With the local mountains closed down last week for fire danger, my friend Rebecca had the excellent idea to head down to Alamogordo and Cloudcroft for some local butterflies specialties in the Sacramento Mountains. Our first stop on the way down was at Valley of Fires BLM Recreation Area (formerly a New Mexico State Park), where we picked up almost a dozen species and quite a few more than on our visit last year in early May. Once again, we saw the Eastern Collared Lizard that seems to have taken up residence on a large rock at the base of the highest hill in the area.
It’s interesting to see that its coloration, while still rather flamboyant, is much more subdued than the few others we’ve seen over the past couple of years; whether the more vibrant colors have something to do with breeding or a particular subspecies is still a mystery to me. A Rock Wren perched on a rock only a few feet away from us, providing an opportunity for a much closer photograph than is typical in my experience.
Then it was on to a couple of spots close to Cloudcroft where we were hoping to see their two local specialties, the Capitan Mountains Northwestern Fritillary, a subspecies of the Northwestern Fritillary we see in the Sandias during the summer, and the Sacramento Mountains Checkerspot, first identified in 1963 and only seen in this area. Because of its rarity and critical habitat needs, the USFWS proposed listing the latter as an endangered species in 2001, a decision that was deferred due to the local community stepping up with conservation measures. With clouds forming over the mountains, we considered ourselves quite fortunate to spot one of those fritillaries as we drove to our first spot – here’s a picture of one we’d get the next day at another nearby location.
But the real treat came a few minutes later when we saw a very patient Sacramento Mountains Checkerspot nectaring on its favorite Orange Sneezeweed (Helenium hoopesii).
Stay tuned – the underside of this butterfly is even more spectacular!
Also enjoying the sneezeweed was a Dainty Sulphur, a tiny yellow butterfly that is quite common in Albuquerque but rarely sits still long enough for a photograph.
Despite keeping our eyes out for them the whole time we were there, this one and one other individual a few miles away were the only ones we’d see during the trip. Surprisingly, most of the orange butterflies we saw flying through the meadows were neither of these two but the (not particularly common at home) Hoary Comma. Several Small Wood-Nymphs were also seen among close to two dozen species overall. Another good one that I have only seen a few times before was the Four-spotted Skipperling, which we’d see at most of the places we stopped.
With the mountain clouds getting thicker and the air cooling off, most of the butterflies had stopped flying and had disappeared into wherever they go for the night. Assuming it should still be sunny lower down in the desert, we next went to Oliver Lee State Park just south of Alamogordo. Fairly late in the afternoon when we arrived, there weren’t too many butterflies other than a large number of Reakirt’s Blues nectaring in the wildflower garden outside of the Visitor Center. While most were busy nectaring, there was one pair spotted up in the trees in the act of mating.
Just past the Visitor Center was a very pleasant trail down to a streambed in good riparian habitat. Along the trail we spotted several individuals of our second cool lizard for the day, the Greater Earless Lizard.
On the drive back to Alamogordo, we’d have two nice avian surprises. First, was a huge number of baby Gambel’s Quail busy running through the grasses near the road. With only a couple of adults about, there were probably close to 50 of the little ones of varying ages scurrying around. One of my photographic nemeses, I usually see the little ones about once a year for just a few seconds when my camera is somewhere else. I still need to get a good picture of these guys, but here’s the best I could do that afternoon. These must be a few days older than some of the ones I’ve seen before since they already have their little topknots.
Rebecca spotted our second surprise sitting up on a telephone pole as we were zooming down the highway. Just as she expected, it was a Harris’s Hawk, a bird I’d never seen in New Mexico and only seen once long ago on the way to the Chiricahua Mountains in Arizona.
The next morning we headed back up to Cloudcroft and a few areas we’d heard should be good for butterflies. One spot looked pretty good for butterflies, with plenty of the thistle, spike verbena, and sneezeweed they like. While we were waiting for things to warm up and butterflies to start flying, I got this picture of an interesting fly on Wild Blue Flax (Linum lewisii) – I haven’t a clue what species any of the bugs are.
Since it sure looked like it should be popular with butterflies, we hung around for awhile waiting for them to appear and spotted one or two that were too cold (or sleepy) to start flying. It wasn’t long, however, before those Capitan Mountains Northwestern Fritillaries started appearing, and then a number of others, including another Sacramento Mountains Checkerspot. A nice surprise that morning was seeing Milbert’s Tortoiseshell, a gorgeous butterfly that we’ve only see a few times before.
One final stop close to Cloudcroft before we headed for home was a huge field of thistle in a depression just off the highway. Deciding to check it out just because it was there, it would turn out to have a surprisingly large variety of butterflies. One that we rarely see, but is closely related to the Hoary Comma we see fairly often in the right habitat, is the Satyr Comma.
And while they are the most commonly seen Swallowtail in town and the foothills around Albuquerque, the Two-tailed Swallowtail also contrasted nicely with those purple thistles.
We also noticed several of those small golden skippers on the thistle, including Tawny-edged, what we think might be Hobomok, and the Taxiles Skipper.
A great weekend getaway with some excellent butterflies, and an excellent solution to our problem of the mountains being off limits for awhile.
Earlier in the week, a friend reported that a number of Mississippi Kites were being seen in a location in Corrales where they’ve nested the last couple of years – a good thing since I’m scheduled to lead an Audubon Thursday Birder trip there in a few weeks to hopefully show them to the group. I looked pretty hard one morning, but only saw a single female sitting in her nest. Another visit is in order soon, as there are probably a few others in the area and the little ones should be appearing soon.
And on our Thursday Birder trip to Bosque del Apache last Thursday we did quite well, seeing pretty much all the birds we’d seen on our scouting trip the weekend before and a few additional species. As we were driving into the refuge after stopping for the Phainopepla we’d seen earlier at the Birdwatcher’s RV Park, Rebecca in the lead car braked suddenly to a stop for what would turn out to be the cool critter of the day, a Texas Horned Lizard, sunning on the road oblivious to the danger. The largest one I’d ever seen, I was even more surprised when my friend, Cathy, bent down and picked the guy up to move him to the side of the road – most lizards seem to dart away as soon as you look at them, and I certainly never had any idea they’d calmly let you touch them let alone pick them up.
In even better news, we’ve gotten some monsoon rains over the last few days that have lowered the fire danger enough for the Forest Service to reopen the Sandias. Once they issue the closure orders the mountains are usually off-limits for a month or so – to get a reprieve after only a week is super! The wildflowers are just getting kicked off up there and some amazing butterflies should be flying any day now.