With two Canadian birders, we headed south from Santa Fe to the desert foothills on the west side of the Sandia Mts. I decided to include a deciduous riparian stop along the Rio Grande River just north of Albuquerque. Among the species typical of that habitat, such as Black Phoebe, Blue Grosbeak, and Lesser Goldfinch, we also found a beautiful adult male Summer Tanager. Somewhat of a surprise as the sighting was a bit late in the season and near the northern limit of where the species occurs in NM. Continuing on to the canyons on the west side of the Sandia Mts, we added a number of desert species including Rufous-crowned and Black-throated Sparrows, Cactus Wren, Curve-billed Thrasher, and Gambel's Quail. My clients' most sought after species, Greater Roadrunner, still eluded us. Although I was aware that we were well past the breeding season, I decided to try playback anyway. Within a couple minutes, a roadrunner popped up among the boulders on a ridge in front of us. We watched it forage for about 15 minutes during which time the bird chased away the local Canyon Towhees on several occasions. Apparently the roadrunner did not appreciate competition for the ripe orange berries on a nearby shrub.
We then moved higher to a spring in Tijeras Canyon finding some typical foothill species such as Plumbeous Vireo, Juniper Titmouse, Bushtit and Western Scrub Jay. Still higher up in Ponderosa Pine we encountered other permanent resident birds that were new for my clients-Mountain Chickadee, Steller's Jay, Pygmy Nuthatch, and Townsend's Solitaire. A migrant Townsend's Warbler from the pacific northwest on its way to Mexico was a nice addition.
The trip ended with a swing through prairie habitat near Stanley where we found Western Bluebird, scads of Vesper Sparrows, and a lingering Swainson's Hawk.
With breeding season over and birdsong at a minimum, August birding presents some new challenges. With a group of Chicago birders in tow, I decided to survey the largest cross section of habitats possible in a day near Santa Fe. Starting in desert habitat at the edge of the Galisteo Basin we found some species typical of the area including Curve-billed Thrasher, Scaled Quail, and Ladder-backed Woodpecker. Heading east over Glorieta pass we visited a private ranch on the Pecos River. In pinyon/juniper habitat we found Gray Flycatcher, Plumbeous Vireo, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and what turned out to be the last Ash-throated Flycatchers of the summer. Along the river itself there were still lingering breeders such as Blue Grosbeak, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Cordilleran Flycatcher. An added piece of excitement was a close encounter with a Prairie Rattlesnake near the trail that was stalking a young chat in a nearby bush. All we could do was admire the snake and wish the chat well.
Moving to higher elevation, we paused in a meadow that had scattered pines to enjoy some Western Bluebirds. I spotted a flying bird with quite a bit of white in the wing which turned out to be an adult male Williamson's Sapsucker. As the species departs northern New Mexico in winter, I suspected it was a migrant moving out of the mountains. Arriving in Dalton Canyon, we were able to locate other southern Rocky Mt specialties such as Grace's, Virginia's, and MacGillivray's Warblers. Heading further up the Pecos canyon, we enjoyed the myriad of hummingbirds at the Terrero Store including an adult male Calliope. Our last stop at the start of the Elk Mt road gave us some additional Ponderosa Pine zone birds such as Pygmy Nuthatch and Red-naped Sapsucker. Just before heading home I followed a woodpecker tapping sound and located what I thought to be a female Hairy Woodpecker. But the youngest birder in our group noticed some different field marks. Sure enough, upon closer examination, the two woodpeckers in question turned out to be first year male Three-toed. A great find to end the day and a useful lesson to stick with an observation until all other possibilities are exhausted. It's a good thing that the learning never ends.
Lincoln County, best known for the mountain resort town of Ruidoso, is located in southeast New Mexico. As it is a 3 hour drive from Santa Fe, I decided to stay an extra day after my tour on the 8th. The highlight of that outing was a very close encounter with two juvenile Spotted Owls under the watchful eyes of the two vigilant adults. Often these birds nest in conifers that have had their tops blown off or hit by lightning. In this case, the adults chose a cavity about 5 feet down from the top of a 40 foot high "decapitated" fir. The two juveniles, still covered with beige down, were in separate trees. A local forester informed us that they have observed juveniles not yet capable of flight actually walking on the ground from one tree to the next! Needless to say, a life birding highlight for my client.
On my own scouting day, I found a mix of both eastern and western species as Lincoln County is home to several species at the edge of their ranges. Birds such as Indigo Bunting and Common Grackle can be found within a few miles of Sierra Madrean Oak species such as Hepatic Tanager and Acorn Woodpecker. Some trip highlights included a very close view of 2 male Montezuma Quail one evening at dusk. Since the summer rains had started, the birds were beginning to be vocal as they entered their breeding season. The rest of the year they are silent and very difficult to find. Night birding was productive as well, with both N. Pygmy, Flammulated, and N. Saw-whet Owls all sounding off. A Mexican Whip-poor-will, responding to tape, even flew right in and landed in a low bush only eight feet away. Probably a good thing I was not camping at that spot or I would have listened to that bird for a very long time.