Early Spring Sightings

Early spring and the weather around here lately has been mostly nice and warm with a few windy and cloudy moments. Fruit trees are in full bloom and most of the other trees are starting to show a hint of new green leaves. While not getting out too often recently looking for butterflies, when I have there have usually been one or two new species for the year flying about. One I’d been expecting to see for a few weeks was finally spotted nectaring on the flowering willow trees, the Southwestern Orangetip.

Southwestern Orangetip (Anthocharis sara thoosa)

Several other species were also seen hitting the willow one day, including Sandia Hairstreak, Spring Azure, and Gray Hairstreak.

Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus)

Another quite common one most of the year was a Checkered White that finally managed to land long enough to photograph.

Checkered White (Pontia protodice)

A bit unusual to see this early in the season was what I’m pretty sure is a Sleepy Duskywing.

Sleepy Duskywing (Erynnis brizo)

A good part of my time outdoors over the last two weeks has been spent looking for more Great Horned Owl nests, and checking in on the eight I’ve been following expecting to start seeing little ones pretty much any day now. Their incubation period is apparently 33-37 days, so having a pretty good idea of when they first start nesting lets me know about when to expect those little ones. I’m pretty sure that’s happened in several of the nests now, but yesterday was the first time I managed to actually see one of those little white tennis ball babies, looking out from just in front of Mom in the photo below.

Great Horned Owl – Albuquerque Academy

Pop was in the very next tree winking proudly at me.

Great Horned Owl – Albuquerque Academy

Others have seen possibly two little ones in the nest near the Rio Grande Nature Center for more than a week now, but although the female is obviously sitting way higher in the nest, I’ve yet to spot more than a bit of white fluff in that nest. There are certainly little ones in the nest near the National Hispanic Cultural Center (NHCC), with the female sitting up quite high and actively moving around during several recent visits, but again I’ve yet to quite make out a young one.

Great Horned Owl – NHCC

Every visit there has set a nearby Cooper’s Hawk off squawking and flying around, and while it doesn’t seem to be objecting to the nesting owl as they sometimes do it might be trying to attract a mate since it’s time they started nesting and there seems to be quite a few old nests in that area.

Cooper’s Hawk

On last week’s Audubon Thursday Birder outing to Pueblo Montano Open Space, everybody got a good look at that nest which should also have little ones by now but is pretty high in a distant tree so might be tough to see them for a few more weeks. A treat that day was seeing the male right above us near the trail, first time I’ve seen him since they started nesting.

Great Horned Owl – Pueblo Montano

In other owl sightings, it seems really surprising to me that the Western Screech-Owl first reported in mid-January in Columbus Park is still being seen. In my experience they typically hang out for only a week or so before disappearing somewhere else in the woods.  And since I’d been hearing reports of a few more Burrowing Owls showing up in “Owlville” down in Los Lunas, I stopped by there recently.  A little too windy and cloudy to expect to see them out, but one of them was sitting there waiting for me as I pulled up.

Burrowing Owl

After that, I stopped in at Valle de Oro NWR intending to track down a Great Horned Owl nest I’d heard about, maybe see the Common Black-Hawk that was reported as nesting in the area, and kept an eye out along with everybody else I ran into down there for the recently reported Varied Thrush. No luck on any of those and the weather was still a little unusually windy and cloudy so birds were mostly keeping hidden. I did get nice looks at a Swainson’s Hawk that was buzzing around me near the parking area much like a Northern Harrier had a few weeks ago.

Swainson’s Hawk

Highlight of the day, however, was coming across a slow-moving porcupine making its way along the irrigation ditch trail toward a tasty-looking small tree. Usually snooozing away high in a tree, rarely do I see these guys on the ground and never before noticed how big those claws really are.

Porcupine

Seems our Osprey pair are back trying to nest in the same place they tried last year before a big windstorm blew their nest down. Here’s the best shot I got on my visit on April 2. From pictures others have posted on Facebook since, it seems they’re making real progress and the nest has gotten considerably larger and probably just about ready for use.

Osprey

 

 

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So Much For Winter

Spring in the northern hemisphere begins with the equinox this morning after a most unusual winter here. While the east coast seems to have gotten a number of winter snowstorms one after the other, we’ve missed out on much precipitation at all and have had long stretches of unusually warm weather. But so far March has otherwise been fairly typical with calm sunny days interspersed with a few windy, cloudy, and chillier days.

A highlight for me of our Audubon Thursday Birder walk on March 8 was spotting another Great Horned Owl as our rather large group walked along the irrigation ditch in Corrales near Dixon Road. Fairly high in a tree right next to the path, most of the group had passed right by it sitting out in the open when I picked out those distinctive ear tufts against the blue sky. As usual, its camouflage was just about a perfect match to the tree bark and it could easily be mistaken for just another branch. And as usually seems to be the case, it pretended to be invisible despite all those humans down below looking at it and taking its picture. Assuming it was a male, a few of us looked around in vain for a nesting female. I went back on Saturday by myself, first to see if the male was still around and second to look around more carefully for a nest. Still no luck nest-wise, but felt lucky to spot the owl again in a different tree close to where we’d seen him before and this time almost at eye level.

Great Horned Owl – Corrales

That morning, I also checked in with my pair at Piedras Marcadas Dam. The week before, they’d both been on the same branch close to last year’s nest but hadn’t yet started nesting for this year. Despite all the construction equipment being used to remove sediment from the base of the dam, the owls had again taken up residence and are busy incubating some eggs. You might want to zoom in by clicking on the picture below, but you can see the female sitting on the nest there on the right side just above the center of the page and if you look carefully can spot the male about the same distance from the left side in that clump of dead leaves.

