My major event this past week was participating in the Audubon Thursday Birder’s Birdathon, an effort to spot as many bird species in a 24-hour period as you can for a fundraiser for the Central New Mexico Audubon Society. This year’s Birdathon was held in the area around Fort Sumner, New Mexico from 10 am Thursday May 9 through 10 am Friday. Overall, our group of 17 managed to identify 137 species including six that hadn’t been seen in the 15 previous annual events and a few rather special encounters.
A few of us arrived a day early to scout some of the locations we’d visit over the next two days, including Sumner Lake, the Melrose Trap, Bosque Redondo Park, and a couple of other locations around Fort Sumner. On our drive in to Sumner Lake, we’d spot an unusual nest of a Ferruginous Hawk, a Loggerhead Shrike, and a number of Bullock’s Orioles along the highway.
Once we started walking around, things were looking good for the next day at the Melrose Trap, too. Although it looked a bit dismal at first with the trees not yet leafed out and damage from a recent fire all too evident, the area was filled with assorted flycatchers, Western Kingbirds, a pair of American Kestrels, nesting Great Horned Owl, Blue Grosbeaks, and plenty of Hermit Thrushes.
I kept seeing a bird that looked similar, but different, from those Hermit Thrushes and finally tracked it down – a Brown Thrasher, a rather unusual sighting in New Mexico and one that we wouldn’t see again during the actual Birdathon.
We started off at 10 am the next day along the road leading to Sumner Lake, seeing all of the species we’d seen during our scouting visit and adding a few additional species. The group then split up to work both sides of the Pecos River where it flows from the lake. We added most of the species we’d seen the previous day there, too, but got some special additions of a Broad-winged Hawk and Red-headed Woodpecker. Just as we got started there, Western and Summer Tanagers were spotted flying between perches,
the willows were full of Common Yellowthroat, Wilson’s Warbler, and Yellow Warblers,
and the usually uncommon Northern Waterthrush was still hanging out in the middle of the river.
Something was going on with the sky that morning that I’ve never seen before that seemed to provide a good omen for the day, ice crystals high in the atmosphere creating what I understand is called a “fire rainbow”.
After a couple of hours tallying all the species we could find in that area, we next headed for Sumner Lake for a few shorebirds, herons, cormorants, and lunch. Lunch, of course, got the attention of a few of the gulls that were present, including this one that made a close fly-by.
After lunch and a last look around at the lake, we headed back to town to check out a few good birding spots between Fort Sumner and Bosque Redondo Park. In an area behind the high school, we’d make nearly a clean sweep of blue-colored birds – Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Lazuli Bunting, and Blue Jay among the species we’d see. At Bosque Redondo Lake, we added American Avocet, Pied-billed Grebe, and Cliff Swallows.
A flooded field in the area drew in large numbers of White-faced Ibis, Wilson’s Phalaropes, Greater Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpipers, and Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds.
Late in the afternoon, we headed to the famous Melrose Trap which unfortunately was much less birdy that afternoon than it had been the day before. We managed to add a few species to our list, such as that Great Horned Owl we’d spotted the day before,
but not all that many other species. One of the guys on the trip knew of a Burrowing Owl location a few miles away so to wrap up the day we headed off to check it out as the wind started blowing. Tick! Not only did we get great views of two Burrowing Owls at that spot but on the way in, Rebecca somehow spotted a pair of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers in a tree along the highway while we were going 65 mph – we quickly pulled over as did everybody else in our caravan and got good looks at them before they flew off to put some distance between us.
Friday morning, we returned to the Melrose Trap where we’d spend a few hours adding a few more species despite the cool and cloudy weather. A highlight for many of us was when an uncommon Blackpoll Warbler was spotted in a tangle of bushes and small trees and who stayed around for quite awhile giving everyone just excellent looks at it.
I also had an up close and personal moment with a Summer Tanager that perched in a small tree and allowed a close approach for several pretty good pictures.
