Moths at the Milnesand Lesser Prairie-Chicken Festival

This blog isn’t turning into ABQmothing! Many, many moths were strewn about the pavement outside the Milnesand community center when I returned from my Lesser Prairie-Chicken lek experience. Thanks to help from some folks at, I was able to put names to most of these moths (and one antlion).

Antlion, male

Male antlion, cf. Brachynemurus sackeni

Grammia incorrupta?

Some kind of tiger moth, possibly Grammia incorrupta

Ectypia bivittata

Ectypia bivittata, a tiger moth

Bird-dropping Moth species

Ponometia sp. cf. P. virginalis, a type of bird-dropping moth

Drasteria species

Drasteria sp. cf. Drasteria mirifica

Indomitable Melipotis, female

Female Indomitable Melipotis, Melipotis indomita

Forage Looper

Forage Looper, Caenurgina erechtea

Glaucina species

Glaucina sp. cf Glaucina interruptaria. These need dissection of genetalia or DNA analysis to identify to species.

Digrammia pervolata

Digrammia pervolata, a geometrid moth

Alfalfa Webworm

Alfalfa Webworm, Loxostege cereralis

Hystrichophora vestaliana

Hystrichophora vestaliana, a tortricid moth

White-lined Sphinx
White-lined Sphinx

White-lined Sphinx, Hyles lineata

The White-speck

Armyworm, or the White-Speck, Mythimna unipuncta

Sagebrush Girdle

Sagebrush Girdle, Plataea trilinearia

unknown moth

unknown moth

unknown geometer moth

unknown geometer moth

unknown moth

unknown moth

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The 11th Annual High Plains Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival!

Better late than never!

The small ranching town of Milnesand in eastern New Mexico passes as a blur of a few buildings as one drives past on NM route 206. All the residents live scattered around the crossroads on countless acres of ranch lands and the unique landscape of sand dunes covered with stunted bushes. This apparently featureless area, a place where early explorers and settlers got disoriented without any visible landmarks on the horizon, supports a unique ecosystem home to a species sought after by many birders: the Lesser Prairie-Chicken. Each year, Milnesand welcomes birders, photographers, and nature enthusiasts to its little crossroads to learn about the landscape, explore the natural history of the eastern New Mexico plains, and, of course, see prairie-chickens.

The Lesser Prairie-Chicken, Near Milnesand,  17 Apr 2011. Photo by J. N. Stuart, from Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Most grouse-like birds are known for bizzare mating rituals and displays by males. Prairie-chickens, sage-grouse, and the Sharp-tailed Grouse congregate on leks, open areas that are used solely for these displays. Males inflate air sacs in their necks with which they make hooting or popping noises, puff up their body and some head feathers, and stamp around alternatively trying to intimidate other males or impress the females that wander by. The chickens start displaying before first light and stop within an hour or so of sunrise, so birders who want to see the fascinating display must wake up early enough to get to a lek before the birds do.

Male Lesser Prairie-Chicken in full display, near Milnesand,  12 Apr 2012. Photo by J. N. Stuart, from Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Here is a video by YouTube user LM1313 of a Lesser Prairie-Chicken displaying:

This past spring, I was invited to attend the festival as a trip leader and guide birders on short excursions around Milnesand during the day. Although the prairie-chickens are the stars of the festival, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and migrant songbirds make for nice distractions later in the day. In fact, I guaranteed all my trips that we would see Scissor-tails and I was right!

I rode down to Milnesand with Christopher Rustay who has been birding in New Mexico for many years. We stopped at a few spots along the way including Santa Rosa where we found a singing Eastern Phoebe and the always-popular Melrose Trap which was fairly active with birds. Two Northern Parulas and White-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos stole the show, but the most unusual bird was a Worm-eating Warbler that took a bit of time to track down.

The center of operations for the Milnesand festival is the community center next to the fire house. Here all 100 official participants plus trip leaders were fed and entertained by community members. Local residents went all out on the meals!

Inside the community hall.

Buffet lunch. Those are real cowboy hats!

The first night there, I stayed in a guest house on the Weaver ranch east of town. The trees and small pond acted as a small migrant trap and the next morning we found a few birds in the area including Spotted Sandpiper and Field Sparrow. I also heard, for the first time, Lesser Prairie-Chickens off in the distance.

The guest house.

The pond at the ranch house with Spotted Sandpiper on the floating tire.

The denser trees around the Milnesand Crossroads are famous for drawing in migrating songbirds. The star of the show this year was a bright male Hooded Warbler that almost everyone got to see. A Summer TanagerBullock’s Oriole, and an Indigo Bunting rounded out the color show. Great Horned Owl nestlings just outside the community hall were a big attraction for the many photographers.

My tiny camera just couldn’t compete. Look hard in the middle of the picture and you might see a fluffy owl.

