Sunday, 23 November 2014

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.

New Mexico - Santa Fe

We were away by 7.15am and heading to a scenic valley and a search for our main target bird, American Dipper. Along the way we had seen our first Western Bluebirds and Black-billed Magpies – and quite bizarre too seeing this latter species in the US. 

This scenic valley was home to American Dipper.

Once in the valley, the road meandered its way up alongside the river and there were many places to stop and scan. We paused briefly from dipper duty to check out a lake but only found Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay (a recent split from Western Scrub-Jay), a flock of Bushtits and a Slate-coloured Junco so didn’t linger. Anyway, after about our 12th check of suitable river stretches we finally managed to find an American Dipper bobbing on a rock mid-stream. 

Loved this American Dipper.

It wasn’t that bothered by our presence and we watched it for quite some time. Our next stop was at the delightfully named Holy Ghost where the deserted campsite set amidst large pine trees was practically devoid of birds, apart from several Brown Creepers and Steller’s Jays

Close views of Brown Creeper.

Oh and Townsend’s Solitaire was very common here. So we decided to return to the main road and check out Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge, which was only 40 minutes from the start of the Pecos River Valley. This turned out to be a good move as once on a quiet road in the rolling grasslands we found a flock of Mountain Bluebirds and stunners they were too! 

Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge.

Mountain Bluebird

Overhead we saw Red-tailed and Ferruginous Hawks, plus there were several Northern Harriers quartering the vast open prairie. 

Red-tailed Hawk is common.

A marshy area held some Snow Geese and a flock of 50+ Sandhill Cranes, whilst a lake held a pair of Clark’s Grebes. Then we drove back to Santa Fe and drove up into the Santa Fe Mountains where some recent snowfall created another wonderful wintry scene. 

Santa Fe Mountains.

We didn’t get much up here, apart from a fine male Cassin’s Finch,  but we had just came to check the site out, although a Northern Flicker was very obliging. This is meant to be a good site for Grey Jay and Clark's Nutcracker but there was no sign today...

Friday, 21 November 2014

New Mexico

Took a morning flight from Heathrow to Atlanta and the onward connection to Albuquerque in New Mexico. After picking up the rental car it only took us 15 minutes to arrive at a wonderful hotel in the historic old town of the city. The first of many fine meals followed at a charming ‘wild west’ style restaurant nearby and as we walked back to the hotel realised that there was a distinct chill in the air – well we are at 1,619m (5,312 feet)…!

The following morning in the Hacienda gardens we saw an Audubon’s Warbler (a recent 2-way split from Yellow-rumped Warbler) and a flyover Eastern Bluebird, before driving to the Rio Grande Nature Centre about 10 minutes away. This lovely little reserve proved to be a great place to start our birding in New Mexico, as along the trail to the lake we found Downy Woodpecker, both Black-capped and Mountain Chickadees, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Oregon & Pink-sided Juncos, White-crowned Sparrow, Spotted Towhee and White-breasted Nuthatch. Out on the lake were numerous Wood Ducks, Ring-necked Duck, Gadwall, Mallard, a cracking little female Bufflehead, American Coot, Pied-billed Grebe and a Belted Kingfisher

Rio Grande Nature Centre

Wood Ducks were common

We then took the River Loop Trail, where we saw Northern Flicker, House Finch and out on the Rio Grande River were a pair of California Gulls, 3 Killdeers, 3 Sandhill Cranes and a flock of Horned Larks. Returning to the lake beside the Visitor Centre we spent a little while scanning through the waterfowl which had now been joined by lots of Canada Geese. Across the parking lot is Candelaria Lake and I was very pleased to finally nail Cackling Goose. Also here was Green-winged Teal, a few American WIgeon, American Kestrel, Say’s Phoebe and a confiding Bewick’s Wren. So by now it was almost 11am and we decided that with the forecasted snow for Sunday potentially affecting our plans to head up into the mountains, we would drive up to Sandia Crest now. On the road out we stopped to admire a large flock of some 25+ Bushtits.

The drive up to the turn off into the Sandia Mountains only took half an hour and we headed the 13 miles along the winding road to the parking area at the top, which is at an elevation of around 10,263 feet. Once here we wasted no time in entering the famous Sandia Crest House and scanning for rosy-finches. 

Recent snowfall in the Sandia Mountains

Despite the area being shrouded in low cloud and a thick frost on the pine trees we could watch Grey-headed Juncos and Steller’s Jays from the heated restaurant and shop complex. But we didn’t have to wait long before a group of Black Rosy-Finches flew to the feeder on the veranda just 10 feet away from us. 

At least 8 Black Rosy-Finches appeared at the feeders.

All of a sudden the frozen fingertips were forgotten as 8 of these beautiful gems totally enthralled us. So when they had flown away a hot cup of coffee was called for before venturing outside again and around the car park were many Red-breasted Nuthatches and Mountain Chickadees to keep us entertained. A flock of Red Crossbills flew in and landed nearby and on closer inspection there was also a Pine Siskin accompanying them.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Driving back down the mountain we found a Hairy Woodpecker, a huge congregation of several hundred American Robins and our first Townsend’s Solitaire. And that was our mountain birding done for the day as we headed north to Santa Fe along a quiet ‘back’ road. Flocks of Western Bluebirds adorned the telegraph wires as we drove through rolling hills until we couldn’t take it any longer and frustration got the better of us and we pulled over at the basically the first safe bit of parking space we came to. What a superb decision this was as no sooner had we stepped out of the car than another American Robin appeared, but right next to it was a female Cassin’s Finch. A lifer for yours truly and I took my time studying the bird – not wanting to make an error in identification. 

Female Cassin's Finch with an American Robin

I needn’t had worried as there were several others present, and at least one male bird to clinch things. As if things couldn’t get any better, a Canyon Towhee appeared and shortly after a pair of Sage Thrashers showed nicely. A close Townsend’s Solitaire was pretty cool as well! So that was it and with the light fading at 4.30pm we drove just under an hour to Santa Fe and our base for the next two nights.