Being our first spring in the mountains east of Santa Fe, I was quite curious to see who would show up. In late April, despite uncharacteristic spring rains and cold, many migrants began to show up including Black-headed Grosbeak, Grace's Warbler, and the intrepid Broad-tailed Hummingbirds. As May progressed. we were blessed with arrivals of southern Rockies regulars such as Western Tanager, Ash-throated Flycatcher, and Black-throated Gray Warbler. By mid month, a Flammulated Owl was calling repeatedly despite the cool/cold night time temps. I wonder how an insectivore such as this tiny owl can survive in such conditions.
The second half of the month brought more new arrivals such as Warbling and Plumbeous Vireos, Orange-crowned Warbler, and Violet-green Swallow. Turning the corner into June, we now have been blessed with nightly choruses of Common Poorwill, seemingly out of place in these Ponderosa Pine forests, and Common Nighthawk. I always marvel at the herculean journeys of the latter from their winter haunts in South America.
I love being up early this time of year to hear the sequence of the dawn chorus. American Robins starting before 5 am, followed by Mountain Chickadee, Spotted Towhee, Common Raven, Mourning Dove, Black-headed Grosbeak, Cordilleran Flycatcher, and Grace's Warbler. All that before I even get out the door to drive to work. What a blessed life!
Southeast New Mexico has a great diversity of landscapes, from the Chihuahuan Desert Oasis of Rattlesnake Springs near Carlsbad, to the shorebird stop-over at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge on the Pecos River, to the varied foothill and mountain landscapes of Lincoln County near Ruidoso. An uncharacteristic violent rain front came through that changed our plans mid-trip but we persevered and got to see an impressive mix of birds.
The Guadalupe Mountain range west of Carlsbad is a limestone "reef" that was once an ancient sea bed. The Elf Owls calling at our campsite reminded us of how far south in New Mexico we were. At Slaughter Canyon we heard typical desert canyon dwellers such as Common Poorwill, Lesser Nighthawk and Scott's Oriole. In addition, favorites such as Gray Vireo and Varied Bunting had just returned. At Rattlesnake Springs we found the entertaining regulars such as Vermilion Flycatcher, Orchard Oriole, and the stunning Painted Bunting. as well as migrants such as Clay-colored Sparrow and a rare encounter with a Yellow-throated Vireo.
The desert east of Carlsbad is home to southeast NM specialties such as Harris' Hawk and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. We saw both, including a Harris' Hawk nest where the adult birds were being pummeled by the local Western Kingbirds. Downtown Carlsbad hosted both Chimney Swift and Mississippi Kites and a straggling holdover from winter-a Long-tailed Duck. Certainly an odd sight in early May that far south.
Heading north we stopped at Lake Avalon and were surprised to hear a Least Bittern calling at mid day, a new location for me for that species. Further north at Brantley Lake, where the water was the highest I have ever seen, we found a group of Franklin's Gulls and a very early Common Nighthawk. Enroute to Roswell to the north we were treated to a savannah-like scene with a small roadside group of Cattle Egrets perched on the backs of some local cattle.
At Bitter Lake Refuge, we caught the last of the shorebird migration including Willet, Marbled Godwit, Stilt Sandpiper, and Semipalmated Sandpiper. The breeding Snowy Plovers had returned and one pair was even leading a chick over the salt flats. A pair of Least Terns had found this remote inland breeding area as well.
Our time at higher elevations in Lincoln County to the west was productive as well. In the foothill pinyon/juniper habitat we heard several Montezuma Quail and had the good fortune to observe an impressive male at close range. The same area hosted breeding Black-chinned Sparrow and Black-throated Gray Warbler-both at the extreme eastern edge of their ranges. Further west along the Rio Hondo, the annual pair of Common Black Hawks had taken up residence in their nest of many years. Being right next to a major highway, these birds showed remarkable indifference to the semis roaring by.
Higher up towards Sierra Blanca peak, we enjoyed many resident and newly returned species such as Acorn Woodpecker, Pygmy Nuthatch, Virginia's Warbler, Indigo Bunting, and Band-tailed Pigeon. At a local high altitude lake we were fortunate to see an overwintering Pacific Loon in mid molt as well as a very late Horned Grebe. Night birding was rewarding with encounters with Mexican Whip-poor-will, Flammulated Owl (despite the cold temps), and a very vocal Northern Saw-whet Owl. Once again, the bird diversity of the Land of Enchantment continues to reveal itself.
Our 7th Copper Canyon trip happened a bit later (due to the Easter date). As a result we missed a few regular species that had already headed north but were treated to some migrants we usually don't get a chance to see. Case in point, our short trip offshore from San Carlos provided some first ever (for this trip) encounters. Following a large flock of Bonaparte's gulls, we started seeing the familiar wing pattern of Sabine's Gull. Three adults were mixed in the flock (a life bird for several clients and the local birder who was our boating host). A bit further out we steered toward a group of terns and gulls feeding actively. Soon we spotted almost a dozen Black-vented Shearwaters with several larger shearwaters mixed in which turned out to be Pink-footed. To cap a superb two hours of pelagic birding, we saw several fly by Least Storm Petrels and a lone Black Storm Petrel. Several close breaches by local rays were a highlight as well.