Great Horned Owls – Piedras Marcadas

Several times over the past week, I’ve wandered around Embudito Canyon hoping for a few more butterfly species to start appearing. A small number of Sandia Hairstreaks have been seen each time, and one or two individuals of a couple of other species, but I’m still waiting to spot the Southwestern Orangetips that should be flying by now. This has been a good year all over town for Mourning Cloaks, which overwinter as adults and thus appear whenever it’s warm enough.

Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa)

The willows have started budding out deep in the canyon, which can attract butterflies, moths, and other insects, so I’ll definitely drop by later this week when the weather should be sufficiently warm and sunny for a few more butterflies to start flying. While looking earlier this week, it was fun to have a Ruby-crowned Kinglet pop up right in front of me while it was busy working the willows for some of those insect snacks.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

According to my reference sources, once those Great Horned Owls start actively nesting the average incubation period is 33 days. Since the pair near the Rio Grande Nature Center has been seen nesting since February 12, the little ones are sure to hatch any day now.  I took a look last Saturday (March 17) but didn’t see any little ones or the impression that the female had changed position (females will often sit up a little higher once her eggs have hatched).  It was interesting the male was in pretty much the exact same spot as the last time I’d been by two weeks earlier.

Great Horned Owl – RGNC

It of course was a treat to find one of the Western Screech-Owls catching some sun in one of the nest boxes at Los Poblanos Open Space on last week’s Audubon Thursday Birders trip, but I’d also heard the one in a natural cavity in Columbus Park was still being seen (most odd – I’d first seen it there almost two months ago!) so I stopped there on the way to the Nature Center two days later.  And, sure enough, there it was quietly soaking up some sun.

Western Screech-Owl

It had been a couple of weeks since I’d first spotted the nesting Great Horned Owl at Pueblo Montano Open Space, so I also stopped by there. The female was still on the nest, but I still haven’t managed to spot her mate who I assume is somewhere close by – this year for some reason the males have often been in the same tree as the nest, but usually they’re some distance away in a well-hidden spot. A Black Phoebe posed nicely for me at quite close range that day,

Black Phoebe

and a pair of Cooper’s Hawks were making quite a commotion near where the owl was nesting.  One finally flew off leaving the other posing in the sun for me.

Cooper’s Hawk

The Cooper’s Hawks also start nesting about now and I’ll have to start looking for them again soon, and no doubt will start seeing a few baby Great Horned Owls in the next week or so. Them butterflies ought to start popping up again, too, now that Spring is here and we’ll be seeing some warmer days.

 

 

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Owl Obsession

It should be obvious by now, but I seem to have a bit of an obsession with finding and watching nesting Great Horned Owls. Owls had long been on my wish list for seeing in the wild, but it was always a quite rare event for me to ever see one. My first Great Horned Owl sighting was in a dry wash in nearby Elena Gallegos Open Space way back in 2005 and so unusual for me that I had to ask for help in identifying it. I still haven’t seen one there since, but after retiring in 2011 and getting out birding more seriously and more often have located a number of active nests and learned a bit about their behavior. It starts for me early in the year, looking for abandoned hawk nests among the leafless trees that I’ll return to check around mid-February. I’ve also learned they’ll regularly use the same nest for several years or move to another spot close by. Once the female settles in to incubate those eggs, she seems to stay hunkered way down for a bit more than a month and then tends to sit up higher when the eggs hatch and little ones quickly grow up. For the next couple of months, the little ones continue to grow, start climbing out of the nest, then practice flying to nearby branches, until one day they all just disappear into the woods almost never to be seen until early the next year.

So far this year, I’m now checking in on eight nests around town.  The first one this year for me was February 12 in the bosque between Rio Grande Nature Center and Campbell Road. They’re using the same nest as last year, and had just been reported on eBird the day before – I hadn’t seen anybody home a few days earlier so they must have just started nesting. Every time I’ve been this year, the male has been spotted lower down and east of the nest maybe 30 yards away. Here’s a picture of the female taken yesterday.

Great Horned Owl – Rio Grande Nature Center

A friend had told me about a nesting pair in an unusual urban location right in the middle of one of our major shopping districts, in ponderosa pines around the City Place office building. They, too, seem to be using the same location as last year.  I’ve yet to see the actual nest or the female, but can usually spot the very well-hidden male on my visits.

Great Horned Owl -City Place

Another friend told me about the nest at Albuquerque Academy this year. Apparently, the same pair has been nesting on the property for years and I’ve usually seen them since 2012. For the last three or four years, they’ve become celebrated for nesting in an open spot low in a ponderosa near the busy center of campus. This year, however, they’ve chosen a quieter and much more well-hidden spot. It’s been possible to just make out the female in her nest way at the top of their new ponderosa, and interesting to see the male a little more obviously in the same tree but doing his best to camouflage his presence.

Great Horned Owl – Albuquerque Academy

A few days later, I checked in on the strange pair that’s nested at Piedras Marcadas Dam last year. Strange because they usually start nesting later than others, one year hatched their little ones much later, and when I do see the male, it often will fly off rather than sitting there motionless (but always looking right at you!) as they usually do. This year, I’ve seen the pair of them on several occasions in the same tree they nested in last year, quite close to the nest but not yet nesting. This picture from yesterday shows them thinking about nesting and I didn’t get too close or stay long so the male didn’t fly off.

Great Horned Owl – Piedras Marcadas

Last week when I stopped by, they were lower in the tree and he did take off before I spotted him; the female, meanwhile, stayed put and played that same hiding game as the guy at Albuquerque Academy, breaking up its outline as they often will by merging with some concealing branches or leaves.

Great Horned Owl – Piedras Marcadas

Following up on a recent eBird report, I finally managed to spot a nest in Corrales that I suspect was also used last year but that I’d hadn’t seen back then. Way, way high in a tree, this one was pretty tough to see or photograph, and I didn’t spot the male anywhere in the area.

