First Days of Fall

The first days of autumn have passed with mostly delightfully sunny and temperate days interrupted by a few that were cloudy and even rainy. All that rain seems to have convinced the yellow chamisa and purple asters to burst into bloom, and while the cottonwoods along the river have yet to change I’m betting the aspens up in the mountains are about reaching their seasonal peak of bright yellow and gold. All these changes have brought out some interesting new birds migrating through or starting to arrive for the winter. A few more butterflies, including some new ones for the year, are also being seen showing up for the nectar from the fall wildflowers.

The Audubon Thursday Birders had a good day at Valle de Oro NWR on September 21, where the flooded fields were attracting a few new birds with others showing up over the next few days. (The Thursday Birders planned trip to Santa Fe the next week was cancelled because of the unusual forecast for all-day rain and snow.) Rebecca and I drove back to Valle de Oro on Saturday and just missed the Black-bellied Plover some had seen that day, but did get a very good look at the Merlin that seems to have taken up residence.


A highlight for everybody at Valle de Oro over the last several weeks were the Clouded Sulphur butterflies going for the fields of blooming alfalfa. There were literally thousands of these butterflies nectaring on the alfalfa or flying around the fields and nearby bosque. None of my photos adequately captured how impressive seeing all those butterflies was, but here’s a closeup of one of them taking a break on a sandbar down by the river.

Clouded Sulphur (Colias philodice)

Among that outrageous number of all the same species, I did manage to see a single Monarch passing through on its migration, a Common Buckeye, a couple of Western Pygmy-Blues, and just one or two Orange Sulphur butterflies, almost identical from the side and identified mostly by the bright orange color on the top when they fly. Here’s a picture of an Orange Sulphur I’d see a few days later in the Sandia foothills.

Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme)

After checking out the show at Valle de Oro, we made a quick stop at Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area in Belen where we’d hoped to spot a couple more Monarchs, which I add to the migration reports compiled by Journey North every spring and fall when they pass through. The weather wasn’t that great for butterflies, but it was good to see the milkweed and seep willow were still attracting butterflies and to see several Monarchs, Bordered Patch, Queen, Common Buckeye, and Variegated Fritillary during our short visit.

Variegated Fritillary (Euptoieta claudia)

The next day, a visit to my local patch, Embudito Canyon turned up the wacky looking American Snout, a butterfly that we’d seen in good numbers on the blooming chamisa in the Fall several years ago, but not at all in other years.

American Snout (Libyetheana carinenta)

Just as I started into the canyon that morning, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher stopped by for a quick visit before heading off.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

A surprise that day was to see a Bordered Patch also working the chamisa there in Embudito Canyon.

Bordered Patch (Chlosyne lacinia)

In the past, we’d never seen that species any further north than Whitfield and the surprise was that it adds a new species (#62) to my list of Butterflies of Embudito Canyon. While I’ve never tried keeping lists of bird species seen, I have done pretty good at keeping my butterfly lists up to date and spent some time this week on that project. For New Mexico, I have photographs of 162 species on my Butterflies of New Mexico page, just over half of those that are possible. Adding in a bunch from trips to Ohio and Florida this year brings my US list to 458 species, with photos of most of them on my US Butterflies page. Things get a little fuzzier when I start on the neotropical list from trips to various places in South and Central America, but I was still a little surprised to realize my Neotropical Butterflies pages now have 3003 photos of about 1200 species.

The day after I was in Embudito, I stopped by the parking lot for the next major canyon to the south, Embudo. A few of the chamisa were in full bloom, and one bush in particular got my attention first seeing another Bordered Patch there, and then the longer I looked the more species appeared.

Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia)

It’s pretty unusual around here to see more than one or two species sharing the same nectar source, but while I was there Common Buckeye, Echo Azure, Reakirt’s Blue, Orange Sulphur, Clouded Sulphur, Gray Hairstreak, Variegated Fritillary, Painted Lady, and Western Pygmy-Blue showed up.

Western Pygmy-Blue (Brephidium exile)

It’s been a good week for seeing a few odonates about as their season also winds down, including this female Variegated Meadowhawk in Embudito,

Variegated Meadowhawk (Sympetrum corruptum)

and both male and female American Rubyspot (this one’s a female) on the Rio Grande near Alameda Open Space.

American Rubyspot (Hetaerina americana)

While I was wandering around Alameda, I also managed to scare up a Great Blue Heron who’d been standing in the river close to shore and had a Black-crowned Night-heron fly into a nearby tree.

Black-crowned Night-heron

Earlier that morning, I’d gone to Piedras Marcadas Dam. It had large numbers of Monarch butterflies migrating through about this time last year, so I wanted to check on them again this year. With all the rain last week, it was a bit more obvious why this normally dry area is called a dam since shallow ponds now covered most of the area. There were indeed a few Monarchs about, although the milkweed was past its prime and mostly underwater. More interesting was hearing and then seeing a Belted Kingfisher and flushing a Wilson’s Snipe, both of which must have been drawn to the area by its newly-formed wetland status. A Steller’s Jay also appeared that day – normally only seen in the mountains, there have been several reports of them being seen in town and along the river in recent weeks. Adding to the surprises that day was this Great Horned Owl that caught my eye from pretty far away as it flew up from the ground into a low tree.

Great Horned Owl

Getting closer in hopes of a better picture, I noticed a mallard duck at the base of that tree acting very oddly and obviously in distress.  Wondering if the duck was just caught in something like fishing line or some such, I looked at it closely and tried to get over to it, but the mud was just too deep.  The owl sailed away into another dense stand of trees nearby and there was nothing I could do for the duck, so I turned around and headed back to the car. Only later that afternoon did it finally hit me the reason the owl was on the ground was because it had probably just attacked the duck and was about to go in for the kill when I showed up, and that’s why the duck was in such bad shape. I’d had no idea Great Horned Owls went after ducks as prey, but reading about them at home later it seems that in addition to small mammals and invertebrates, they’ll also go after birds (even the larger ones like Canada Geese, pheasants, and even Sandhill Cranes!). I’ll bet both the owl and the duck were quite surprised to see each other there that day and imagine it made quite a good meal for the former.


About joeschelling

Birding, butterflies, nature photography, and travel blog from right here in Albuquerque New Mexico.
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4 Responses to First Days of Fall

  1. Rebecca Gracey says:

    That is a beautiful picture of the buckeye on the chamisa.

  2. Noel Hartem says:

    great shots to go with post.

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