Many of the creatures I’ve seen this week seem to be all decked out in their finest spring wardrobe, showing off incredible patterns and vivid colors. More wildflowers are starting to appear and in greater numbers now that we’ve had a few spring rains. Searching Embudito Canyon last week in a large patch of blooming thistle didn’t turn up many butterflies (they seem to like the thistle more in late summer), but several other bees and bugs were actively attending to the blooms.
A great butterfly to spot that day was a Viereck’s Skipper, which I’ve only rarely seen and which posed quite nicely for a photograph.
A week ago Saturday, it was off to a few good birding spots south of town. The trip started with a visit to Valle de Oro NWR where a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher had been reported on the Rare Bird Alert the previous day. No luck spotting it during my visit, but I did get good looks at the nesting site for a huge flock of Cliff Swallows.
Driving a little further south to Los Lunas, I checked in on “Owlville”, an undeveloped grassy area that this year has at least eight nesting pairs of Burrowing Owls. Most of them I got a pretty good look at driving through the area, and noticed some already have little ones that would quickly scurry into their burrows at the sound of vehicles. Several of the adults, however, stood their ground (one-footed) keeping a wary eye on their surroundings.
Once a year, the Audubon Thursday Birders usually make a summer visit to an easily accessible heron rookery in someone’s yard in Bosque Farms. Since it was close by, I then headed over there to see if the rookery was occupied yet. A terrific idea, as it turns out nesting was well underway and all the birds were sporting their fascinating breeding plumage. The owner of the property tells me they first start showing up in March and actively use the site through summer. One of the first birds I spotted was this Black-crowned Night-Heron,
of which there were several but none that I saw on a nest. A Cattle Egret was rummaging around the ground looking for sticks to use in its nest. Moments after I took this photograph, it flew up to a higher branch and then up to its nest to continue the construction.
The showiest of the birds, however, was the Snowy Egret, all done up in dramatic breeding plumage.
The next day I decided to check on several former Burrowing Owl nesting areas on the west side of town, but never saw any of them. It is surprising that there has only been a single eBird report for them so far this year in Albuquerque. The drought has been blamed for lower numbers over the last few years, but it does seem they usually show up a little later in the year, so I’ll keep looking. I did get a nice close view of one of a pair of Western Kingbirds at one of those sites. (I also checked on the Great Horned Owl nest at Piedras Marcadas and can report that all is well and the two little ones are growing up fast.)
Over the weekend, a friend had posted some pictures on her blog of several butterflies seen in the area around Hillsboro, NM, including a Small Checkered-Skipper. Hillsboro is about a 2 1/2 hour drive from here, but since that butterfly would be a “lifer” for both Rebecca and myself, we decided to go look for it on Monday. We spent most of the day in Grayback Arroyo just outside of Hillsboro looking for it, and saw plenty of other butterfly species, including a surprising number of Palmer’s Metalmarks,
but weren’t having any luck finding that Small Checkered-Skipper until Rebecca finally spotted what we’re pretty sure is one just as we had decided to give it up for the day and head home. I’ve submitted pictures to BAMONA for verification by our State expert and hope to hear back soon.
Fabulous weather the next day had me in Embudito Canyon mostly in search of the Scott’s Orioles that have returned to likely nest in the canyon. We’d seen them at a distance during last week’s Thursday Birder trip, but I was hoping to get better pictures. One or two males were seen that morning much too far away for a photograph, but then I got lucky and spotted a female quite close that was intent on searching for something to eat in an old cholla.
I also had a male Black-chinned Hummingbird perched on a dead cholla flashing its rarely-seen purple gorget.
Also new for the season was the Canyonland Satyr, a butterfly that was quite common last year about this time but that I hadn’t seen until that morning.
Another real treat in the canyon that morning was spotting the nesting site for the Canyon Wren. I’d been hearing their delightful song from somewhere up among the rock cliffs for several months now, but finally located a crevice that several of them would fly in and out of, obviously feeding the young ones hidden away in there.
This week’s Audubon Thursday Birder trip visited Turtle Bay on the New Mexico Tech campus in Socorro, then made a stop in Box Canyon before heading on to Water Canyon. Highlights of the trip were the Chihuahuan Raven, Acorn Woodpecker, Hepatic Tanager, and Red-faced Warbler, all of which are pretty dependable in Water Canyon but rarely seen in the Albuquerque area. Unfortunately, none came close enough for good pictures but were still a treat to see.
At the conclusion of that trip, Rebecca and I headed on to Eagar, Arizona in search of our nemesis butterfly, the Rhesus Skipper, the target species of several trips over the last four years. Several sources had suggested they might be found in a specific habitat at this time of year along Green’s Peak Road, about 15 miles from Eagar and where we’d been on other trips in recent years. We looked hard for that guy over three days, and might briefly have seen a single individual, but weren’t certain about it and did not get a photo. Later, I’d learn that there were at least three others in the area just before we arrived who had also searched in vain for it. All three were collectors, guys with nets trying to catch all the butterflies they could for their home collections. It does make one wonder if they don’t bear some responsibility for the scarcity of certain species in known locales. In this age of cheap digital photography and online reference material, collecting specimens seems increasingly difficult to justify for anything but a limited number of formal scientific studies.
Although we didn’t spot our target species, there were a few other nice ones flying around. One of the most numerous were the Melissa Blue, which showed off their wonderful colors on both sides.
Also seen was a single Anicia Checkerspot (Euphydryas anicia hermosa) and several Fulvia Checkerspot. These are also dramatically patterned on both the top (dorsal)
and especially underneath (ventral).
Another butterfly, the Gray Hairstreak, is also fairly common and seen on many different nectar sources including this wild iris.
Surprisingly numerous in one area we visited was Morrison’s Skipper, easily identified by the bold arrow shape on the outer forewing surface, and which we only see occasionally in New Mexico.
Taking a break from our focused search for the Rhesus Skipper, one day we headed higher up the mountain in search of another potential “lifer” butterfly, the Alberta Arctic. After about 15 minutes of searching a huge grassy field just below Green’s Peak, Rebecca successfully tracked one down and called me over from probably a quarter mile away. Fortunately, by the time I got there it was still sitting on the ground waiting for the clouds to move off, and (high five!) we both got to add it to our butterfly life lists.
Of course, the clouds did eventually move on and suddenly they were flying just about everywhere in that field – we’d see about a dozen just on the way back to the car. And the next morning on our final attempt to find the Rhesus Skipper, we’d spot another Small Checkered-Skipper, less than a week after seeing our first one on that trip down to Hillsboro.
As we arrived earlier that morning, a most accommodating pronghorn patiently observed what we were up to before quietly wandering off. Most other times I’ve seen them, they quickly bound away over the prairie as soon as they see you.
In addition to the butterflies, some good birds were seen along the way that let me get close enough for pretty good photographs, including this Williamson’s Sapsucker,
a pair of Mountain Bluebirds actively feeding their young in a nest at a picnic shelter,
and a few Vesper Sparrows.
With summer only three weeks away, more species of butterflies should start appearing soon, the dragonfly and damselfly show should pick up dramatically, and there’s always more birds out there showing off and waiting for their picture to be taken.