Great Horned Owl – Corrales

Later that same day, I made probably my third visit this year around Pueblo Montano and the Bosque School, where they’ve usually had a nesting pair somewhere in the area but that I’ve missed finding some years.  I would spot six porcupines and a good number of abandoned hawk nests there, but had just about given up again when high up and not too far from the trail winding through the bosque one of those hawk nests had an owl! It’s always fun to be the first to spot and report on an active nest. I looked, but didn’t see the male anywhere nearby.

Great Horned Owl – Pueblo Montano

Yesterday following the excellent directions of another friend, two more nests got added to my list for this year. The first one, in Roosevelt Park near the university, was one that nested in the same spot as last year, but that I also hadn’t managed to spot then.  The male was quite easy to see and stood out against the open sky a little below the nest.

Great Horned Owl – Roosevelt Park

The female was also visible in the nest, but low in the nest and difficult to photograph. Then it was over to the National Hispanic Cultural Center where another active nest had been seen in the area. Following my directions, I easily spotted a huge old hawk nest about where the owl should be but just couldn’t see anybody home. Since I knew it had to be close, I then looked around some more to no avail and checked lower in the general vicinity without spotting  the male (no surprise; they can be quite close to a nest but extremely well-hidden). Just about to give up, it struck me that a bunch of crows seemed to be making a lot of noise right around where I’d been looking. In the winter, it’s not unusual to have rather large groups of crows hanging around and calling like that, but birds will often harass any predatory owl that they find. Directing my attention to all that commotion, sure enough, there was a pretty obvious nest high up in a tree near the first old nest I’d seen and a female owl popped up to stare at the attacking crows, but otherwise seemed to ignore them. (I’d see something like this a couple of times in the past at Piedras Marcadas when a Cooper’s Hawk hassled the owls that had taken over their old nest.)

Great Horned Owl – NHCC

In other news, it was a treat this past weekend seeing that our State butterfly, the Sandia Hairstreak, is flying again kicking off this year’s butterfly season. As we’ve seen the last few years, they first seem to appear the first few days of March when the weather warms up just enough. Last Friday, we had a couple of them at Copper Trailhead and then on Saturday a couple more in Embudito Canyon.

Sandia Hairstreak (Callophrys mcfarlandi)

Liked this picture of a Crissal Thrasher in Embudito, too, showing all the field marks (more curved bill, dark stripes on the throat, and chestnut undertail coverts) that distinguish it from the more common Curve-billed Thrashers I usually see there.

Crissal Thrasher

There should still be a few nesting owls around that I hope to track down in the next few weeks while the leaves haven’t yet appeared. They do seem to use the same or nearby locations over the years, but sometimes either something happens to the owls, their nesting options disappear, or maybe they just move on and I won’t see one there anymore. I also wonder where all the young ones go – do they stay in the same vicinity or fly off to some new territory? Should start seeing a few more butterfly species now that the days are getting longer and warmer.

 

 

 

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Checking in on the Owls

Every year around this time, it’s always fun to spot a couple of Western Screech-Owls roosting in wooden nest boxes and natural tree cavities. I’ll usually see them from December to February. From what I read online, they don’t start breeding until March or April and I’ve yet to find an active nest or very rarely ever seen one during the rest of the year, but will hope to spot one in the coming months. This one in Columbus Park was seen and photographed by quite a few people this year, since it was in such an obvious spot and sat out in the open for several weeks.

Western Screech-Owl

At the time of this photograph, a Steller’s Jay was screaming at the owl from a nearby tree, long and loud enough that the owl opened its eyes to see what all the commotion was about. Later that morning, a Black Phoebe posed nicely for me along the irrigation ditch near Campbell Road.

Black Phoebe

A few days later on the Aubudon Thursday Birder trip to Bosque del Apache NWR, it was a treat to see another one in the same cavity we’d had one in January 2013 – of course, I look every time I’m down there but this is the first time since then we’ve seen it.

Western Screech-Owl

That was a most productive trip with the large group of 23 birders seeing a total of 66 species that day, including an unusual sighting of a Vermilion Flycatcher

Vermilion Flycatcher

and the more typical Phainopepla

Phainopepla

and several Bald Eagles, who hang out down there for the winter.

Bald Eagle

Just about the time the screech-owls seem to disappear I should start finding nesting Great Horned Owls and have been looking around locations we’ve had them in the past. A little surprised not to be seeing them yet, but it is still a little early in the season and I’m thinking our mild winter this year may have delayed their nesting. But finally last week there was a report of an active nest in the same spot near Campbell Road as last year, so I had to go look. That nest was empty just a week earlier when I’d checked the day I got the picture of the Black Phoebe above. Returning a week later with my friend, Reuben, sure enough the female was hunkered down on that same nest as last year,

Great Horned Owl (f)

and looking around carefully in the area we’d seen the male last year, we eventually spotted him keeping an eye on things.

Great Horned Owl (m)

On the way back, we ran into a couple of other friends out to take a look and backtracked to show them. Along the way, we got nice looks at a Hairy Woodpecker, a bird I don’t see nearly as often as the smaller Downy Woodpecker and rarely at such a close distance.

Hairy Woodpecker

A couple of days later, I checked in again with my Great Horned Owl at Piedras Marcadas Dam. I’ve seen this one several times in recent months, but so far haven’t seen its mate this year. They’re usually an odd pair, nesting later than most and choosing a different spot each time.

Great Horned Owl

On that day, the owl (it’s difficult to make the call on whether it’s male or female) was a few trees over from where I’d last seen it and as I approached it flew off to an even more secluded spot. A Cooper’s Hawk noticed it when it flew and zoomed over to harass the owl, so I backed off and headed to my car. The owls tend to use old Cooper’s Hawk nests there, and I’ve seen the hawks get quite upset with nesting owls in the past. Once an owl has taken up residence, however, they seem to calmly ignore the hawk harassment.

