The first week of May got off to a great start as all my owls are getting close to fledging or have already done so, and all sorts of migrating birds are passing through or returning for the summer. Pretty windy days for most of the past week, which is not unusual for spring in New Mexico, but made it a little difficult to look for butterflies and had me concentrating mostly on birds.
Our Audubon Thursday Birders spent a good morning at the Belen Marsh and Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area on April 28 and got to see a good number of those early spring migrants. The hummingbirds have started to return, including this Black-chinned Hummingbird that posed for me at Whitfield.
We were a little surprised not to see any Burrowing Owls in the large prairie dog village next to Belen Marsh, but on the trip home several cars detoured to “Owlville” in Los Lunas where we managed to spot three individuals despite the windy conditions.
A couple of days later, I headed down to Tingley Ponds and later to check in on a couple of my Great Horned Owl nests. At Tingley, this pair of Wood Ducks showed off their breeding plumage with even the female displaying a little spring color.
Checking in on the Montano nest, for the first time the female was perched a little off the nest as the two little ones clamored for her attention.
And also for the first time I spotted the male sitting in the same tree just a little below the nest. That nest is in a pretty isolated stand of trees and I’d been wondering where in the vicinity he’s been hanging out.
Over at Piedras Marcadas, both adults were off in nearby trees. Their three little ones are growing up but hadn’t yet ventured away from the nest.
Reports had come in during the week since my last visit that the triplets at Albuquerque Academy had started moving out onto the branches from their nest, so a trip to that nest was in order. Sure enough, they’d managed to climb rather high in their nest tree, with two of them sticking close to each other while the youngest one was off in another part of the tree. From this picture, you can see one of the older ones really starting to take on its adult plumage and sharpening those talons.
A quick visit to Embudito the next day was productive for a few butterflies including the first Short-tailed Skipper and Northern Cloudywing seen there this year and another Mormon Metalmark. I did get to see the Scott’s Oriole there that I’d heard was back in town, but they’re a bit shy and usually fly when you try to get a little closer for a picture. A good surprise there was coming up on a rather large gopher snake sunning in the open.
When it realized I was looking at it, it slowly moved toward a bush where I thought it might curl up so I could fit the whole thing in the camera frame, but nope, it had a secret burrow under that bush and slid out of sight and down the hole.
Having seen Western Tanager and Summer Tanager in the bosque by the Rio Grande Nature Center (but not the Western Screech-Owl that’s been spotted off and on recently), it was off to the Alameda Open Space on Wednesday hoping to see a few of those colorful spring migrants. Didn’t have much luck with that, but did have a rather cooperative Spotted Towhee pose for me.
As long as I was in the vicinity, a visit to the Calabacillas owl nest seemed the thing to do. On my visit more than a week earlier, those three little ones had already moved quite some distance from the nest and I figured they likely would’ve fully fledged by now and disappeared into the woods. It was quite a surprise therefore to see they were all still there and must have figured out that flying thing since they were in a couple of trees a good distance from the nest tree. One had to look pretty carefully to spot these guys, but after seeing the first one it only took a couple of minutes to spot all three of them. The one on the left in the picture below was the one that first caught my eye, but I didn’t see the one pretending to be a lump there on the right until I moved around and scanned a little harder. (The third one looked to be the youngest and was still high up in the nest tree.)
After those pretty good local outings during the week, it was off to Bitter Lake NWR and Rattlesnake Springs down near Carlsbad for our annual 24-hour Birdathon fundraiser. Our group of eighteen people would have an excellent time totaling 122 species, many of which are rarely seen at home and got most of the folks a few “lifers”. Extremely well-organized and scouted in advance by our leaders, Bonnie Long and Judy Liddell, having all those eyes and a number of expert birders in the group to help with identification under good weather conditions led to our exceeding last year’s total by more than a dozen species. The total only includes those seen by at least two participants during the official 10am-10am 24-hour period; a number of other species were seen by individuals and outside the official time period.
The Birdathon started at 10am on Thursday at the Bitter Lake NWR Visitor Center where we spent about two hours checking out several of the ponds and nearby habitat getting a good list of mostly waterfowl and a few other desert dwellers. While there, we’d see lots of Black-necked Stilt and American Avocet, a couple of Eared Grebes and White-faced Ibis, all three species of teal, several duck species, herons and egrets, and even a distant family of Snowy Plover with their even tinier little ones.
After lunch, we traveled on toward Carlsbad with a very productive stop at Brantley Lake. Adding several species of shorebirds to the list (thanks in part to Bernie and Pauline’s superb spotting and identification skills) as we made our way along the shore, it was a treat to spot a flock of colorful Forster’s Terns floating near the shore along with a few Ring-billed Gulls. Looking more closely at that group, there was one darker bird in with them that was quickly identified as a Black Tern, quite a thrill to see.
Walking along the shoreline in the same area also were a couple of those cute Snowy Plovers that had kept their distance from us at Bitter Lake.
Another bird spotted toward the end of our stay hovered in place long enough for me to try to snap a photo. I’d assumed it was just another of the Forster’s Terns since it had that black cap, but as it flew off, Pauline had also seen it and realized from its yellow bill that it was a Least Tern, more typically seen on the ocean coasts and the Mississippi River valley although they do nest here.
Then it was on past Carlsbad to White’s City where we checked into the surprisingly nice Rodeway Inn and then made our way to Rattlesnake Springs for dinner and birding until dark. As usual, the place was busy with gorgeous Vermilion Flycatchers and enough other birds to bring our list for the day up to 90+ species. One of my favorites, of course, was the Great Horned Owl somebody managed to spot soon after we got there.
And Rebecca and I got to add Brown Thrasher to the list after getting a quick look at one hanging out by the acequia.
The next morning we headed out at 5:30am first to Slaughter Canyon a little further down the road from Rattlesnake Springs, but a completely different habitat of high cliffs and desert vegetation full of blooming ocotillo. Although it was probably a little early for seeing many birds, we’d add Scott’s Oriole, Phainopepla, and (major event for most of us!) a Varied Bunting.
Returning to Rattlesnake Springs to add as many new species as we could to the list before time ran out at 10am, a few of us stopped first at Washington Ranch right next door. A line of fruiting mulberry trees there drew in a good variety of birds, including both Bullock’s Oriole and Orchard Oriole.
Vermilion Flycatchers were as numerous there as at Rattlesnake Springs, and it was a treat to get good shots of both the glowing male
and the stunning female.
The photographs just don’t do justice to the brilliant coloring of the male Vermilion. We’d also see Northern Cardinal and Summer Tanager there who are remarkably colorful, but those male Vermilion Flycatchers take it to a whole new level.
Very high in one of those trees was a White-winged Dove, which surprised me at how well the photograph turned out from such a distance.
Heading back over to Rattlesnake Springs, we’d pick up a few more species before the clock ran out. Normally pretty common along the river in Albuquerque but almost impossible to get a good look at, is the Yellow-breasted Chat, a bird that was much easier to see this day.
While we were unsuccessful in getting as many warbler species as we’d hoped, a couple posed pretty nicely for me. This Yellow Warbler is my favorite of the nearly 200 photographs I took during the trip.
And it made my day when this Wilson’s Warbler finally stopped flitting around long enough for me to take its picture.
Heading back to the picnic area to do a final tally at the end of the Birdathon, a pair of hawks spotted circling high over the trees turned out to be the rarely seen Gray Hawk, an excellent species to add to the list.