Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Up into the Mountains Again.....

Left the motel at early o’clock and drove up into the mountains, arriving at dawn after a little ‘discussion’ with the local constabulary. Needless to say it was freezing and there was some ice on the mountain track as we drove up to over 8,000 feet. At the first stop we heard a Northern Pygmy Owl in the distance, which was quite exciting. However, at the next stop a little higher up (around 8,000 feet) we heard and then managed to spot a calling Northern Pygmy Owl perched high up in a pine tree, and then followed it as it flew to a huge dead tree where we scoped it. I was particularly pleased to get this recent split from the Pygmy Owl of Europe. Numerous juncos came in to mob the owl and it was amazing to see so many birds suddenly appear out of nowhere as the forest initially seemed devoid of birds. 

Northern Pygmy Owl

So we walked up the track in search of Pygmy Nuthatch and came across another Northern Pygmy Owl – wow! This one was much closer and drawing the attention of several Mountain Chickadees and we were treated to terrific views. Our luck was truly in as just after seeing this I heard a Pygmy Nuthatch in the distance and then there they were, four of the little beauties flew right up next to us. Always a treat to see and a decent trip tick indeed! 

Mountain Chickadee

Pygmy Nuthatch

Walking back to the car we had a female Williamson’s Sapsucker and then drove lower down where numerous Western Bluebirds and Townsend’s Solitaires were enjoying the morning sunshine.

From here we decided to forego the delights of the Bosque Grasslands and drove back up to Sandia Crest in the hope of some more rosy-finch action. Arriving at a decidedly chilly parking lot, we welcomed the heated restaurant from where we could view the feeders. 

Grey-headed Junco

Steller's Jay

Just a few Grey-headed Juncos and Steller’s Jays were coming in and we were thinking of leaving after a two hour wait when 3 Black Rosy-Finches appeared. After another hour of waiting and again thinking of leaving a single Brown-capped Rosy-Finch flew in! We were so pleased to get our second rosy-finch species and I think coming here a few weeks later would definitely result in all 3 species.

Black Rosy-Finch

Brown-capped Rosy-Finch

Brown-capped Rosy-Finch

All that was left was to drive to the airport motel and a final great evening meal before flying back to the UK the next day.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Heading South....

A great day today as we explored areas to the south of Socorro. It only took just over an hour to reach Las Animas Creek and we were grateful for the suns rays to finally reach our position beneath some huge Arizona Sycamore trees as it was decidedly chilly at dawn this morning. But we were soon warmed by the appearance of a cute little Bridled Titmouse that showed extremely well down to a few metres. 

Bridled Titmouse in the early morning light...

A cross between a Crested Tit and Tufted Titmouse, this is a really good bird to get in New Mexico and to say we were pleased is an understatement. There were also a few Acorn Woodpeckers here and some other commoner birds including lots of Gambel’s Quails and a Hermit Thrush, but we didn’t linger and headed further south to Percha State Park

Percha Dam State Park.

The temperature gauge in the rental car read only 28°F at 8am today – no wonder we were shivering as we walked around the RV Park here, but it soon warmed up and in just a few hours the temperature actually rose by 33 degrees!! Anyway, we saw several lovely Phainopeplas perched on the treetops, as well as a Green-tailed Towhee and the commoner Spotted Towhee, a flock of Brewer’s Sparrows, a nice male American Kestrel, and a Pyrrhuloxia.

Green-tailed Towhee


A short distance up the road was Percha Dam, another great birding location and a rarity magnet in the past. This was a particularly ‘birdy’ site as the numerous trees were attracting lots of Audubon’s Warblers. Along the creek we saw at least 3 Greater Yellowlegs and finally a pair of cute Ladder-backed Woodpeckers. 

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Then we drove up to Cabello State Park, again just a few miles away, and at the entrance gate the helpful lady in the kiosk told us about a good restaurant just a few miles away – which was in fact superb! Then we returned to Cabello but it was not particularly great, with just distant views across the lake to some distant grebes and ducks (including a flock of 18 Buffleheads and a few Common Mergansers, although we did see our first Chipping Sparrows here.

Elephant Butte State Park

Moving on to Elephant Butte State Park we drove down to the Marina where we had really close views of Western Grebes, some of which were calling and displaying – how weird! 

Western Grebes

In fact it was lovely and warm here so we watched the grebe’s antics for a while and a few of them came within 15 metres of us. Further out were some Clark’s Grebes and a pair of American White Pelicans. After our picnic lunch here we drove around the roads in the park and had a great time. At one spot we pulled over to look at a Northern Mockingbird perched up in a tree, and then noticed a Crissal Thrasher running into cover nearby. Hiding behind a bush we were delighted when the thrasher decided to pose on top of another bush quite near to us! Wow! There were also more Phainopeplas, Sage Thrasher, American Robin, and a superb flock of 40+ Mountain Bluebirds.

Crissal Thrasher

Mountain Bluebirds

Sage Thrasher

Then we left here and drove down the road, where a small lake held both Double-crested and Neotropic Cormorants. Nearby, Paseo del Rio held 3 Hooded Mergansers but the habitat looked really nice and I would have liked more time to check it out. 