Although it’s still a little early in the year for them to return from their wintering habitats further south, folks have been seeing a Burrowing Owl in “Owlville” down in Los Lunas, so one day this week I went to take a look. Seeing it rounds out the trifecta of our more common owl species, and this little guy was right where we’ve had several nesting pair over the last few years.

Burrowing Owl

There are a couple of other owl species that can be seen here, some I have yet to see and maybe need to make an effort to track down. But I do hope to find a few more nesting Great Horned Owls in the coming weeks and continue looking for them in a number of locations we’ve had them in the past. On the way home from “Owlville” I looked around Tingley Ponds where there’s often a nest, but haven’t yet located an occupied one. There were a somewhat surprising good number of birds around that morning, including a variety of waterfowl such as the Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler

and Ring-necked Duck.

Ring-necked Duck

A large number of cormorants were on the island of one of the fishing ponds, including on a closer dock what I think is a young Neotropic Cormorant.

Neotropic Cormorant

The trees in the bosque seemed to have a good variety and number of the usual species, including this Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

and one of a number of Northern Flickers, this one busy eating Russian Olives.

Northern Flicker

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Last of January

There have been a few fun photo opportunities over the last two weeks I’ll share in this post. Oddly enough, the weather continues to be quite mild around here. Although most days start out a bit chilly, they usually warm up into the 50s and even 60s with clear, sunny skies by the afternoon. We could definitely use some winter precipitation, but haven’t seen much of that at all for some time now.

Almost three weeks ago, the Audubon Thursday Birders spent the whole morning at Valle de Oro NWR seeing a good number of birds by driving around the fields and then walking the bosque trails to the Rio Grande. One of the best sightings was at the end while we were going through the list when a female Northern Harrier flew right over the group and then circled around several times fairly low.

Female Northern Harrier

While walking through the bosque, we’d also see a couple of porcupines snoozing away in the trees and in the weeds had Song Sparrows

Song Sparrow

and four Spotted Towhees, assumedly a family group, in the same area.

Spotted Towhee

After the walk, Rebecca and I drove to to Los Lunas to feed two stray cats we’d first met on Christmas Day. So obviously famished they quickly ate the leftover bits from our lunch that day, and then some official cat food we picked up at a nearby gas station and brought to them. Since then, we’ve been back every other day usually seeing both cats who continue to eat all the food we bring, along with the stray french fry, leftover burrito, and whatever else they come across. Rebecca named them on that very first visit; this is Kale (he was the one who first lapped up our leftover kale salad)

“Kale”

and this is Luna (she’s named for the Village of Los Lunas where we found them).

“Luna”

While they do seem to recognize us and usually come running for the food, they’re still too wary to let us get too close let alone try to pet them. But these two need to be rescued before a coyote or raptor spots them or even a bad stretch of weather hits, so we’re working with animal rescue folks to trap them, have them neutered and then Rebecca’s adopting them.

The next day while strolling around Embudito Canyon, a rather cooperative Curve-billed Thrasher posed nicely for me.

Curve-billed Thrasher

This year, there seem to be quite a few Curve-billed Thrashers in the wash along with a few Crissal Thrashers. A most unusual Golden-crowned Sparrow has been seen in a flock of White-crowned Sparrows at a feeder near the parking lot by a number of folks, but I’ve yet to spot it despite several recent visits.

The following week, Audubon Thursday Birders again had a successful day at Alameda Open Space. Despite having quite a large crowd of about 36 birders, we still exceeded our success criterion of more bird species than people.  While we didn’t see the quite rare American Woodcock that our leader Gale had seen on her scouting visit a couple of days earlier, it was a treat to get good looks at an immature Bald Eagle.

Bald Eagle (immature)

Leaving the group at the conclusion of the walk, a few of us went to look for the Western Screech-Owl roosting in a natural cavity that a friend had heard about and had been reported on eBird a week earlier. Fortunately, there were only a few cottonwood trees with potential in the area and we spotted it without having to look too hard. Quite a few birders have been to see it since and I’ve even made a couple of return visits. Hopefully it feels safe enough high in that tree that it isn’t too bothered by all of us lookie loos.

Western Screech-Owl

A few days later, Rebecca and I headed out to the east mountains to participate in Audubon’s Climate Watch Survey, where every six months folks return to their 12 survey locations to identify and count all the birds seen in a 5 minute period; target birds are bluebirds and nuthatches. After doing our counts, we returned to the area south of Moriarty where the Thursday Birders had been on January 11 hoping to see a few more of the raptors that we’d missed on that earlier windy day. Much better luck this time, seeing (and my first picture of one ever) a Prairie Falcon,

Prairie Falcon

and the Rough-legged Hawk that wasn’t around on the first trip.

Rough-legged Hawk

We’d also see Ferruginous Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, and even a Loggerhead Shrike. A Western Meadowlark posed nicely on a fence for me, showing off its bright yellow chest.

Western Meadowlark

A couple of days later, I was back at Pueblo Montano Open Space wanting to check again on a possible screech-owl cavity I’d seen early in the month, but while it still had a tell tale feather on the cavity, I still haven’t seen any owls. A few other good birds that day, however, included this pair of American Wigeon,

American Wigeon

a skulking Hermit Thrush (first I’ve seen this year),

Hermit Thrush

and a Cooper’s Hawk bathing in the irrigation ditch who paid no attention at all to me taking its picture from the other side of the ditch.

Cooper’s Hawk

That area always has a few porcupines about, and on my loop through the trees there that morning, I’d see at least five individuals doing their thing.