Continuing on to southern Sonora, we explored the tropical deciduous forest east and south of Alamos including the Reserva Monte Mojino managed by Nature and Culture International. Their effort to preserve tracts of uncut forest along the headwaters of the Rio Cuchujaqui is well worth supporting. Our birding highlights included Rusty-crowned Ground Sparrow, Bare-throated Tiger Heron, Crane Hawk, and the best and most prolonged views of Lesser Roadrunner I have ever had. Night birding at El Pedregal Lodge produced Buff-throated Nightjar, Elf Owl, and great looks at Western Screech Owl.
Moving into northern Sinaloa, we reached El Fuerte in late afternoon, with enough light to bird from the balcony of Hotel Rio Vista, aka Hotel Oriole as we quickly saw Black-vented, Streak-backed, Hooded and Orchard. Morning had us westbound on the Copper Canyon train. The 4.5 hour ride takes one through the most spectacular scenery of the western Sierra Madre. Departing the train up in pine/oak habitat, we headed to the Hotel Paraiso del Oso outside Cerocahui. Late afternoon birding revealed some local regulars including White-striped Woodcreeper, Elegant Trogon, and Slate-throated Redstart. At night we had brief vocal contact with Whiskered Screech Owl but the bird would not venture closer.
We awoke to a steady downpour, unheard of in spring in this part of Mexico so we were grounded until early afternoon. When we did venture out, activity was good on Mesa de Arturo with Crescent-chested Warbler and Olive Warbler topping the list. Looking down into a cloud and mist filled Barranca de Urique was a first for me. Next day we retraced our steps over the mesa for our descent into Urique. Close looks at Mountain Trogon highlighted that part of the trip, while the descent itself turned up White-eared Hummingbird, Spotted Wren and several Thick-billed Parrot vocalizations. Unfortunately, we could not locate the birds. Once a mile lower in the town of Urique, we returned to subtropical habitat. We headed north on the Naranjo road and, at an arroyo crossing, were surprised by an adult Tropical Parula-first one I have seen in the state of Chihuahua. Nearby, a Five-striped Sparrow came in very close giving us a head on view that left no doubt as to how it got its name.
Our following morning venture took us south of Urique to Arroyo Hacienda. Immediately I could hear Military Macaws in the distance. We located a group across the valley feeding (often upside down) on fruit. What a show. For the next 20 minutes we enjoyed various numbers of macaws flying out over the valley and back to the original feeding area. 22 individuals in all. Maybe these spectacular birds can survive the omnipresence of humans after all. We started our hike and saw a small group of parrots fly over that turned out to be Lilac-crowned (another Chihuahua first for me). Two members of the group got to view 13 of these magnificent birds perched close up. Further up the canyon, the Brown-backed Solitaires were singing-one of the most memorable songs in the bird world. We then lucked out with close encounters with Golden Vireo-the 5th year in a row the birds have been in this location. Northernmost outpost for this species that I am aware of. Following lunch, we ascended out of the canyon, pausing at the mirador one last time to see the vast and grand view of the western end of the Copper Canyon.
Our last day in the high country was a survey of the Rio Cuiteco north of Bahuichivo. This lush canyon is one of my favorite birding spots in Chihuahua. We quickly found Hooded Grosbeak and the dazzling Flame-colored Tanager but had to effort to lure out Gray-collared Becard. Finally a feisty male zoomed in, followed by his very different looking mate. We were unable to find Gray-crowned Woodpecker (first miss in the last 4 trips) but did have nice views of Rufous-capped Brushfinch and Russet Nightingale Thrush. Warblers were on the move including numbers of Hermit and Townsend's headed to the Pacific Northwest. The afternoon return train ride to El Fuerte was as glorious as ever.
Before breakfast on our last full day of birding, we headed to a nearby park along the Rio Fuerte. White-collared Seedeaters have settled in here as they spread up the west coast of Mexico following land clearing. Grayish Saltator gave us good looks as well. As we returned to the hotel, we had to stop to let about a dozen Elegant Quail cross the road. Our boat float on the Rio Fuerte was delightful. On the far shore, a guamuchil bush was fruiting so we had close up looks at a wide variety of birds including Great Kiskadee, Social Flycatcher, Northern Beardless Tyrranulet and Yellow Warbler. Nearby a newly returned Tropical Kingbird teed up for us. Further downriver, Felipe, our good natured guide, pointed out Red-billed Pigeon and Groove-billed Ani. Common Blackhawks and Ospreys are common here and certainly a treat to view up close. Just before our boat pull-out we managed to stir up a pair of Northern Jacanas and got to watch them dancing across the lily pads.
We then headed to the coast at Huatabampito. After lunch on the ocean (watching the Sanderlings play wave tag), we checked the nearby estuary. Tide was mid way out so we had great scoping from the dunes out on the mudflats. Both Black-bellied Plover and Ruddy Turnstone were in breeding plumage and Dunlin were in mid molt. Another first for the tour showed up as a pair of Least Terns came in and did some courtship moves for us. Gull-billed Tern was here as well. After checking the flats at Yavaros, with literally hundreds of Willet, Marbled Godwit, and Western Sandpiper, we blitzed north to San Carlos, getting to the beach wall behind our condo literally at sunset. Another memorable Mexico trip fittingly capped off!