woodpeckers can be difficult to locate in the winter, and to have both the barred female and handsome black and white male in quick succession was especially pleasing.  Our luck continued throughout the day, at a petrol station just north of Santa Fe (a quick coffee stop) where a flock of ethereally blue Mountain Bluebirds were foraging for berries in some short, snow-covered junipers behind the building.  As we continued north, stopping along the Rio Grande River near the town of Espanola we located a small flock of Barrow’s Goldeneyes that flew right past us on their way downriver.  It was here we also saw several Common Goldeneyes and a flock of Bufflehead – giving us all three Bucephalas in one spot!  Acting on a tip from a local we headed back to the suburbs of Santa Fe and no sooner had we arrived at the designated spot did we hear the distinctive calls of Pinyon Jays.  We scrambled out of our cars and were treated to a spectacle, as dozens of these glaucous-blue jays swarmed around the pinyon pines along the road.  Pinyon Jays are highly nomadic, and generally, to find a flock you have to search widely to see them.  These birds were busily feeding on a bountiful crop of pinyon nuts, and seemingly had no intention of wandering away from us.  Several times the flock was buzzed by an immature dark Merlin, whereupon all the Pinyon Jays would duck into cover, and the European Starlings would flock up and wheel around in a fast swirling group.  Interestingly the few Western Scrub-Jays that were present at the site merely watched with bemusement from the top of their chosen pines.  We finished our day with a visit to Cochiti Lake and Spillway, where we enjoyed close views of handsome Common Mergansers and a host of the more regular dabbling ducks.  As we drove across the grasslands back to Santa Fe and in to an ever-increasing vibrant and outstanding sunset we found and admired a perched Prairie Falcon on a utility pole.  The bird remained long enough for us to see it through our telescopes and then flew away, in to the sunset and towards a low band of distant cliffs. A fitting end to a spectacular day of birding.  We concluded our day with dinner in downtown Santa Fe, at a delicious local New Mexican restaurant, just off the plaza and located within feet of the Basilica of St. Francis.

On our last day we elected to make a quick visit into the upper reaches of the Santa Fe Mountains.  A trip to a nearby ski basin revealed excellent views of foraging Red Crossbills, our one and only Brown Creeper of the week, and several raucous Clark’s Nutcrackers, who were seemingly intent on emptying the feeder solely by shoveling the seed onto the ground rather than through digestive means.  Watching snowy feeders from the comfort of a ski lodge cafeteria is always desirable, making a cup of delicious hot chocolate all that more pleasant, especially in the rarified air of a 10000 ft. mountain.  Later, despite some searching and ample patience (we should have perhaps employed the impromptu picnic strategy) the anticipated family group of Gray Jays was missing in action this morning.  We headed downhill and had lunch at an excellent local Santa Fe restaurant and then spent the afternoon slowly getting back to our hotel in Albuquerque.  Perhaps due to the recent climactic change (up to a 60 degree switch in some parts of NM) we found few birds out and about in the afternoon.  At a stake-out for American Dipper we failed to locate the dipper, but had a pleasant walk along the Rio Grande.  Once back in Albuquerque we stopped at the Rio Grande Nature Center for a last study of a good mix of waterfowl, including some dazzling, fairly glowing in the late afternoon sun, Wood Ducks, a few Cackling Geese and three sleeping Coyotes.  A pleasant dinner at an excellent New Mexican restaurant in the heart of the downtown colonial district was a great wrap to a very enjoyable week of birding!

Thank you for joining me on our WINGS tour, I hope you enjoyed the trip as much as I did.

Gavin Bieber -

Updated: January 2015