Porcupine

This week’s Audubon Thursday Birder trip was, as usual, a successful walk around Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area in Belen. Highlight of the day for me, was a male Northern Harrier flying reasonably close to the group. While we usually see females flying low over the fields at this time of year (and would see one that day), males, called “the gray ghost”, are just not seen anywhere very often.

Male Northern Harrier

This is the time of year that the Great Horned Owls should be picking out nest sites, which they should start occupying sometime this month. Once they do, they’ll be on or near the nest for about three months until they disappear again for the year. Of course, that’s got me out looking for them and identifying occupied sites before the trees leaf out in the spring. Not much luck so far this year, but then I haven’t really been trying too hard yet. Two days in a row last week in the same spot in Piedras Marcadas Dam, however, I did see this one, so indeed the games are about ready to begin!

Great Horned Owl

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Birds of Early Winter

A month into winter and for the most part it continues to be a rather mild one for Albuquerque. Somehow, though, I haven’t gotten out as often as usual or taken nearly as many photographs as is typical for me. Still, it’s been fun to see a few of those birds that tend to show up around here for the winter and to get a few decent shots of some of them. A long morning shortly after the New Year began had me out checking out a few of my usual spots near the river, including Alameda Open Space, Los Poblanos Open Space, and the Rio Grande Nature Center. Among a nice variety of birds working the irrigation ditch at Alameda was this immature White-crowned Sparrow that didn’t immediately fly off with the others as I approached.

White-crowned Sparrow (immature)

At Los Poblanos, of course I had to check the screech-owl boxes to see if any of them were out sunning. Of the three boxes I’m pretty sure are occupied just now, I’d only see one that day and again about a week later.

Western Screech-Owl

A Say’s Phoebe posed nicely for me that morning as well,

Say’s Phoebe

and it was entertaining to spot a couple of the resident Greater Roadrunners all fluffed up in the cold hoping to catch a little warmth from the sun.

Greater Roadrunner

At the Nature Center I mostly headed straight to the Rio Grande to see if any Bald Eagles were about since I’d regularly seen them in a particular spot across the river in past years.  Didn’t spot them this time, but did get nice long looks at a small flock of Cedar Waxwings perched in the Russian olive trees.

Cedar Waxwing

Heading back along the Bosque Trail to my car, however, I did have a young eagle take off from its perch in a nearby dead cottonwood and circle ever higher above me before it headed off in the distance. That had me looking the next morning during our Audubon Thursday Birder outing to Pueblo Montano Open Space on the west side of the river across from the Nature Center. An unusually overcast and cool morning kept the birds out of sight at first (other than the Pied-billed Grebe seen right off in the ditch near the parking area), but we’d end the morning with a good number of species. And sure enough as we got to our first view of the river, we’d spot two mature Bald Eagles, one directly across the river being harrassed by a number of crows and one on our side of the river but far to the north.

Also seen that day was the perfect cavity for a Western Screech-Owl that had a few telltale feathers around the opening, pretty strong evidence for a cavity actively being used by an owl. Naturally, I had to check it out again the next morning, but still have yet to see anybody home. As long as I was there, I checked the river again for Bald Eagles and saw two of them still on the east side of the river, so it was back to the Nature Center in hopes of sneaking up on them. I poked along slowly starting from the Aldo Leopold Trail a little north of the center where from out on a sandbar I’d see the birds had flown a little further south, and then headed that way hoping to spot them before they moved on. I did finally get lucky, seeing both of the adults on the same branch of a snag close to the river, but first one and then the other took off when I tried to get just a few steps closer.

Bald Eagle

Continuing down the trail to the river, it seemed pretty clear the eagles had staked out that spot because it was close to a small flock of Sandhill Cranes on a sandbar.

Sandhill Crane

On the first Saturday of 2018, Rebecca and I spent a little time at Valle de Oro NWR, where we finally got some close-up looks at some of the Horned Larks that we’d been seeing in large swirling flocks along the Rio Grande several times earlier in the week.

Horned Lark

Also seen that day, surprisingly, was a Northern Mockingbird, a bird we don’t usually see here in winter. On checking eBird at home later that afternoon, I’d seen that others had reported it already for that day.

Northern Mockingbird

Last week’s Audubon Thursday Birders trip had a line of cars driving along dirt roads out in Torrance County on our annual trip to see a variety of raptors that hang out there during the winter. Unlike most years, there wasn’t any snow covering the fields and while it was a bit colder than I had expected, a fairly stiff breeze had those raptors off hiding somewhere rather than perched on their usual telephone poles, trees, and irrigation equipment. Still, we’d end the morning with more birds than people, including several Loggerhead Shrikes and a rare sighting for this time of year of a large flock of Long-billed Curlews off in the distance. Having to leave the group early, it was a treat to see a Ferruginous Hawk just as I headed for home. I’ll have to make a point to get back out there soon when it’s not windy to look for a few more of these guys in their usual spots.

Ferruginous Hawk

This past weekend, I headed out early to Willow Creek Open Space at the northern end of Rio Rancho, unsuccessfully hoping to see the family of bobcats regularly spotted there and to look around to see if their Great Horned Owls had yet shown up. No bobcats and few birds, but I am starting to see porcupines snoozing away in the trees just about everywhere I go these days.

Porcupine

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Wrapping Up 2017

While most of the country seems to be dealing with really cold temperatures and a fair amount of snow, the weather around here the last couple of weeks has been unusually mild with temperatures reaching the mid-60s most days, clear and sunny. Recent Audubon Thursday Birder outings to Tingley Ponds and the Rio Grande Nature Center turned up good numbers of species under much more comfortable conditions than typical for this time of year. One of the last species we’d add at Tingley was the Wood Duck, a good number of which were seen in one of the fishing ponds as the group was going through their species list. These are both males, but there were a number of females in the large group.

