It often strikes me how all it takes is getting outside and looking around a little to observe something unusual, different or completely new. Nearly every walk, even on those slow days, turns up at least one new creature or behavior I’ve rarely or never seen at some point along the way. While sometimes I’ll have a specific objective when heading to a particular location, more often than not something entirely unrelated will catch my eye as the highlight of the day. Usually being able to get a photograph is always rewarding, and being able to share these “natural moments” was the reason for my starting this blog in 2011.
One of my favorite moments recently was of young Burrowing Owls at “Owlville” in Los Lunas, where I stopped one morning on my way to Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area. They’ve had several nests in this location for at least the last two years, and noticeably absent from other places around town where I’ve seen them in the past. This year, I’ve seen at least one owl there since mid-February. These two would look at me as I slowly drove by, swiveling their heads every few seconds to keep an eye on the neighborhood. Unless something (like my car) got their attention, they’d be looking in different directions to keep the whole area under surveillance.
Another one some distance away didn’t seem to want to be noticed at all and hid behind a tall weed, moving around to keep the weed between us. It did that so well I didn’t spot it on my first two slow passes around the area. Sneaking by and then looking back I caught it looking up at the sky, something I’ve never seen one do before.
Butterflies have been a little scarce this year, due to the drought conditions we’re thinking, so it was good to see a few of the regulars at Whitfield later that morning, including lots of Pearl Crescent
and mating Bordered Patch butterflies, neither of which seem very common in Albuquerque.
This year, we have been seeing large numbers of Marine Blues (Leptotes marina) in various locations, but finally saw our first Reakirt’s Blue of the season at Whitfield and have started seeing them more regularly in other spots.
Early in the month, Rebecca and I headed out to Las Huertas Canyon upon hearing that the road had been re-opened after being closed for some time first for fire danger and then for road construction. We hadn’t been there since April, but it’s usually great for summer butterflies and we’d hoped to find that the road construction included grading over the rather rocky and rutted road. It was quite surprising how few butterflies we’re seeing there this year, since it’s got a flowing stream year-round and typically attracts large numbers and species to puddle on the muddy spots and good numbers of wildflowers. The road construction had both good news and bad news – the bad news is nothing was done to smooth the road from Placitas to the upper picnic ground, but the good news is they did a great job of grading and repairing spots from the upper picnic ground to Balsam Glade Picnic Ground on the other side of the Sandias where it meets the Crest Highway.
While looking around for butterflies at the upper picnic ground, Rebecca spotted a large number of caterpillars on a small New Mexico locust. These would turn out to be caterpillars of the Io Moth, a large and colorful moth we’ve seen elsewhere before but that I didn’t know could be seen in New Mexico.
A few of the caterpillars were still there two weeks later when the Audubon Thursday Birders visited, and I might try going again soon to see if we can spot their chrysalises in the leaf litter. Heading up the road toward Balsam Glade, in addition to discovering that the road is again passable we were thrilled to find several Square-spotted Blue butterflies on their host plant, James’ Buckwheat. (Most of my pictures from that day show the butterflies on the buckwheat; this one was nectaring on a different flower but is my best shot of the butterfly.)
Here’s a picture of one of the Field Crescents that were also there nectaring on the James’ Buckwheat.
Stopping in Cedar Crest for lunch on the way home, we’d see dozens of White-lined Sphinx Moths hitting large butterfly bushes, but only one Two-tailed Swallowtail and a small butterfly that turned out to be an Oslar’s Roadside-Skipper, a first for the year.
I’d been putting off returning to look for the nesting Common Black-Hawk at Valle de Oro NWR for a few months mostly because it’s a bit of a walk down a hot dry dirt road, but finally got around to it after seeing excellent photos a few of my friends had been getting. Not very commonly seen around here at all, it’s a treat knowing they nest near the river. Once again, I’m not sure I definitely spotted the nest and didn’t see a young one, but the adults made sure they knew I was there, sitting out in the open, looking directly at me, and calling loudly.
