Since Christmas, we’ve had three snowstorms one after another. In recent years we haven’t had much snow, but are expecting some this year with the El Niño weather pattern. We can always use the moisture and they’ve now gotten enough on the mountain for the Sandia Peak Ski Area to open. At least in town, the snow hasn’t made driving difficult for long since it typically evaporates from the roads rather quickly. Also typical is how the powdery snow finds a way of drifting into a tall pile right in front of my garage door – always a treat to discover when I decide to head out.
Having completed three Christmas Bird Counts under remarkably nice weather conditions before the holiday, the Sandia Mountain CBC is traditionally conducted the day after Christmas coinciding with the start of the first of those three snowstorms. It hadn’t really gotten going in town yet, but on the east side of the Sandias where our count area is the snow had been coming down over night and would continue to fall all day. We managed to cover most of our assigned roads and ended up with a reasonable number of birds and species variety, despite the birds generally seeking cover and a few of the roads starting to get a little dicey. What was most interesting that day was that when we would see birds, it usually was a large number of one species parked together in a tree. These Cedar Waxwings had taken up their position in a short tree just next to a mailbox station and were obviously waiting out the snow since they didn’t fly off despite all the people driving up and walking around to check their mail.
Another surprise flock was this bunch of Western Meadowlarks parked (unusually) in a tree. That yellow really popped out in my binocular view and it was thrilling to realize what they were since they normally are tucked into a grassy field or one or two individuals will be spotted on a fence or similar perch.
Bluebirds all seemed grouped together as well if not quite so tightly packed. Mountain Bluebirds were fun to see, including this male
Mountain Bluebird (male)
and a nearby female.
Mountain Bluebird (female)
The next day was the Audubon Thursday Birder trip to the Rio Grande Nature Center. Roads in my neighborhood in the foothills had been plowed but still looked a bit tricky, so it was pleasant surprise to find perfectly dry roads and little snow closer to the river and a sunny day for the outing. The birding turned out well, too, but my only picture from that morning was this Greater Roadrunner we very nearly overlooked sitting on a fence all fluffed up to soak up a little sun.
A few days later, I made another visit to the open fields of Los Poblanos Open Space hoping to photograph one of the several species of raptors that are often there this time of year. Not much luck on that score, but I did have a close encounter with the roadrunner that seems to have adopted the garden area at the northwest corner of the area,
and did find one of the Western Screech-Owls at home.
Most places I’ve gone over the last several weeks have turned up at least one porcupine, a critter easy to see snoozing away the day up in a tree during the winter.
It was a hardy bunch that appeared the next week for the Thursday Birder walk around Los Poblanos Open Space the morning after another good snow, but while it was indeed pretty chilly at the start the weather was calm and sunny and made for a most enjoyable outing with a good list of birds seen. No owl that day, unfortunately, which I suspect was deep in the nest box keeping warm. We saw a number of American Kestrels around the fields, a couple of which posed nicely for photographs.
This past weekend, Rebecca and I drove down to Truth or Consequences to do a bit of birding around the area on Saturday and then joined Kim Score for a CNMAS Field Trip on Sunday to Percha Dam State park and taking a leisurely drive home at a few more spots. First up was a visit to Animas Creek where I’d never been before. The (dry) creek is lined with large sycamore trees, which aren’t often seen in New Mexico but are known to attract several bird species not commonly found in the state. One that we were hoping for popped up high in a sycamore right at the start, but then showed up again toward the end of our visit just feet from the car, a Bridled Titmouse.
A few other fun birds we’d see there included quite a few Acorn Woodpeckers,
several Phainopepla (of which we’d see plenty later in the trip), and a few Cedar Waxwings (we’d see lots of them later as well but I wouldn’t get good photos of any of them).
After Animas Creek, we headed back through Truth or Consequences to have lunch at Paseo del Rio campground just downstream from Elephant Butte Dam. We spotted a small flock of Pyrrhuloxia just as we pulled in to park and I jumped out to try to get a few pictures since I rarely see them and they are usually pretty far away and buried in the bushes. I worked them a bit that day and would try again the next day when we returned with the Audubon group, but never quite got the picture I was hoping for; this one at least shows the bird out in the open.
I also had a very cooperative Hermit Thrush presumably trying to stay warm and out of the breeze while I snapped away.
A nice surprise that day was coming across a Hooded Merganser pair in one of the two ponds of this former fish hatchery.
They were nice enough to let me to take a couple of pictures before they flew off to points unknown and wouldn’t be seen when we looked the next day.
The field trip the next day was most enjoyable despite the weather starting out with a bit of unexpected drizzle and ending with a good list of birds seen, several of which I don’t see all that often, and some really excellent photo opportunities. An easy one was an American Kestrel early in the walk,
while we were busy looking at a good-sized flock of Cedar Waxwings, assorted bluebirds and goldfinches, and a ridiculous number of both male and female Phainopepla. Here’s my best shot of a female from that morning,
and this is my best one of a male (taken later that day at Paseo del Rio).
This was my first winter visit to the park and we covered quite a bit more of it than I’d done on previous visits, making it interesting seeing a different variety of birds this time. Bird of the day for me, however, was when we finally spotted the Prairie Falcon other birders had mentioned earlier that morning. Although it flew off as we first approached, it soon returned and stayed around long enough for all of us to get a good look and some good photos.
A bit later we wandered over to the dam but wouldn’t see too many birds since the upstream side was pretty much frozen over. A couple of birds were hanging around on the downstream side, including a single American Pipit, a couple of ducks and this Spotted Sandpiper.
Then it was off to Paseo del Rio for another visit with those Pyrrhuloxia, but no Golden-crowned Kinglet that Kim had heard about there or the Hooded Mergansers we’d seen the day before. While everybody was busy checking out the ducks in the nearly dry river, I’d slipped off to look for Pyrrhuloxia – they eluded me until I rejoined the group, but I did get a good look at a Great Egret that flew over (and that we’d seen in the river the day before).
The egret appeared headed for one of the ponds, but wasn’t there by the time the group took a look. We also had two very cooperative Ladder-backed Woodpeckers in different spots that seemed much more interested in poking around for something to eat than to worry about all those birdwatchers staring at them.
We ended the day with a stop at the marina on Elephant Butte Lake, where there were more grebes than I’ve ever seen anywhere. Mostly Western Grebe and a few Clark’s Grebe, they were still pretty far away and the water pretty turbulent under a stiff breeze.
Heading for home the next day, Rebecca and I were surprised to note several Golden Eagles on the power poles close to the interstate south of Bosque del Apache.
This time of year there are usually plenty of hawks (most often Red-tailed) sitting on those poles, so it was quite surprising to realize first one and then the next couple we’d see were indeed eagles. We tried to sneak up on them but they’d be pretty quick to fly away before taking up watch usually a couple of poles further down.
A quick stop at Bosque del Apache turned up two Bald Eagles hanging out on their usual snag in the middle of a large frozen pond, a couple of Northern Harrier that wouldn’t stick around long enough to photograph, and a fun bunch of Bufflehead – all male except for one female. Here’s a picture of the boys figuring out what to do next after the female decided to leave.