Even more amazing, as I was wandering off by myself toward the fence line at the north end of the property to check on the Great Horned Owl again, I must have been walking in an area that hadn’t been disturbed lately as several birds including White-crowned Sparrow, Blue Grosbeak, and a House Wren flushed as I approached. And then an even larger and totally unexpected bird, a Sora, quickly appeared before scuttling away into denser groundcover. I was able to get one quick picture that isn’t quite in focus because the bird was so close, seen so briefly, and in bad lighting, but unmistakable.
These guys are usually found skulking around in the reeds around ponds and such, and certainly not in scrub desert habitats. Everybody got excited about it and apparently this was only the third time that species has ever been seen at Melrose Trap.
To wrap up the Birdathon, we then headed back to Bosque Redondo Lake and sure enough got a few additional species to add to our grand total of 137. A bright American Goldfinch perched in a stand of Russian olive trees got my attention,
but you couldn’t ask for a better bird to end on than a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, only the second time I’ve seen that species in New Mexico in almost 30 years!
As a bonus addition to the trip, Rebecca and I headed off to Bitter Lake NWR and Rattlesnake Springs in Carlsbad Caverns NP in search of a few butterflies for the next couple of days. Not many butterflies were out, maybe due to the drought and the cloudy weather, but we did get a few good ones and some more great birds. At Bitter Lake, we spotted a roosting Common Nighthawk, a treat for me that I’d never seen before.
At Rattlesnake Springs, after getting a really brief view of one when we first arrived, we spent most of the day hoping to get a better look at a Painted Bunting. We were finally successful at nearby Washington Ranch that afternoon although the pictures didn’t come out very well. I did get some pretty good shots, however, of some of the Painted Turtles that were basking near the pond there.
Rattlesnake as always turned up some good birds including plenty of Western Tanagers, Blue Grosbeaks, Black Phoebes, warblers and sparrows, and a good number of the spectacular Vermilion Flycatcher.
On the way home, we stopped for lunch at the BLM Valley of Fires Recreation Area near Carrizozo, and finally had great weather that brought out a few butterflies on some of the flowers that had come into bloom from the rains the day before. First up was a pair of mating Sandia Hairstreaks.
We’d been seeing these butterflies individually fairly regularly in the spring on their host plant Texas Beargrass (Nolina texana), but this was the first time I’ve seen them mating. Also present in exactly the same place we’d seen one last year around this time was an Eastern Collared Lizard.
With the weather so nice, we did the long loop trail through the lava beds at Vally of Fires, and while we didn’t see many butterflies on the trail, right at the end of the loop Rebecca spotted one of several dark butterflies we’d had zip by earlier that morning perched on a small Dwarf Desertpeony (Acourtia nana) flower. Although we hadn’t noticed those tiny flowers before, that butterfly would find them easily and flit between them nectaring at each for a few moments before going to the next. We eventually identified it as a Saltbush Sootywing, our fourth ‘lifer’ in about as many weeks!
The previous weekend, we’d taken a targeted trip to the Zuni Mountains near Bluewater Lake in a search for another lifer, the Desert Elfin, and managed to locate a single individual that made the trip a complete success.
During that trip, I found myself chasing a Spring White on its quest for a particular nectar plant, a species of rock cress. Butterfly behavior continues to amaze me as I followed that butterfly for maybe five minutes as it flew all over the area without resting until it finally found that specific plant. How they manage to do that defies the imagination.
We continued on FR 180 to the junction that led to Bluewater Lake and found a good-sized flock of Pinyon Jays at someone’s feeder. Of the four jays we get here (Western Scrub Jay, Steller’s Jay, the occasional Blue Jay, and Pinyon Jay), the Pinyon Jay is not all that common and usually seen as a large flock flying away off in the distance, so it was fun to finally get a closer look at them.
A good week for birds and butterflies, but time to get back out there as I keep getting reports of more owl babies, nesting killdeer, and lots of migrant birds passing through town these days.