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.
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.