Several Snowy Egrets were there that morning as well, standing tall on fenceposts near the open meadows.
Things had been really slow for both birds and butterflies on a couple of morning visits to various locations that week. One day, I went to Embudito to see if all the monsoon rain had gotten the little stream going again – yes! – but I would only see a single butterfly, a Green Skipper. Lucky to spot it, too, since I’d only noticed a slight movement out of the corner of my eye and thought to look closer having seen skippers in that wash before.
Almost missed spotting this guy, too, despite its rather large size.
The gopher snake had draped itself over a bush at the side of the trail and blended into the background perfectly.
Another day, I thought I’d check out Piedras Marcadas Dam where one year we’d had large numbers of migrating Monarch butterflies nectaring on the poison milkweed growing there. This year hasn’t seen much milkweed at least so far, but there were a couple of Monarchs flying around. I also wandered around the area wondering if any of the Great Horned Owls would possibly still be around. They’ve nested there for the last several years and I’ve occasionally spotted one after they disappear after nesting. Not really expecting to be able to find one, I just happened to notice a few white spots on the ground near this year’s nest tree and sure enough, looked up to see an owl looking right back at me.
I’ve heard of looking for owl pellets and droppings to help in finding them, but this was the first time I’d ever had that work for me.
Another day had me poking around Tingley Ponds, thinking I might spot the Green Heron that’s usually there in the summer, maybe a Snowy Egret or two, or surely some of the dragonflies that are typically present. No such luck, and only a couple of birds or even dragonflies seemed to be around that day. No butterflies either, but it’s always something and that day it was a Viceroy butterfly posing nicely for me and a species that I don’t see all that often around here.
Last week’s Audubon Thursday Birder trip to Las Huertas Canyon for a good morning of birding, including several unexpected sightings. Some of us at the front of our caravan of cars heading into the canyon got long looks at a Black-throated Gray Warbler just as the pavement ended. Making our way up the canyon would add a few more species and then we’d add quite a few more as we walked around the three picnic areas. As we’d noticed on our trip earlier in the week, very few butterflies were seen that morning although some in the group reported a single Arizona Sister, of which we’d see several more on the drive out. Bird of the day was a quite special and totally unexpected sighting of what turned out to be a Carolina Wren.
Quite common back east, a couple of them have been seen regularly in recent years at Bosque del Apache NWR, but none of us had ever seen one in the area and this sighting may be a first for Sandoval County.
Arriving home from that trip, it was fun to spot a Gray Hairstreak right by my driveway that hung around long enough for me to get my camera for a photo.
This past weekend, Rebecca and I traveled north planning to look for butterflies near Pecos and Las Vegas NM. As has been true pretty much everywhere this year, unfortunately butterfly numbers seemed unusually low even in this wetter and greener habitat and we wouldn’t have much luck with that and decided to also pay attention to the birds and other critters.
The weather got interesting particularly on Friday with big clouds building up and bringing some good afternoon rains. Cruising around Las Vegas NWR between (and during) some of that rain turned up some good birds that would normally be hiding out of the usual hot sun. Friday we saw quite a few adult and juvenile Swainson’s Hawks on any available snag or power pole, but only a single one on the sunny Saturday.
There were lots of Yellow Warblers flitting about in the trees, and we had several Blue Grosbeaks coming down to puddles in the road for a drink, only to fly to a nearby fence as we approached.
Friday also gave us good looks at a couple of Black-billed Magpies, one of which gave me a nice photo opportunity.
Since we were reasonably close, we also spent some time the next day looking around Maxwell NWR, about an hour north of Las Vegas. Not quite as magical as the previous day’s experience in the rain at Las Vegas NWR, we did see a few more butterflies, more Yellow Warblers, an astonishing number of damselflies, and rather unexpectedly, a flock of American White Pelicans who are normally only seen here during migration.