The field trips I led were fairly uneventful in terms of rare birds, but those who came with me on the Saturday afternoon trip enjoyed seeing Long-billed Curlews and a Ferruginous Hawk on a long drive west of town. My other officially led trip went to a private area known as Baker Playa near the Texas border. We were hoping for some shorebird migrants or Cassin’s Sparrows, but came up empty. We even missed the nesting Barn Owl in a dry water tank that I had seen the previous day on a scouting trip.

The road to Baker Playa.

Those small bushes in the photo above are shin oak, a tree that rarely grows more than shin high. The bulk of the tree is underground and the small bushes are actually the branch tips of trees mostly covered by sand. Shin oaks play a large role in stabilizing the sand dunes on the plains. Fires are common and without the oaks, sand spreads across the landscape.

Baker Playa, a small pond of water.

Mesquite around the playa.

The smoke trail on the horizon was from a small fire over the Texas border. It didn’t burn long, but was a reminder how susceptible the area is to wildfires. Although wildfires are beneficial to healthy ecosystems in many cases, the situation is complicated by people’s towns and houses as well as threatened and endangered species.

A cool barrel cactus by the playa.

The cactus had a nearby companion.

The remains of an old wagon.

After visiting the playa, we drove to a small corral with some trees in the hopes of some migrants. We didn’t find much, but the van driver got the van stuck for a bit. With some boards and a little luck, we got the van out of the sand trap without too much trouble.

Birders at the corral.

The stuck van. Many local churches donated the use of their vans for the weekend. The Milnesand area loves having birders visit each year and they know how much ecotourism can help a community.

The highlight of the whole weekend, however, is getting up around 3:30 to go see the prairie-chicken displays! Most people at the festival go out in the vans and watch the birds from the relative warmth of an enclosed vehicle. For a little extra money, those who want an open-air experience can sit in a re-purposed horse trailer for better photography. One of the participants on my Saturday trip graciously offered me his spot in the trailer on Sunday morning. He had hoped to go with his brother, but they couldn’t get a spot together on the same day. Also, he had been in the trailer other years and insisted that I go. Thanks Charles! Although I only had my little point-and-shoot, it was a great chance to sit comfortably in chairs and experience the displays with some great photographers and videographers.

In the trailer after sunrise.



Two males facing off on the lek.

One male crouched down. Was this submission or some other signal?

I enjoyed watching the various behaviors of the males and the one female that wandered by. 

Colin Adams, a birder from Albuquerque, and his father offered to drive me back to Albuquerque Sunday evening. We birded along the way home including a detour south to Tatum and its lovely sewage ponds and wetland habitat where some rare birds had been seen earlier in the day. We didn’t find much.

The wetland habitat downstream of the sewage ponds. It doesn’t smell much until you get around the back.

We also stopped at Boone’s Draw, a large stand of cottonwoods west of Portales that has held some very rare birds over the years. We were not lucky and a coming thunderstorm encouraged us to move on. Melrose trap was similarly slow and the wind and rain sprinkles didn’t help. We did find a large young Great Horned Owl sitting out in the open in an aspen.

This owl is easier to find!

Here are some video clips I took with my small camera.

Booming in the dark:

Male running past female:

Male face-off:

I’m very grateful to Tish McDaniel, who organizes the festival each year, for running such a great event and to Chrisropher Rustay, who asked me to help lead trips.

Posted in Albuquerque birding | 4 Comments

New Mexico migration May 7th

All I can really interpret from last night’s data is that a lot of birds were moving around Clovis. A classic ring pattern develops about halfway through the loop linked below at this site. Today could be a good day for the eastern migrant traps.

I haven’t had time to change the code to get all the images from the correct time. All loops run from about 1 AM to 10 AM. I won’t get to this until later in the week.

Click on any of the images below to view radar loops; base reflectivity on the left, base velocity on the right.

Albuquerque (KABX):

Loops from 12:58:58 AM to 10:05:43 AM

White Sands, NM (KHDX):

Loops from 12:57:40 AM to 9:55:51 AM

El Paso (KEPZ):

Loops from 1:00:42 AM to 9:54:02 AM

Clovis (KFDX):

Loops from 12:39:49 AM to 10:13:36 AM

Please send me feedback on when are where you find migrants!

For migration updates in other regions check-

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – The Northwoods BIRDAR by Max Henschell New England – Tom Auer’s blog
Florida/SE – Badbirdz Reloaded by Angel and Mariel Abreu
PA/Ohio Valley – Nemesis Bird by Drew Weber
NW Ohio – Birding the Crane Creek by Kenn Kaufman
Arizona – Words About Birds by Tim Schreckengost Pac NW – Birds Over Portland by Greg Haworth
Continental US – eBird BirdCast Forecast & Report by Team eBird

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New Mexico migration May 1st

I’ve joined a few birders around the country in posting migration forecasts based on weather radar data. The plan is to try to predict migration conditions from overnight and then use observations from local birders to verify or modify these predictions. Over time, the predictions should get better, but only with your feedback. So if you bird in New Mexico, leave a comment or send me an email with your observations of migraton conditions!