Wood Duck

A couple of days later on a quick trip to Embudito Canyon, I spotted a Crissal Thrasher in the middle of the arroyo – at first all I saw through my binoculars was its bright chestnut rear; not usually easy to see but rather definitive. Getting a bit closer showed off some of its other characteristics different from the  Curve-billed Thrashers more commonly seen there.

Crissal Thrasher

On Christmas Eve, I wandered around Alameda Open Space hoping (unsuccessfully) to get a picture of a displaying Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Instead, I happened to notice a few Cedar Waxwings perched quietly in about the only tree along the irrigation ditch that had any birds, but for some reason that tree attracted nearly a dozen species.

Cedar Waxwing

Another visitor to that tree was a Yellow-rumped Warbler, a species that can be quite common around here at this time of year.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

On Christmas Day, Rebecca and I headed south looking around several spots around Belen and Los Lunas for a few birds. A highlight of the day was getting close views of large numbers of Sandhill Cranes in the cornfields of Los Lunas, including this family group.

Sandhill Crane

The next day was the Sandia Mountain Christmas Bird Count – great weather once again if a bit windy at times and a good variety and number of birds seen. For that count, our friend, Bonnie, joined Rebecca and I cruising around our assigned area on both sides of I-40 east of Tijeras. At the compilation dinner that evening, I ran into an acquaintance who works at Albuquerque Academy who told me where their Great Horned Owls are hanging out, so naturally I had to go look for them.

Great Horned Owl

It really is amazing how such large birds can hide in plain sight. The only way I saw these guys was first knowing they had to be in that tree and second looking closely from every angle several times before finally spotting that flash of white on the chest of one of them. I’d first seen one on December 22, and then returned on December 30 hoping (successfully) to see the pair, and was surprised to see them both so close together. It was too bizarre taking another look at my pictures from December 22 to realize both owls were right there in the pictures, too, but at the time I’d only realized one was there.

More obvious there was a Red-tailed Hawk sitting out in the open near the parking area.

Red-tailed Hawk

The last day of 2017 while heading back from the west side of town, I thought to drop in to see if that American Dipper was still around. First seen on December 14, people had continued to report it hanging around the same area ever since. And sure enough, even with about four guys fishing in the irrigation ditch the bird was easily seen and was busy going about its business, first perched just above the water looking around and then walking along often completely under water as it searched for food.

American Dipper

And to kick the New Year off on a promising note, a visit to Embudito on the first day of the New Year may have turned up only a few birds, but one in particular was pretty special, the first Sage Thrasher I’ve ever seen there – a bird I rarely see and usually quite far away when I do.

Sage Thrasher

On first seeing it, I’d assumed it was the more common Hermit Thrush that also has a streaked breast, but looking at the picture at home later had me thinking it was the thrasher. Friend and expert, Judy, confirmed its identity for me shortly afterward.

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Winter Solstice Eve

Shortest day of the year starts with the winter solstice at 9:28 tomorrow morning, and tho the days have been getting noticeably shorter so far other than a couple of cold snaps the weather still hasn’t gotten wintry around here. I’ve made several visits in the last month to Los Poblanos Open Space now that the raptors have returned along with a few Sandhill Cranes. On most visits, one or two Greater Roadrunners are seen wandering around the community garden in the NW corner of the open fields.

Greater Roadrunner

Most fun was seeing that the Western Screech-Owls have again taken up residence in several of the roosting boxes there. Of the five boxes I know of, three appear to be occupied these days. For the first time since I’ve been looking, the only one that faces north has somebody in it.

Western Screech-Owl

Another box nearby that has had an owl in the the past was being swarmed by just about every other bird in the neighborhood one afternoon, so while I didn’t see the owl that day there undoubtedly was one tucked inside. A few days later, I’d at first see an owl in the box way at the eastern end of the property, but then a White-breasted Nuthatch showed up that continued to harass the owl until it finally had enough and dropped down inside the box.

Western Screech-Owl and White-breasted Nuthatch

A real treat to see this past week with Audubon Thursday Birders was an American Dipper in an irrigation ditch in Shining River Open Space; most uncommon to see in this area and perfect that it stayed around for a few days and got counted in the Albuquerque Christmas Bird Count (CBC) this past Sunday.

American Dipper

Tis the season for Christmas Bird Counts and last weekend Rebecca and I headed down to Bosque del Apache NWR for their CBC. We drove down on Friday to see what was flying on the refuge and to scout out our area north of the refuge and south of Hwy 380 for the count that started at 7am Saturday. On Friday, we’d get to see the huge flocks of Snow Geese take to the air whenever a Bald Eagle would appear, saw several Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks, and American Kestrels patrolling the area or roosting in trees, and had lots of different ducks on some of the ponds. My favorite picture of the day, however, was this Great Blue Heron along one of the ditch roads.

Great Blue Heron

A little chilly and breezy on the count day, but sunny weather brought out at least 115 species for the Bosque del Apache count. A few of the species we saw and that I got reasonably good pictures that day included a Phainopepla

Phainopepla

and Pyrrhuloxia,

Pyrrhuloxia

birds we don’t see as far north as Albuquerque, along with a few others that we do see here but not usually as close or as much in the open, the Red-naped Sapsucker,

Red-naped Sapsucker

and American Pipit.

American Pipit

This year, we skipped the compilation party to head home a little earlier to get ready for the Albuquerque CBC that kicked off at dawn the next day. Our friends, Bernie and Pauline, who’ve helped us with our area of the Bosque count the last several years, were staying down there the next day and did go to the party to turn in our results.

