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I have run out of superlatives to describe the magic of New Mexico! Every year is different, and every year is filled with the same magic as the year before.
This year the weather was downright balmy compared to last year. Afternoon temperatures were in the high 50’s, the skies were blue, and there was almost no wind so both birding and photography were very pleasant.
This year we did two back-to-back tours: one for birding, one for photography. On each tour, the bird list averaged 100 species.
After a welcome dinner and a good night’s sleep in Albuquerque, it was up at dawn to explore the canyon lands only minutes from our hotel. Target species here were the Black-throated Sparrow, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Cactus Wren, the interior race of the Western Scrub-Jay, Curve-billed Thrasher, and Cassin’s Finch. After successfully adding those to our lists, we visited other desert scrub habitats for the Sage Sparrow and Sage Thrasher. Though extremely shy and usually hidden in the mesquite in winter, in my favorite go-to spot we managed to see three Sage Sparrows along with two cooperative Sage Thrashers and bushels of White-crowned Sparrows.
With those two safely in our “pockets,” it was off to another National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) for a late afternoon look at the thousands of Sandhill Cranes as they came into the fields to feed and roost for the day. While waiting for sundown, we were able to tick off Song Sparrow, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Ferruginous Hawk, Prairie Falcon, Spotted Towhee, Pine Siskin, American and Lesser Goldfinches, Western Meadowlark, and Red-tailed Hawk.
Our patience was amply rewarded by a sunset with a simultaneous full-moonrise. Geese and cranes by the thousands flew in front of the sun and the moon as they departed the fields, headed for the roosting ponds nearby. The bugling of thousands of cranes and the sound of their wings through the wind as they flew close overhead, combined with the sunset, full moon, and stunning landscape, is an experience one will never forget. I have witnessed it a dozen times and I still get goose bumps (no pun intended). And we hadn’t even made it to Bosque del Apache yet!!
We start off every morning with a five a.m. breakfast so that we can be on-site to witness the Sandhills and Snow Geese “blast off” from the pools where they’d spent the night.
Although there were a few days when sunrise was obscured by clouds, it was still a sight to behold: first, the Sandhill Cranes took off in small groups; then, there was a sudden eruption of thousands of Snow and Ross’s leaving the ponds and flying directly over our heads. Almost five thousands birds were gone within minutes, but the fun had just begun.
We made our way to the Visitors Center of the Bosque del Apache NWR. Having already purchased our Federal Duck Stamp that allows entry to all national parks, we started with birding the parking lot. After all, some of the best birds are always seen in parking lots!! To prove the point, we found Pyrrhuloxia, Bewick’s Wren, Mountain Chickadee, Common Raven, and an unexpected Green-tailed Towhee (spotted by sharp-eyed Sandy Cooper). Bosque has two wonderful auto tour routes on which we spent a good part of the day, scouring the many impoundments for the 75,000 ducks that are there in winter. The majority of the ducks are N.Pintail but we did also see N.Shoveler, Canvasback, Bufflehead, L.Scaup, Mallard, Am.Wigeon, and Ruddy Ducks. All but the Ruddy were in breeding plumage.
Other highlights were a Golden Eagle (taking a Snow Goose and eating it in less than twenty minutes), Road Runner, Gamble’s Quail, Say’s Phoebe, Black Phoebe, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Northern Flicker (red-shafted), Ferruginous Hawk, many confusing morphs of the Red-tailed Hawk, and a surprising all white (leucistic) Sand Hill Crane.
Not to be left out of the show were some ten thousand Snow and Ross’s Geese, feeding in the corn fields. An unseen predator or some other undetectable signal would cause all the geese to blast off at the same time, filling the sky with noise and “snow.” Taking a picture does not do the sight justice, though some people recorded both sight and sound on their video setups. It was pure magic!!!!
Although I could stay in Bosque NWR for the entire period, the group opted to go to a different habitat to have the chance of seeing other birds and landscapes. We made our way west toward the Magdalena Mountains and the grasslands. We were rewarded for our efforts with great looks (although a bit far off to photograph) at a herd of Pronghorn Antelopes feeding among the local cattle. A stock pond attracted McCown’s and Chestnut-collared Longspurs and Horned Larks. The brush and cactus near the road yielded Crissal Thrasher, Curve-billed Thrasher, and Canyon Towhee.
Making our way up the mountain to higher elevations, eagle-eyed Jeanne Dubi spotted a Great Horned-Owl sleeping in a small cavern on the cliff face some two hundred yards away. Then we were treated to Western Bluebirds, Bushtit, White-breasted Nuthatch, Townsend’s Solitaire, Western Scrub Jay, Acorn Woodpecker, and a very brief look at Pygmy Nuthatch.