Thanks go to David La PumaDrew Weber, James Weber, and Mike Mills for writing php and bash scripts to automate this process.

Apologies for lack of radar maps and predictions for the past few days. As many others monitoring the radar found, the site was having difficulties and no images were available. The station for Albuquerque is still offline.

Due to a combination of unfamiliarity with the radar signals and some consistent weird patterns on all the radars, I’m having trouble interpreting these images. For example, on the White Sands radar, a long line in blue consistently forms between the station and the Rio Grande. The color is right for birds, but are these birds? On the Clovis radar, there are often high-intensity stationary patterns that would be suggestive of precipitation if they moved. Last night, movement of potential birds and other particles shifted from northeast to southeast. Is this accurate? Also, the images go from about 12:50 AM to 7:50 AM, and the window of migration should be from just after sunset to sunrise. I’ll be able to tweak the code for this soon.

The one interpretation I can make is that many birds were flying over El Paso, TX north into New Mexico. Movement was to the northeast throughout the night, so conditions are better for more typical New Mexico migrants or western migrants rather than vagrants blown in from the east. I also noticed one concentration of birds near dawn just south of Caballo Lake. This is area has one of the last stands of bosque vegetation before a long stretch of cleared banks and two reservoirs through the desert, making it a fantastic migrant trap. Last week a Red-faced Warbler and a Kentucky Warbler were found there.

Click on any of the images below to view radar loops; base reflectivity on the left, base velocity on the right.

Albuquerque (KABX):

KABX is still offline and has been since 4/28

White Sands, NM (KHDX):

El Paso (KEPZ):

Clovis (KFDX):

Please send me feedback on when are where you find migrants!

For migration updates in other regions check-

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – The Northwoods BIRDAR by Max Henschell <- NEW!
New England – Tom Auer’s blog
Florida/SE – Badbirdz Reloaded by Angel and Mariel Abreu
PA/Ohio Valley – Nemesis Bird by Drew Weber
NW Ohio – Birding the Crane Creek by Kenn Kaufman
Arizona – Words About Birds by Tim Schreckengost <- NEW!
Pac NW – Birds Over Portland by Greg Haworth
Continental US – eBird BirdCast Forecast & Report by Team eBird

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New Mexico migration April 27th

I’ve joined a few birders around the country in posting migration forecasts based on weather radar data. The plan is to try to predict migration conditions from overnight and then use observations from local birders to verify or modify these predictions. Over time, the predictions should get better, but only with your feedback. So if you bird in New Mexico, leave a comment or send me an email with your observations of migraton conditions!

Thanks go to David La Puma, Drew Weber, James Weber, and Mike Mills for writing php and bash scripts to automate this process.

I’ll go into the details in a later post (after the Thesis Draft) about how NEXRAD data can be used to tell if and where birds are migrating at night, but below is an example of a basic radar map for the continental U.S. All the blue circular areas are showing areas where birds (and some bats and insects) are flying.

NEXRAD composite image for May 1st 2008 at 10:25 PM MST

From the Great Plains east, the radar strikingly shows migration. Over the course of a night, blue circles would appear around radar stations, grow bigger, and then decrease in size towards dawn. In New Mexico, the pattern is rarely as obvious. One reason could be the odd radar coverage in the state due to long mountain ranges.

Dark tan indicates areas without NEXRAD coverage. 

Click on any of the images below to view radar loops.


Holloman AFB:

El Paso:


I apologize for not having time to analyze these data and describe what you see in the radar images. I can’t even find my link to a summary of how radar can pick up migrants on images and how we can tell what we see. Next time (The Thesis Draft and other obligations call).

Please send me feedback on when are where you find migrants!

For migration updates in other regions check-

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – The Northwoods BIRDAR by Max Henschell <- NEW!
New England – Tom Auer’s blog
Florida/SE – Badbirdz Reloaded by Angel and Mariel Abreu
PA/Ohio Valley – Nemesis Bird by Drew Weber
NW Ohio – Birding the Crane Creek by Kenn Kaufman
Arizona – Words About Birds by Tim Schreckengost <- NEW!
Pac NW – Birds Over Portland by Greg Haworth
Continental US – eBird BirdCast Forecast & Report by Team eBird

Posted in Albuquerque birding, birdar | 3 Comments

High desert flowers at the Petroglyphs

Some friends visited for a few days last week and, as they enjoy hiking and the outdoors, Melissa and I did our best to show them the best Albuquerque has to offer. We made it out to the Piedras Marcadas area of Petroglyph National Monument early in the visit where we found the desert in bloom. I never made it out to the West mesa last spring, so this may be normal, but it seems like it hasn’t been quite as dry. The greater abundance of butterflies and moths this spring compared to last must be due to something.