For the Albuquerque CBC, Rebecca has long been responsible for southern Corrales and I’ve tagged along for most years since I retired in 2011. This year we were again joined by her friend, Bruce, and under marvelous late Fall weather conditions ended up with a good number of species, including several sightings of Cedar Waxwings, lots of Gambel’s Quail, and a couple of Greater Roadrunners – species that sometimes elude us, and unusual except for this irruption year, Steller’s Jays in good numbers. Preliminary results for the Albuquerque CBC have it with at least 110 species, which seems pretty good for a range of mostly urban habitats.  Best picture I got that day was of a Yellow-rumped Warbler along a stretch of an irrigation ditch that turned up quite a few different species.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Unusual for me to see at any time was a muskrat sunning itself along that same ditch until it swam into its hidden burrow when it realized we were watching.

Muskrat

While out and about yesterday, I went back to that area hoping to photograph some of the birds we’d seen during the count. However, very few birds put in an appearance that morning due to the presence of a Cooper’s Hawk that was working its way along the ditch slightly ahead of me and pausing to perch in a tree until I’d catch up. I finally let him continue on his hunt, while I turned around to head back and saw a few more of the little birds starting to come out again now that the hawk had moved on.

Cooper’s Hawk

One more Christmas Bird Count to go (for me), the Sandia CBC, held the day after Christmas and always interesting since we cover an area in the east mountains that I don’t normally visit. Also might just be that far into winter that we typically seem to run into a little snow and ice but that just makes it more fun.

 

 

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Three Weeks in November

Delightful Fall weather continues around here in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, with the golden leaves of the cottonwoods just starting to fade to brown and then fall away. Birds continue to remain quiet and mostly hidden, but the sandhill cranes, various ducks, and all the other winter migrants have been showing up.  Right after Halloween with candy passed around by Rebecca before the walk, the Audubon Thursday Birders visited a new area for the group, the Cedro Creek Nature Trail in Otero Canyon near Tijeras. As expected from my scouting visits, birding was a little slow until we got to the limestone cliffs and small wetland area near the end of the trail. Once there, however, we had a nice variety of birds show up for the water that can be pretty scarce to find in the mountains. Highlight for me was having several Townsend’s Solitaires perched quite close unlike their usual spot high at the top of a ponderosa.

Townsend’s Solitaire

A few days later I returned to the east mountains to check out several spots along the Crest Highway, noting that they’d re-opened Sulphur Canyon and Doc Long after the bear closures since late summer, and that Cienega Canyon and Capulin Spring are now closed to cars for the winter. At Bill Spring, I was thrilled to see a Golden-crowned Kinglet flash its crown but flitting away before I could get a picture. Usually, they’re only seen (and not that often) in the evergreen trees high on the mountain, but this year are being seen at lower elevations and even in the foothills. Unfortunately, that was the only one I’d see despite several more attempts. On one of those visits, I did get a nice close view of a Hairy Woodpecker working the mossy branches for insects.

Hairy Woodpecker

Heading up the mountain, I had to stop for a minute as a line of seven Wild Turkeys crossed the highway in single file near Tree Spring Trailhead, again disappearing before I could get that camera squared away. A single male, however, was hanging around Balsam Glade who did let me get a few photographs.

Wild Turkey

Along the trail to Kiwanis Meadow very close to Sandia Crest where I’ve seen Golden-crowned Kinglet in the past, on this trip it was very quiet for birds and few were seen. A slight movement just off the trail did catch my eye toward the end of my walk and after watching for movement, a Brown Creeper (always tough to photograph) finally popped into view and hung around for a couple of minutes at the base of the trees.

Brown Creeper

When I just can’t decide where to go or want a quick outing, it’s usually Embudito Canyon where you’ll find me. New for the season there recently was a Rock Wren that I usually only see there in winter.

Rock Wren

Until the last couple of years, Scaled Quail were quite common there most of the year and Gambel’s Quail only rarely seen and usually only in winter, but more recently the Gambel’s Quail is more typically seen in good numbers and pretty much all year.

Gambel’s Quail

Fairly often but by no means guaranteed there is a Ladder-backed Woodpecker who usually gets my attention with its sharp one note call.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

One day along the irrigation ditch north of Pueblo Montano, the cottonwoods were in full color and loaded with crows who seem to roam in large packs along the river this time of year.

American Crow

It was also a treat that day to have a Belted Kingfisher making its way up and down the ditch, flying off as soon as anybody came anywhere close.

Belted Kingfisher

I’ve also made a few trips to Los Poblanos Open Space recently, where starting in the Fall a good number of Sandhill Crane, Canada Goose, and sometimes Snow Goose arrive to feed on the open fields along with a good variety of raptors. The cranes have started to arrive and there was a Red-tailed Hawk and several American Kestrels that day,

American Kestrel

but no Northern Harrier or any of the other hawks that should show up soon. A surprise high in a very tall cottonwood I’d assumed at first was another American Kestrel turned out to be a Merlin, a species that I don’t often see.

Merlin

A Say’s Phoebe posed nicely for me that day against that blue New Mexico sky.

Say’s Phoebe

We’re all surprised this year to be seeing lots of Steller’s Jay all over town and down by the river, definitely an irruption of a species we usually only see in the evergreens on the east side of the mountains and most often at higher elevations. This year, I’ve seen them at Piedras Marcadas Dam and a number of spots along the Rio Grande including this one from Pueblo Montano.

Steller’s Jay

Last week with the 30th Annual Festival of the Cranes down at Bosque del Apache NWR, Rebecca and I headed south to first visit a friend in Silver City, stopping along the way at Elephant Butte, Truth or Consequences, Caballo Lake, and Percha Dam, before returning to stop in at the festival on Saturday. Pretty late in the season to see many butterflies, we did see a few still flying, including at Percha Dam both a Sleepy Orange

Sleepy Orange (Abaeis nicippe)

and a Mexican Yellow.