Last but not least was a thirteen mile trip up the Sandia Crest Road in search of all three Rosy Finches. On the way up, we had close views of the wild looking Abert’s Squirrel. It has a charcoal-gray body, a white bushy tail, and comical long pointed ears with white wisps at the tips. Another treat was a few Evening Grosbeaks: Grosbeaks are rarely seen here, but two males and females put in a brief show for us. Once at the top of the Crest Road, we were at 10,700 feet— the prime area for finches and crossbills.
While we saw Red Crossbills, Mountain Chickadees, Dark eyed Juncos, Stellar’s Jay, and Red-breasted Nuthatch, the main reason for making the journey was a chance to see all three Rosy Finches. The first tour group was treated to extended looks at all three species — Gray-crowned, Brown-capped, and Black —and photo ops were possible. Unfortunately for the second group, the mountain-top was “plagued” by marauding Merlin, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Peregrine Falcon, and a Bald Eagle. Because of their presence, the finches were reluctant to land. Although we saw a flock of about thirty finches, they made only two appearances flying past our observation platform at 30 miles per hour. After five hours and very near sundown, they finally came to the conifers close to where we were, but only for twenty seconds: then they were gone!!! In that brief wink, we were able to i.d. and photograph the Black- and Gray-crowned. Not the most rewarding look, but lifers for many who had waited so long.
Wherever we go and whatever we see on the New Mexico tour, we are assured of amazing vistas, beautiful landscapes, and a birding experience never to be forgotten.
Next December is a whole year away, but I’m already looking forward to going back. Join me!! Call or write for details, and be sure to visit the gallery.

New Mexico, Bosque Del Apache -December 2013

It was a Bosque blast (-off) again!!!! Although mornings were bone-chilling cold, we were again treated to the wonders of 40,000 Snow and Ross’s Geese, 15,000 Sandhill Cranes, and ten species of raptors, just to name a few of the many wonders we experienced at Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.
Spanish for “Woods of the Apache,” Bosque was established as a refuge for migrating waterfowl, Sandhill Cranes, and Snow Geese. Tens of thousands of geese, cranes and ducks (over 100,000 this year!!) congregate in the many water impoundments and surrounding corn fields that provide them with winter sustenance and us with fantastic viewing and photography opportunities.
Located just twenty minutes south of Socorro, New Mexico, Bosque offers a quick access from the highway, allowing us to spend less time on the road and more time in the field.
We start off each morning just before sunrise at the Crane Pools, where hundreds of Sandhill Cranes spend the night roosting in the water, safe from coyotes. With the sun rising, the cranes begin lifting off in family groups heading for nearby feeding fields. After the crane exodus, we head to the wildlife drive inside the refuge. Fifteen miles of well-traveled gravel roads offer a great opportunity to see both birds and animals close up. Bufflehead, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Canvasback, and American Wigeon, by the tens of thousands can be seen. Elk, deer, javelina, panther, and coyote are all possible.
With all the waterfowl, ground squirrels and lizards at the refuge, one can expect to see ten species of raptors that include Bald Eagle, Golden Eagle, Ferruginous Hawk, Merlin, Kestrel, Prairie Falcon, Peregrine Falcon, Rough-legged Hawk (rare), N. Harrier, all three accipiters, and enough variations of Red-tailed Hawks to make even an expert dizzy.
Within the corn fields are thousands of Snow and Ross’s Geese. It’s amazing enough to see that many birds in one spot, but, when frightened by the intrusion of a coyote or the sudden alarm call of a nearby goose, they all blast off as one group and cover the sky in a swirling mass of white wings. It’s no wonder they are called Snow Geese. Not only are they pure white (with a touch of black on the wing tips) but it really looks like snow with that many in the air at one time
Outside the refuge, we explore other parks and canyons to look for some of the desert species that won’t be seen at Bosque. The much sought-after Crissal’s Thrasher, Sage Thrasher, Western Scrub Jay, Bushtit, Pyrrhuloxia, Black-throated Sparrow, and Gambel’s Quail, to name a few. Then we visit some high elevation locations for Mountain Chickadee, Pine Grosbeak, Black-backed Woodpecker, Stellar’s Jay, and all three species of the Rosy Finch.
Whether you are a photographer or birder or both, there is always something magical happening at the Bosque. We run tours every December and, in 2014 due to high demand, we are offering two tours back-to-back. Even though it’s almost a year away, the first tour is sold out already!!! With a ten-passenger van and a maximum of eight participants, there is plenty of room for both your comfort and your equipment.