My first Roswell CBC was blessed with almost 60 degree weather and no wind. Our route covered a major portion within the refuge. Starting in Unit 7 about an hour after sunrise, we were treated to wave after wave of Sandhill Cranes launching from their night roost to the agricultural fields to the south. Around 2500 went over us with their vocalizations being almost as impressive as their majestic flight. Once the group had departed, we started the somewhat less glorious work of counting all waterfowl, sparrows, etc. Roswell is warm enough in winter to shelter some shorebirds and we found several species including Greater Yellowlegs, Long-billed Dowitcher and Wilson's Snipe. Several lingering egrets were around-Snowy and Great. The sparrow show was strong with many Swamp and Song Sparrows cozy in the bulrushes.
One of our major quests of the count was rails and bitterns. We were able to encounter several Sora and American Bitterns, but the highlight of the day was Virginia Rail. We kept playing tape and walking and getting responses. By the end of the day we recorded a staggering 32 Virginia Rails. Wonder if this will be the high count nationally for that species.
The rest of the count had other highlights including a co-operative Prairie Falcon, a day-roosting Great Horned Owl, and a surprisingly late Common Yellowthroat. I will certainly do this count again in the future.
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.