Hooded Merganser

And that was our day as our proposed last-ditch visit to Three Sisters viewpoint higher up the lake was curtailed by a closed road. So we returned to the hotel in daylight for a change and then dinner at Denny’s.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Bosque del Apache

By 7.15am the dawn flight of cranes and geese was over so we drove around the North Loop, getting some fine views of Song, Lincoln’s and Savannah Sparrows – all of which were new for the trip. 

Habitat shots at Bosque del Apache.

There was also an immature Bald Eagle eating a Snow Goose,  Spotted Towhee, Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks, close Say’s Phoebe, plus a field with 3000+ Sandhill Cranes, and further on around a 1000 Snow Geese were feeding in a field beside the track. 

This huge flock of Snow Geese was feeding beside the track.

Back at the Flight Deck we scoped an adult Bald Eagle and all of a sudden around 6,000 Snow Geese began flying overhead and most of them dropped down into the lake behind us. This was a simply awesome spectacle and I cannot truly describe the volume of noise from so many birds. We then drove along the track and pulled up right beside all of these birds and spent a good long while watching them – they were almost at touching distance. Unbelievable! I was impressed by the numbers of Ross’s Goose present and I estimated 400+ in this one flock alone.

You get quite close to the birds here.....!

Spot the Ross's Goose....?

Eventually we went to the Visitor Centre for a nice hot cup of coffee and watched the feeders where a covey of Gambel’s Quails were very nice. There was also a couple of White-throated Sparrows with the White-crowneds, Spotted Towhee, Mountain Chickadee and House Finch.

Gambel's Quail at the feeding station.

Leaving here we drove just a few miles along the road to a nearby trail, seeing a Roadrunner doing its thing along the road and a Rock Wren greeted our arrival in the parking lot. The desert habitat here made such a pleasant change to what we had been accustomed to on this trip so far but it was very quiet to start with. However, things changed all of a sudden when a Green-tailed Towhee put in an appearance and no sooner had we seen that than my most wanted bird here, a Crissal Thrasher began singing from the top of a bush on the slope above us. Oh yes baby!  It was very nervous and wouldn’t allow a close approach at all so we settled down and watched it running between the bushes like a mini-roadrunner, with occasional sallies onto the tops to sing before he disappeared entirely. 

Black-throated Sparrow.

Brewer's Sparrow

Whilst sat down here a flock of sparrows came into view, which proved to be Brewer’s Sparrows and they showed nicely. We followed this with several Black-throated Sparrows and a flyby Lesser Goldfinch before returning to the parking lot. There were also a few Verdins around but they were flighty and disappeared pretty quickly.

So we drove back to Bosque del Apache, pausing at the Visitors Centre for more coffee before taking a slow drive around the reserve once more. This time we really soaked up the atmosphere as lake after lake had huge concentrations of waterfowl present and each provided an extremely tranquil scene. The light was stunning and we had lost the harsh midday glare, so we spent our time scoping each lake and pool in search of something new. The first lake was the best one of the afternoon in fact and had an adult Bald Eagle making sallies across the water in search of an easy meal. This led the ducks to take flight and settle again much closer to us. A fine Bufflehead was nice, as was Lesser Scaup, American Wigeon and Western Grebe, whilst a flotilla of Ring-necked Ducks stayed just out of range of the camera. 

Bald Eagle.

American Wigeon.

Bufflehead (female).

Lesser Scaup.

There was also a Black Phoebe (oh joy!) and a confiding Marsh Wren here as well. Moving on, the concentrations of each species kept changing at each lake we scanned, but eventually we found a trio of fine Redheads, American Avocet and Ring-billed Gull to add to our list.

By the time we had reached the reserve entrance it was already 4.30pm so decided to drive up the road to some nice pools, watching several Northern Harriers quartering the fields and enjoyed the crane spectacle once more. Sure enough several thousand Sandhill Cranes could be seen flying across the golden-hued trees and against the distant mountains before many of them flew in and settled right in front of us. 

Sandhill Cranes arriving to roost.

Some of the cranes flew right over our heads.

More cranes arriving to roost.

Just part of a flock of 1000 roosting beside the road.

What a show they gave and, once again, I was in awe of one of nature’s truly remarkable spectacles. The noise and sheer commotion of so many birds was very impressive indeed.

Official estimates today of 40,000 Snow and Ross’s Geese, 10,000 Sandhill Cranes and 50,000 species of duck in the reserve!

So to sum up in words our experiences today has been very difficult indeed. Suffice it to say, Bosque del Apache – AWESOME! BRILLIANT! INCREDIBLE!

Dawn at Bosque del Apache

Left at the ridiculously early time of 5am, stopping to get a coffee and breakfast burrito along the way and arrived at Bosque del Apache half an hour later. We parked up at the Flight Deck viewing platform and waited in the freezing cold darkness for the first rays of dawn to lighten the horizon. In fact within ten minutes it was getting visibly lighter and you could make out the silhouettes of Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese out on the lake. 

Sandhill Cranes at dawn.

