As winter settles in and we close in on the end of the year, butterflies as expected have become rather scarce around here and I haven’t had any to photograph since mid-October. There are a few species, such as the Mourning Cloak and Hoary Comma, that over-winter as adults and might venture out on warm sunny days, but the season is pretty much over for us until March. It was therefore a bit of a surprise on this week’s Audubon Thursday Birder trip in Bear Canyon to spot a single tiny Western Pygmy-Blue nectaring on the last of the chamisa.
A good year for butterflies, my notes show we saw 119 species in New Mexico this year (including a few from just across the border into Arizona). Adding in those seen on our trips to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in California and three trips to Texas (Houston, Big Bend, and the Lower Rio Grande Valley), my lifelist added 36 species for the year for a total of 413, about 50% of the total possible. Impressively, a friend of ours embarked on a butterfly big year hoping to see as many U.S. species as he could and to date has 526 species for the year. Bob Pyle, who documented his 2008 big year in the book Mariposa Road : The First Butterfly Big Year got 455 species.
I’ve never bothered to try to keep a lifelist of birds since I’ve been looking at birds off and on since I was a kid, but when the butterflies aren’t out, it’s birds that I’ll be looking for. Birds were pretty quiet on our late walk through Bear Canyon this week although we did get to see a pretty good sampling of the birds expected there at this time of year, including six Cactus Wrens, a large flock of Bushtits, and about a dozen other species. Highlight of the day at a small pond I’d never known was there was an immature Cooper’s Hawk.
I’d been to Bear Canyon earlier that week to scout it out for the group and got some of my best pictures ever of those bushtits.
The week before had me out and about to different spots around town checking for good places to show my friend, Terri, who was coming to visit and spend a few days birding in the area. Los Poblanos Open Space can be good for raptors, sandhill cranes, and screech-owls, but on my visit it seemed they’ve changed the habitat a bit this year and the only raptor I saw was an American Kestrel.
Tingley Ponds was a little more lively with a good mix of ducks and other waterfowl including this cute Pied-billed Grebe.
The Thursday Birders that week went to Durand Open Space in the South Valley, and despite it being very quiet for birds that day managed to satisfy our criterion for success of seeing more birds than people; highlight of that day was seeing our first Bald Eagle of the season.
Of all the places I checked out before Terri’s visit, Alameda Open Space turned up the largest number of species and included a Belted Kingfisher, Great Blue Heron, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black Phoebe, and a few other goodies. As expected, a few Ruby-crowned Kinglets were also busy hopping around the bushes and I got a couple of good pictures, but need to keep trying to get one flashing that red crown.
On Monday, Terri, Rebecca, and I kicked it off heading up to Sandia Crest for the Rosy-Finches. Typically, that means sitting around in the Crest House for an hour or so waiting for the flock to finally come swirling in to the feeders for a quick feeding frenzy before taking off again in a rush. Just our luck that day all three species were busy feeding just as we walked in and stayed long enough for us to get pretty good looks at them. After a short while, however, they blasted off and didn’t return for as long as we were there. Of the pictures I took through the restaurant windows, I liked this one of a Red-breasted Nuthatch poised to hit the feeder.
On the way to the Crest, we also stopped at Cienega Canyon only to find they’ve blocked the road for the season, Bill Spring which did have a few birds at the water, and the famous log at Capulin Spring. The first time I’ve been to the log in winter, it was astonishing that we didn’t see a single bird there or even any of the usual chipmunks.
The next day, Terri and I drove down to Bosque del Apache NWR for the day. Good birds all day and more variety than we’d seen on my last visit during the Festival of the Cranes the week before Thanksgiving. In addition to our usual winter friend, the White-crowned Sparrow,
the feeders at the Visitor Center brought in a Pyrrhuloxia and the White-throated Sparrow (common in Terri’s home state, Illinois, but pretty unusual here).
At the Marsh Deck, we got good looks at Buffleheads and managed to spot the Marsh Wren heard but not seen on my last visit.
All day we kept running into my friend, Kelly, who’d been there since 4:30 am and would share stories of what we’d been seeing on the refuge. Once we pulled up behind her car to see her on the ground photographing a Great Blue Heron who seemed oblivious to our presence and didn’t mind our getting a close portrait.
We probably had four or five Bald Eagles flying around that day, so they are definitely back for the season. Our closest look that day was of a pair of adults scanning the area from their perch in a big cottonwood.
An American Kestrel posed nicely in another spot letting me get pretty close before flying away.
Toward the end of the loop, Terri spotted an odd-looking hawk that we had difficulty identifying. Once it flew, however, it became obvious it was one of several Red-tailed Hawks we’d see that day. This one was an unusual dark morph form of the species. Not a great picture with the angle of the sun, but this one shows that dark chest.
My quest to get a good shot of one of the female Northern Harriers in the area continues, but I did at least get one in focus that passed closely by at one point.
On the way home, we made a stop at the North Crane pond where there was an large flock of maybe 50 photographers with all their big lenses and tripods all focused on an even larger flock of snow geese that nearly filled the pond. Everyone was apparently waiting for the daily show at 3:30 pm when the geese would lift off in huge waves to head east to their night roost on the larger refuge ponds. Quite a spectacle as different groups within the main flock would make the decision to go and hundreds at a time would take to the air flying just above head height over the crowd.
As I write this, the weather outside is trying to decide whether to rain or snow, quite a change from the marvelous warm and sunny days for Terri’s visit. After the Bosque trip, the next day was just as perfect and we birded a number of locations along the Rio Grande from Corrales to Tingley. Generally pretty quiet bird-wise, we ended the day with a pretty good list and a few birds we hadn’t seen earlier in the week. At the Rio Grande Nature Center, a pair of Wood Ducks posed nicely for me, and the first time I’d noticed the rainbow colors of the female’s tail feathers.
Surprisingly few woodpeckers seen that week, but we did get a nice look at this Downy Woodpecker.
One of our goals that day was to track down some porcupines, which Terri had never seen in the wild before. Despite looking quite carefully in several of the areas where I usually see them, we weren’t having any luck at all until we returned to the Corrales bosque. Even then, we spent a long time looking before finally spotting first one, then two in one tree, and a couple more further along. They were all either too deep in the brush or too high in the trees to get any pictures or close up looks, but cool that we managed to find a few. When we got home she turned me on to videos of viral sensation, Teddy Bear the Porcupine; click the link to see a couple – too funny and who knew porcupines could talk?