My first Roswell CBC was blessed with almost 60 degree weather and no wind. Our route covered a major portion within the refuge. Starting in Unit 7 about an hour after sunrise, we were treated to wave after wave of Sandhill Cranes launching from their night roost to the agricultural fields to the south. Around 2500 went over us with their vocalizations being almost as impressive as their majestic flight. Once the group had departed, we started the somewhat less glorious work of counting all waterfowl, sparrows, etc. Roswell is warm enough in winter to shelter some shorebirds and we found several species including Greater Yellowlegs, Long-billed Dowitcher and Wilson's Snipe. Several lingering egrets were around-Snowy and Great. The sparrow show was strong with many Swamp and Song Sparrows cozy in the bulrushes.
One of our major quests of the count was rails and bitterns. We were able to encounter several Sora and American Bitterns, but the highlight of the day was Virginia Rail. We kept playing tape and walking and getting responses. By the end of the day we recorded a staggering 32 Virginia Rails. Wonder if this will be the high count nationally for that species.
The rest of the count had other highlights including a co-operative Prairie Falcon, a day-roosting Great Horned Owl, and a surprisingly late Common Yellowthroat. I will certainly do this count again in the future.
Returning to the west coast of Sonora for some mid-winter r&r has become an annual tradition. The combination of scenic bays, mangrove lined estuaries, desert arroyos and native palm slot canyons is hard to beat from a recreation and birding point of view.
The ocean regulars are always entertaining. Pacific and Common Loons feed close to shore, Blue-footed Boobies do their perfectly vertical, kamikaze dives, Brown Pelicans effortlessly skim the waves even flying into the wind, and prehistoric-looking Magnificent Frigatebirds hang high overhead, watching the terns and gulls every move, waiting for the right time to harass and plunder.
The nearby estuary hums with life forms of all kinds, not the least of which are the winged kind. American Oystercatchers with their blazing red-orange bills wait for the tide to expose their rocky feeding areas. Reddish Egrets run willy-nilly in their quest to stir up small fish. Long-billed Curlews, masters of the Western short grass prairies in the summer, switch to probing down crab holes in their winter haunts. Great Kiskadees loudly forage in the mangroves. Ospreys scan the shallows for their next meal and, when successful, retire to a nearby cactus spire to dine.
The desert birding is surprisingly diverse, especially in winter with various western US songbirds taking advantage of the frost-free conditions. Gray Vireo, Green-tailed Towhee, Cassin's, Grasshopper, and Brewer's Sparrows are among the species that find this southern portion of the Sonoran desert to their liking. Mixed in are permanent residents such as Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Bendire's Thrasher, Gilded Flicker, and Rufous-winged Sparrow. The vocalizations and antics of the local Cactus Wrens are the signature of this habitat.
The volcanic coastal mountain ranges hold astonishing pools of water in their deeply incised canyons. Canyon Wrens reverberate the walls with their iconic songs, White-throated Swifts scour the heights for insects, and Northern Cardinals blaze the surprisingly lush understory. Montane species from the distant Sierra Madre, such as Painted Redstart, escape winter's chill by finding refuge here.
I look forward to returning to these places with clients in two months, knowing I will be treated to new sights and sounds brought by the advance of spring.
We headed east to the eastern slope of the southern Rockies in San Miguel County. As migration is already well underway, I was curious as to what would be moving. At a private ranch north of Las Vegas, we found a nice group of migrants in a grove of Gooding's Willow along Sapello Creek. The warbler show included regulars such as Wilson's, Yellow, Virginia's, and MacGillivray's, as well as far less often encountered species such as Nashville and Townsend's Warblers, two American Redstarts, and a Northern Waterthrush-the last species actually bursting into song for us! Along the same drainage we found a pair of Solitary Sandpipers, a species that I don't seem to run into very much. In a nearby decadent cottonwood grove, we noticed a pair of Lewis' Woodpeckers-a declining species in northern NM and one that I hadn't seen on the ranch for 10 years.
At the large lake on the ranch there were hundreds of waterfowl, including Clark's and Western Grebes as well as some Eared Grebes still in breeding plumage. This particular lake almost dried up just a year ago.
Heading further out on the plains we took a side road through some prairie habitat. Clouds of Lark Buntings were joined by myriads of Chipping and Lark Sparrows plus a few early Clay-colored. An early Sage Thrasher was an unexpected treat. We were checking all the playas (depressions in the grasslands that can fill with water). We finally found one, Laguna Huerfana, that was loaded with shorebirds. Some of the Avocets may have been local breeders but the remainder, including both yellowlegs, Baird's, Western, and Stilt Sandpipers, and flocks of Wilson's Phalaropes, were all southbound migrants. One wonders how these wetland-dependent species fare in years when these playas are dry.