Mexican Yellow (Eurema mexicana)

Sunset at Elephant Butte Lake is always fun with the sound of the waves providing background music to the usually amazing colors appearing in the clouds and reflecting off the mountains. We had a few good bird sightings while all that was going on, including a close pass by a Ring-billed Gull,

Ring-billed Gull

a trio of Western Grebes that would get fairly close before diving down only to reappear much farther away,

Western Grebe

and a tiny Least Sandpiper carefully working its way along the beach searching for food.

Least Sandpiper

A bit breezy out on Saturday when we got to Bosque del Apache, but fun running into quite a few birding friends, seeing my first Bald Eagle for the season, watching the thousands of snow geese take off when a large raptor flew over, and getting several chances to photograph some of the Northern Harriers that were patrolling the area.

Northern Harrier

Monday morning had me heading down to the Rio Grande Nature Center hoping to see the Hooded Mergansers that showed up last week and that I’d seen excellent photographs of the day before. They seem to be hanging around the Visitor Center Pond, but can be hidden off in the distance or behind the small islands. On my second try, they popped up near one of those islands and I got a decent shot of both the female on the left and the male on the right.

Hooded Merganser

I had never noticed before that the male floats around with that white crest sometimes raised to its full height but then drops it almost all the way just before he dives below the surface. In the picture above, his crest seems to be in mid-position but I’d see him much later that day with it raised all the way.

Hooded Merganser

Another guy out on the water that day was a Pied-billed Grebe whose photograph I like for that watery background.

Pied-billed Grebe

Got home later that morning and fooled around most of the day until I got a surprise text message from birding friend (and fellow owl enthusiast) Kathy Covalt telling me she was at the Nature Center looking at a Northern Saw-whet Owl and she’d wait to show it to me if I had any interest in seeing it. Only seen there once before back in January, I’d missed it that time waiting to go the next day and being a species I’d never seen in the wild before, I quickly hopped in my car for the 20-minute drive. Spotted first by Matt Zmuda, it was directly across the path from the tree it had been seen in in January, and Matt had been there most of the afternoon showing it to others that had heard about it. Thrilled to find it still there when I arrived, and grateful to both of them for letting me know about it.

Northern Saw-whet Owl

 

 

 

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Seasonal Adjustments

Once again having let way too much time go by between posts, here are a few of the pictures I’ve managed to take since my last update. I have been getting out pretty regularly but the butterflies are about done for this year and birds in general seem to be keeping quiet and hidden from me. Also noticing the days growing shorter and temperatures turning cooler. Asters and aspens have peaked and the chamisa nearly done as well, but in just the last few days I’ve noticed the cottonwoods down by the Rio Grande have turned a gorgeous golden color.

Autumn Cottonwoods

I ended my last posting talking about all the water at Piedras Marcadas Dam that had drawn in some rather unusual birds (kingfisher? snipe?) for that normally dry location. Returning just a few days later, the water and all those riparian habitat birds had disappeared, and the Great Horned Owl had gone back into hiding. Even the deep mud had pretty much dried up, which was good since I could look around the milkweed for the Monarch caterpillars and chrysalises that I’d lucked into seeing a few of last year. No luck on that score, but did see a pretty fresh Variegated Fritillary. Usually fairly common to see during the summer, they weren’t seen nearly as often this year.

Variegated Fritillary (Euptoieta claudia)

There was also a Say’s Phoebe posing nicely for me from its usual spot, where it goes after flying insects before returning to this perch.

Say’s Phoebe

Later that same morning, I dropped by Embudito and found the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher again in the same area it had been almost a week earlier. This time there were two of them and one let me get close enough for a couple of better pictures.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Later that afternoon, a birder friend was asking on Facebook about where to look for this bird since she really wanted it for her list. Ended up meeting her in Embudito the next morning where after working our way all the way up and down the canyon, we finally got it for her in pretty much the same spot they had been the day before. Like some other bird species, this one seems to come out later in the morning, we’re guessing about when the bugs start flying around those bushes. It was also a little surprising so late in the year to still have quite a few hummingbirds flying around there in the canyon; mostly Broad-tailed Hummingbirds but also a couple of Rufous Hummingbirds. I managed a decent shot of one of the female Broad-taileds nectaring on one of the very few globe mallow plants still in bloom,

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

and had another sit for its portrait at quite close range; she’d seemed rather successful in powdering her bill with a bit of pollen.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

A few other birds from different locations recently included this Northern Flicker, one of the very few birds I saw on a walk at Willow Creek Open Space,

Northern Flicker

a Canyon Towhee perched on a cholla in Embudito,

Canyon Towhee

and a Great Blue Heron working the irrigation ditch just in front of Bosque School, first time I’ve seen one there.

Great Blue Heron

Last week’s Thursday Birder trip to Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area turned up some good birds, such as our first Northern Harrier for the season, quite a few migrating Sandhill Cranes, a pair of Ring-necked Pheasants, large flock of American Wigeon, and about 30 more species.  I didn’t manage to get any decent bird pictures that day, but liked this shot of milkweed seeds. Large areas of milkweed there at Whitfield do attract good numbers of Monarchs as they migrate through every year.

Milkweed

Butterfly-wise, we’re still seeing those Painted Lady butterflies that have been around in unusually large numbers just about everywhere this year,

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)

but it was a real treat to realize one I saw was instead the closely-related West Coast Lady that we just don’t see around here all that often.

West Coast Lady (Vanessa annabella)

One of the best ways to tell them apart is those markings near the wingtip – the orange bar of the West Coast Lady just inside that line of white dots is a white bar on the Painted Lady and the other species we sometimes see around here, the American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis).

 

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