Spring has indeed finally arrived, which in New Mexico means lots of wind and a few good dust storms. Last week just before the spring equinox, the fruit trees were in full bloom, a few daffodils had popped up in neighborhood yards, and the cottonwood trees were just starting to get a bit of green. By Tuesday of this week, the wind started blowing and many of those fruit blossoms are now swirling around like a light snowfall and the tumbleweeds are flying and piling up against walls and fences.
Last week’s Audubon Thursday Birders had a productive trip to Valle de Oro NWR with the weather still nice and the group seeing about 40 species, which is an unusually large number for this time of year. I didn’t get any photographs that day since most of the birds we saw were pretty far away. But on Sunday, knowing that those little owlets should start popping up any day now, I made my rounds of five Great Horned Owl nests to see how things were going. I’d seen the first owlet on March 13 at one nest, and knowing the others have been on their nests nearly as long, it’s certainly time. Although I may have imagined it, it did seem like the females were sitting a little higher up at two of the nests, but at two other nests they were still very well settled into their spots. Even at the one nest where I know there’s at least one little one, the female kept it pretty well hidden on my visit. Highlights of the morning, however, was spotting the male near three of the nests. The first one was in the same tree as the nest at Albuquerque Academy.
Then at Calabacillas Arroyo, where I’d first seen him a week ago, our guy was hanging out somewhat farther away from their nest than on my earlier visit.
And for the first time this year, the male at the Piedras Marcadas nest also made himself visible from a spot fairly close to their nest.
Batting 3 for 3, it was off to the Montano and Campbell nests, but those guys were nowhere to be seen. If the wind ever stops blowing, return visits to all the nests are in order and I’m looking forward to spotting a couple of those little ones soon.
The other highlight of the past week and subject of this post was getting to see a number of new butterfly species for the year. Butterflies do seem to be flying a little earlier this year than usual and in higher numbers for some species. With sunny skies and calm winds, although almost not quite warm enough, on Friday Rebecca and I dropped in on Sulphur and Cienega Canyons and Bill Spring on the east side of the Sandias, which can be pretty good for butterflies all season. One of the usual suspects for this time of year, the Hoary Comma and a few other species overwinter as adults in the leaf litter only to start flying when it warms up. We’d get good looks at several of them, including this one posing for several minutes on a warm rock and showing that distinctive “comma” on the underside.
These guys totally blend into the leaf litter when their wings are closed, but put on quite a show when they open up.
A related butterfly, which we used to think rather uncommon around here until last year, the Question Mark, also showed up.
In addition to that “comma” typical of the genera Polygonia, that dot below the comma led to both the common and latin name for this species. These guys are also rather flamboyant when they spread those wings.
This one has that lavender edging of the winter form; in the summer form that diminishes and the lower half of the wing turns dark, but I’ve yet to see it.
We had several Southwestern Orangetips fly by, most of which never landed, but I managed to sneak up on both a male and then a female to snap a picture before they flew off and away. This is a picture of the female from the side. Unlike many butterflies, the sex can be determined from slightly different marking from the top (dorsal) view.
At Bill Spring, we had a fresh Rocky Mountain Duskywing pose nicely for us on a bit of sumac.
A few Litocala moths have been flying about lately and are easy to confuse with butterflies, but eagle-eyed Rebecca spotted what on closer examination turned out to be a Thicket Hairstreak, the first of the season for us.
A few days later, I made a quick trip to my local patch, Embudito, to see if anything was flying on the first day since Friday that the weather was looking good and the forecast high winds hadn’t yet kicked in (they’d get going about an hour later and haven’t stopped yet!). It was a bit of concern as I arrived to see two guys (apparently from Arizona) leaving the canyon with butterfly nets. With the ease of photography these days, I can’t really understand the justification for collecting butterflies for anything but serious scientific research and even then am convinced some collectors grab everything they see and consequently have eliminated certain local populations of specific species. But that seems to have been the only option in the past and will likely continue for awhile longer. The situation was similar years ago with birds, where it was acceptable to shoot birds to verify their identification. Good binoculars and photography, along with legal actions such as the International Migratory Bird Treaty Act have dramatically decreased that impact. Fortunately, those two left a few butterflies around for the rest of us, and I’d see a couple of Sandia Hairstreaks, some Common Checkered-Skippers and Mylitta Crescents, and an Acmon Blue. Surprises, and new for the year, was first this Gray Hairstreak hiding in the bushes near the water,
and a Two-tailed Swallowtail, which we usually don’t see until April but also saw in mid-March back in 2012.
Am looking forward to the week ahead, when certainly there should be a couple of fuzzy tennis balls poking out of the owl nests and more butterflies will start flying as the winds drop and the weather warms up just a few degrees.