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.
This venture to the Sacramento Mountains near Ruidoso in southeast NM was a trip for a bird photographer. With a number of species on his wishlist, we started early and headed to the Fort Stanton NCA (national conservation area). Basically, this is a pinyon/juniper habitat with interspersed grasslands and small groves of Ponderosa Pines. With many species of interest possible, we began predawn by playing for Montezuma Quail, a bird I had seen at this location in early May. Although we had several responses, no individuals came closer to us. We then pursued Black-chinned Sparrow, a bird at the east edge of its range, and found several active territories. This species can be shy outside of the breeding season but several males were singing from the tops of junipers. While taking photos of these birds, there was a fly-over of Pinyon Jays which we quickly pursued. Most seemed to be birds of the year with a few adults riding along with the herd. The swarming, raucous group feeding of this species is always entertaining. A fairly common species, Blue Grosbeak, was on my client's list and we were able to get photos of some territorial males. Certainly a beautiful species that is vocally talented.
Next stop was much higher up in mixed conifer at the edge of a recent burn. We had been told about a Spotted Owl territory that was actually located in the burn with a nest about 50 feet up in a broken off Ponderosa trunk. One fledgling was still in the nest tree but two more larger siblings were on the ground. One proceeded to climb up a sapling using its beak to hoist itself along while flapping its wings. Quite a sight. The adult female watched from a nearby tree-I surmised it could sense we meant the offspring no harm. As an unexpected bonus on the hike out, we encountered a pair of Three-toed Woodpeckers, amid a myriad of flickers and Hairy Woodpeckers, all working the recent burn. This area has few records for this woodpecker as it represents the extreme southeast point of its range.
In mid afternoon we were able to glimpse a Common Blackhawk on its nest along the Rio Hondo. This bird seems out of place along a drainage that is surrounded by desert. Later we checked another side canyon in pinyon/juniper habitat and were able to find two more species on the photo wishlist-Virginia's Warbler and Hepatic Tanager. The tanager seemed to be a first year male as it still sported some patches of yellow. We ended the day by calling in a Cassin's Sparrow on our way back to Santa Fe. This bird prospers in seasons of ample rain, such as this year, and combines its breeding song with a feeble display flight which it performs over and over.
With some clients from Louisiana, we ventured through a mix of habitats east of Santa Fe. Part of my love for the west is the diversity of landscapes within an easy day's drive. Starting in the desert grasslands southeast of town, we had close views of Scaled Quail, Curve-billed Thrasher and cousin Crissal who lives here at the extreme northeast edge of its breeding range. The scimitar bill of the latter species and its scintillating song are impressive indeed.
After a drive over Glorieta Pass we visited Los Trigos Ranch along a wild stretch of the Pecos River. The lush willow/cottonwood habitat is free of the invasive salt cedar that plagues the Pecos for much of its length. Yellow Warbler, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Plumbeous Vireo are all thriving in the dense riverside vegetation. On the nearby sandstone cliffs we were treated to the ringing chorus of Canyon Wren and the aerial exploits of a group of White-throated Swifts. Hopefully this ranch will remain a vibrant wildlife preserve for years to come.
We then headed up the Pecos drainage and higher up in elevation. Our destination, Dalton Canyon, is a mix of four different habitats all in one canyon. A portion is the site of a severe fire that still shows the scars of dead standing conifers. The understory, however, is thriving with dense oak and emergent aspen saplings. Certain species, such as Virginia's Warbler, Green-tailed Towhee, and Western Bluebird, all of which we viewed, find this habitat type to their liking. Along the creek itself, narrow-leaf Cottonwood, alder, and willow are all doing fine, especially during this atypically wet spring and early summer. This habitat is favored by Warbling Vireo, House Wren, and MacGillivray's Warbler, the latter somewhat hard to see but worth the effort. On the north side of the canyon (south facing) the dominant plant is ponderosa pine, where Grace's Warbler and Black-headed Grosbeak choose to make their homes. On the cooler south side of the canyon (north facing) various types of fir and aspen enjoy the somewhat more humid conditions. Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped Warblers, Western Tanager, Brown Creeper, and Mountain Chickadee all make this side of the canyon home. A pleasure to be able to experience these worlds within a world.