A crescendo of noise was emanating from the near-darkness and around 6am it was light enough to scope the birds. We were stood with several photographers from around the world (including Japan) to witness the spectacle of the morning dispersal of thousands of birds and we were not to be disappointed. 

More cranes at Bosque del Apache.

At first the odd one or two cranes took off, but slowly and surely more and more began taking off and flying away into the distance, followed by the Snow Geese and other wildfowl. The light was getting better and better all the time and we soaked up the atmosphere. 

Great early morning views of Snow Geese.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

New Mexico - Heading South to Bosque del Apache

With heavy snowfall overnight we decided to head south and the hour long journey to Albuquerque was an adventure in itself as the road was covered in the white stuff. So slow going indeed but not much traffic on the road at 7am and with the temperature at a cool 18°F I was a little worried there would be ice on the road. But it was fine and we ploughed on, stopping at our favourite little spot on the back road to Albuquerque where the snow clung to the juniper bushes making the wintry scene look very splendid indeed. We had a nice male Cassin’s Finch perched on top of one of the nearby bushes, along with Townsend’s Solitaire and some Western Bluebirds making for great photographic opportunities. Moving on, a Canyon Towhee flew across the road in front of us and we had it in the back of our minds to go up to Sandia Crest and get another species of rosy-finch, but the weather was getting worse by the time we reached the turn off into the Sandia Mountains.

Some great birds here today - but rather chilly...!

The road back to Albuquerque

Female Cassin's Finch

Male Cassin's Finch

Western Bluebirds

Townsend's Solitaire

So instead we drove down I-25 for just over an hour to Socorro and on up into the Magdalena Mountains. The road went up onto a vast open prairie/grassland with views of snow-capped mountains in the distance before we turned up into Water Canyon. There was a strong cold wind blowing which kept the temperature down to about 48°F for most of the day. But once in the canyon, which was bounded by tall cliffs and covered in pine and juniper we had a great time as there were lots of birds. Our first stop to check out a flock of birds produced (apart from a rush of blood!) a female Williamson’s Sapsucker pecking away at a spruce tree. Wow! 

Williamson's Sapsucker - female

Finally we’d managed to find one of the scarcer peckers after all of that searching in the north and in lovely sunshine and blue skies we spent a while watching and photographing this little beauty. There was also White-breasted Nuthatch, our first Curve-billed Thrasher, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a flock of Pine Siskins, Oregon and numerous Pink-sided and Grey-headed Junco’s. I wanted to check out the camping sites just a little further up the road but it was quiet, apart from Acorn Woodpecker, some Mountain Chickadees and loads more junco’s. So we drove back down to the first site and duly scored with our first Juniper Titmouse, quickly followed by a cracking Red-naped Sapsucker

Juniper Titmouse

I was over the moon with this latter species, as not only was it a lifer but a simply stunning bird. In fact, there were lots of birds moving through the trees below us and we had further views of solitaires and bluebirds, Hairy Woodpecker, and a few Woodhouse’s Scrub Jays that posed nicely. Elated with our findings here we drove up through the valley, in a half-hearted search for Pygmy Nuthatch – a species I know is here but have seen plenty of times before over the years.

Woodhouse's Scrub Jay

By now it was 3.15pm and we decided to head down to Bosque del Apache, arriving at 4pm. We had the bonus sighting of several Pronghorn Antelopes in the grassland before reaching the highway. Heading into the reserve we drove to the parking area known as the Flight Deck where there were hundreds of common ducks out on the water, but we were more interested in the Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes. It has been an ambition of mine for many years to visit this place and must admit, I was very excited to be here! So we took a few photos of the geese and then I noticed a much smaller white goose which was (of course) a superb Ross’s Goose. The small rounded head and tiny bill were very noticeable and it posed nicely next to a Snow Goose so you could see the size difference easily. 

Ross's Goose (left) and Snow Goose (right) at Bosque del Apache

The light was superb and it was very enjoyable watching the geese flying around with the late afternoon sunshine making the backdrop of trees and bushes literally glow a wonderful golden colour. There were lots of other birds here with hundreds of Red-winged Blackbirds flocking in the marshes and a couple of Yellow-headed Blackbirds and Common Grackles were in amongst them as well. Several Northern Harriers quartered the marshes, a Red-tailed Hawk was perched in a dead tree and a Cooper’s Hawk flew over us.

Beautiful evening light at Bosque del Apache.

A quick drive around the Loop Trail failed to give us anything new so we headed back up the main road to some pools where hundreds of Sandhill Cranes were flying in to roost. The cacophony of noise as they bugled their presence high overhead as they flew down in skeins to land noisily in front of us was fantastic. Several of them lowered their ‘undercarriages’ and almost seemed to hang in the air with the backdrop of mountains making a lovely scene. It really is difficult to describe how evocative the sound of cranes is until you’ve experienced it yourself and this definitely ranks as one of those never-to-be-forgotten moments I will mentally file away forever.

Sandhill Cranes arriving to roost

With the light almost gone we drove 30 minutes back to our motel in Socorro and prepared for an early departure tomorrow.