It is always interesting to note how many of the creatures out there seem to hide in plain sight, but once spotted, there they are, often with brilliant colors and patterns or well-camouflaged or showing off other interesting features. Sometimes they continue hiding and allow a reasonably close approach; others flee as soon as they become aware of your presence. Falling into the latter group seems to be the Belted Kingfisher, which you know are around by their loud call, but tend to hide pretty well until they zoom off about as soon as you spot them.
This guy blasted off as I was wandering along the west bank of the Rio Grande looking for owl nests between Alameda and Paseo del Norte – no luck so far, although we had one there last year and it’s far enough away from the territory of the nesting pair near the Open Space Visitor Center that I’d expect to find one.
The weather around here lately can’t quite seem to make up its mind whether it’s done with winter just yet or if it really is time for spring. We’ll get those cool, cloudy days followed by breezy (okay, windy) spring days, and now and then, a warm sunny day without the wind. The latter are the best for looking for butterflies, and it’s been fun spotting one or two new species for the year joining those that have been around for a few weeks now. I’ve been making regular trips to Embudito and other areas along the foothills unsuccessfully trying to get good pictures of the Southwestern Orangetip and Two-tailed Swallowtail, but surprised to see a new species or two just about every time I go. New for this week were several Variegated Fritillaries, quickly stopping before again flying away, which makes me think they might be females laying eggs.
At the other extreme of hiding in plain sight are the porcupines that tend to curl up and sleep away the day up in the trees, totally undisturbed by humans stomping around below. This one was spotted during last week’s Audubon Thursday Birder trip to the Rio Grande Nature Center. (If you zoom in by clicking on the picture, you can see it’s awake and looking right at the camera.)
Before this year, White-throated Sparrows weren’t seen all that often around here, but seem to have arrived in pretty good numbers this year and being spotted in several locations. This one was remarkably calm, sitting quietly in a tangle of branches for a good 15 minutes or so to allow everybody in the group nice close-up looks.
At the conclusion of the group outing, a few of us walked down to Campbell Road to check on the Great Horned Owl nest that has been occupied since mid-February. The female was perched rather high up in the nest and some of the group reported spotting the first little one for the year. More obvious than most, the adult male was seen sitting right out in the open a short distance away.
Since I hadn’t seen that little one, the next day it was off to check up on the three nests I know of. The one near the Open Space Visitor Center was exactly the same as two weeks ago, with the female nestled in the nest and the male hanging out in the same leafy tree as last time. Rumor had it that the nest near Coors and Montano might have failed and that the female might have had been attacked and killed there on the nest. While she might not have moved much while I was there, she certainly had her eye on me, so that rumor turned out to be false. As hard as I’ve tried, I’ve yet to see the male anywhere around that nest, but will keep looking especially in the nearby trees he was spotted in last year.
Twice that day, Cooper’s Hawks were posing calmly on lower branches of trees, which seems unusual to me as they are usually quick to fly off. One was a pair that were fairly close together, with one standing watch while the other patiently munched on what looked like a big crawfish. Another single individual just seemed to yawn and stretch in no mood to go flying off through the woods.
Nesting time is fast approaching for those guys, so that might explain what seemed odd behavior to me. A pair of Wood Ducks sailing down the irrigation ditch also seemed to be in full breeding plumage.
Then it was off to the Campbell Road nest again, where the male wasn’t anywhere in sight that day. I looked pretty hard for the little one, but all I saw was a little puff of white that looked more to me like a loose feather than a baby owl. It’s about time, though, so I’ll be checking up on all of them again soon.
Saturday turned out to be the most spring-like day of the year so far, with temperatures reaching the high 60’s, calm and sunny; perfect for an all-day butterfly hunt with my friend, Rebecca, to Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area, Quarai Mission, and Otero Canyon. A little early in the day for butterflies at Whitfield, unfortunately, but we did get to see some excellent birds just hiding in plain sight there and at the Belen Marsh and nearby flooded fields. Still present at the Marsh were the two pairs of Burrowing Owls we’d seen two weeks ago. One pair is a little skittish, but the other lets you get quite close as long as you stay in your car.
Spotting them can be a bit problematic sometimes, however. They regularly nest in abandoned prairie dog holes and are about the same size as those prairie dogs, which also tend to sit up motionless looking around for predators. In my experience, the easiest way to spot them seems to be to look for what appear to be rocks with eyes somewhere near those excavated holes.
In some flooded fields just south of the Belen Marsh were a few Black-necked Stilts and calling Killdeer. It’s surprising how well Killdeer can hide and disappear into the background until they want you to see them, when it becomes quite obvious who they are.
You may remember a couple of earlier posts this year on those Wilson’s Snipes spotted skulking around the banks of ponds at the Bosque del Apache, another creature stunningly successful at hiding in plain sight. This one was just too close to the road to escape detection, but still did an adequate job of hiding in the dry grass.
At Whitfield, I finally got a reasonable picture of a female Northern Harrier actively hunting near the pond and surrounding fields. Easy enough to see and identify, as has been the case on numerous occasions this year, but typically by the time I see them they’re headed off into the distance or disappear in the weeds.
After lunch in Mountainair, we decided to stop in at the Quarai Mission, part of the Salinas Pueblo Mission National Monument, where we’d had good luck with butterflies in the past. The imposing mission ruins there usually have a nesting pair of Great Horned Owls, and we spotted some evidence there might be one there again this year, but didn’t actually see them this time. If they do successfully nest there, they should be easy to see once the little ones hatch in the next month or so. We had excellent luck seeing several Southwestern Orangetip butterflies there, and I finally got those pictures I’ve been trying to get for the last several weeks. This one is a female, with that thin white band between the patch of orange and the edge of the wing.
Here is a male of the same species, with the solid band of orange and no white strip before the edge of the wing.
That alone made the day a success for me, but we weren’t finished quite yet. On the way home, we made a final stop at Otero Canyon, just south of Tijeras on S. 14, another regular stop on our butterfly jaunts. Luck was with us with a small pool of water along the often dry creek bed. There posing on the mud and almost overlooked was our first Thicket Hairstreak of the year.