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.
With breeding season in full swing in northern New Mexico, we set out to sample 5 major habitats. Before crossing Glorieta Pass into the Pecos River drainage, we stopped briefly at a desert grassland and found Curve-billed Thrasher, Scaled Quail, and Canyon Towhee. Once on the east side of the pass, we headed to Los Trigos Ranch on the Pecos River just east of Rowe. There we surveyed pinyon/juniper habitat and found Black-throated Gray Warbler (at the extreme eastern edge of its range), Juniper Titmouse, Gray Flycatcher, and Pinyon Jay. Next we dropped to the cottonwood/willow habitat along the river and were entertained by Yellow-breasted Chats doing their floppy display flights as well as the choruses of Blue Grosbeak and Gray Catbird (at the western edge of its breeding range). The surrounding sandstone cliffs are home to not only a swarm of Cliff Swallows but White-throated Swift as well.
Next we ventured closer to the headwaters of the Pecos finding cooperative MacGillivray's and Grace's Warblers along the way. Slightly higher in ponderosa/oak we encountered regulars such as Plumbeous Vireo, Pygmy Nuthatch, Dusky Flycatcher, and Virginia's Warbler-the latter almost always associated with oak in NM. (A birder friend says it should be renamed "Oak Warbler" since there has never been a record in Virginia!). Moving higher into the lower end of spruce/fir/aspen we located both Hammond's and Cordilleran Flycatchers (to complete our 4 "empid" day), Williamson's Sapsucker, Green-tailed Towhee, and Evening Grosbeak.
As our tour time was up, we made an attempt for one last specialty of the Pecos-American Dipper. Heading to an active nest on a large rock overhang that I had found about a month earlier, I realized the young had fledged and gone. Dippers can be hard to find when not going back and forth to a nest but we started downstream on foot anyway in hopes of a chance encounter. That's exactly what we got at the junction of the first sidestream. As we crossed a small footbridge, an adult dipper was posing on a rock 6 feet away. We were close enough to see its extra eyelid blinking every time it popped back out of the water. And to think, this bird does not migrate even in below zero conditions with the river partially frozen. A true icon of the Rocky Mountains.
Our Big Day effort this year was fun and frustrating. Fun because we got to search for birds from 2:30am to 10:30pm-what's not to like about that? Frustrating because our carefully scouted starting strategy backfired on us and by 8:00am we were over an hour behind. Live and learn. Now on to the fun stuff. Near our overnight camping spot, the Elf Owls piped up beautifully to get our day rolling. The dawn chorus at a desert canyon in the Guadalupe Mountains produced the expected species(including the very melodic Scott's Oriole) with a bonus of White-throated Swifts launching off the top of the escarpment just after dawn. In the first two hours of desert and deciduous riparian birding we encountered great birds like Hooded and Orchard Orioles, Varied, Lazuli, Indigo, and Painted Buntings, Gray Hawk, and a totally surprising adult male Purple Martin cruising over a local pond. We headed north (albeit an hour behind schedule) and, at our last desert stop, found some missed birds from earlier-Pyrrhuloxia, Lesser Nighthawk, and Curve-billed Thrasher. Going through Carlsbad we picked up Inca Dove at a known location but missed Chimney Swift even though my co-counter hung out the car window listening the whole drive through town. After picking up Western and Clark's Grebes at a nearby lake, we were racing north to Roswell.
The middle of the day centered around Bitter Lake NWR. Shorebirding there was better than average with Willet, Dunlin, Marbled Godwit, and Stilt Sandpiper all welcome additions. Unfortunately, the large flock of Long-billed Curlews with 1 Whimbrel that we had seen the afternoon before had moved on. Waterfowl diversity was about average but by some unexpected twist of birding fate, we were unable to find a Great Egret. The birding gods made up for that miss however by letting us stumble on a late American Bittern-first recording of that bird in eight runs on the same Big Day route. Great to see the bittern fly and short distance and immediately point it's bill skyward after landing in the reeds. I felt sorry for it panting in the 98 degree heat! Savannah and Clay-colored Sparrows were good additions before we headed bay through town and found Burrowing Owl and Mississippi Kite.
The last third of the count takes place in higher elevations around Ruidoso. Our lack of time and moderate winds limited our finds as we recorded only about 2/3 of our pine forest breeding birds. We ran out of light, grabbed some dinner and then went back out for the rest of our night birding. Not only did we find Mexican Whip-poor-will, but all three area owls as well-Spotted, Flammulated, and Northern Saw-whet-giving us a record 8 species of owls for the day. Another adrenalin and memory-filled Big Day came to an end as we set up camp and collapsed into our sleeping bags at about 11:45pm