Flowers in the desert!

One of the most common flowers a bit farther along the trail was Freckled milkvetch, a kind of purple legume with large, speckled, green pods. Some kind of duskywing skipper was flying around near these plants and once it landed, I got a great view of a Funereal Duskywing, a new butterfly for me. Desert vetches are typical host plants for this species.

Freckled milkvetch (Astragalus lentiginosus), a legume and host plant for Funereal Dukywing. Thanks to Mom for the identification!

Freckled milkvetch pods

Fence lizards (or Prairie/Plateau lizards) were out and about on many of the basalt boulders, but one last lizard we found was a horned lizard trying to hind under and in a small bush. Based on the patterns of horns on the head, location, and elevation, this is a Round-tailed Horned Lizard (pdf guide to US horned lizard species). (When another friend visited last September, we found a Greater Short-horned Lizard at the top of the Sandias.)

Round-tailed Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma modestum). Pretty cute for a reptile.

Just a few more photos of flowers.

Purple scorpion weed (Phacelia strictiflora)


Gordon’s Bladderpod (Lesquerella gordonii)

Canaigre dock (Rumex hymenosepalus) also known as Desert rhubarb

My goal this year is to start paying more attention to damselflies and dragonflies. Without a net and a good camera, identifying them in the field is turning out to be a little difficult. Several Common green darners were flying along some of the washes, very far from water.  No photos of dragonflies, but the Ancestral Pueblo People left a few dragonfly petroglyphs on the boulders.

Dragonfly petroglyph

A sage plant with exposed roots

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Evolution of early birds produced some odd species. It can be hard to imagine the real, three dimensional bird from the often flattened and compressed fossils, but in an interview at the Wired Science blog, Luis Chiappe describes what some early birds might have looked like to time-traveling birders and shows photos of the fossil specimens.

I’m not a big fan of Wired Science’s slideshows–mostly I don’t like to click to move ahead to each picture and description. But in this slideshow in particular, I think they should have also shown reconstructions of the bird taxa to better accompany Chiappe’s descriptions. I found a number of free-use images online of early bird reconstructions. Some of these may not be accurate reconstructions, but they seem to fit the fossils illustrated on the blog post linked above.

Shenzhouraptor (AKA Jeholornis), pencil drawing by Wikipedia user ArthurWeasley based on skeletal by Scott Hartmann. Used under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Sapeornis chaoyangensis by Peter Gryz, found at

Restoration of Confuciusornis sanctus. Illustration by Wikipedia user Matt Martyniuk. Used under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Restoration of Changchengornis. Illustration by Wikipedia user Conty. The illustration is based on images found here: [1] and [2]Used under CC BY 3.0.

Longipteryx chaoyangensis, pencil drawing, digital coloring by Nobu Tamura. Used under CC BY 3.0.

Rapaxavis pani by Peter Gryz, found at

Hongshanornis longicresta by unknown artist found at

Eoenantiornis redrawn by Peter Gryz from Picture Book of Chinese Fossil Birds by Hou (2000), found at

A few more taxa not included in the blog post:

Iberomesornis reconstruction at the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales in Madrid. Photo by José-Manuel Benito Álvarez who placed it in the public domain.

Eoconfuciusornis zhengi digital reconstruction by Nobu Tamura. Used under CC BY 3.0.

Epidexipteryx hui digital reconstruction by Nobu Tamura. Used under CC BY 3.0.

Shanweiniao cooperorum digital reconstruction by Nobu Tamura. Used under CC BY 3.0.

Posted in from other blogs, paleornithology | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Green butterflies: better than green beer

My birding and butterfly-ing time has been limited recently, so I made it priority to get out into the foothills during yesterday’s pleasant weather before spring’s last (?) wind and snow hit the area. Joe and I met up to find some Sandia Hairstreaks in Embudito Canyon.

Sandia Hairstreak in Embudito Canyon. By Joe Schelling.

I coaxed one on to my hand. By Joe Schelling.

We found about half a dozen Sandia Hairstreaks, but our luck on this trip filled in the rest of the Irish flag with the white and orange of a “Sara” Orangetip!

“Sara” Orangetip, likely a Southwestern Orangetip. My little camera came through for me with this bug!

Why the quotes? The taxonomy of the western orangetips is confusing. All populations were once considered one variable species, but close attention to regional variation shows distinct groups. The ranges of each group aren’t well delineated.

Fantastic looking butterfly!

Other butterflies included a skipper of some kind, a Mourning Cloak, and a couple dozen Painted Ladies. This species is undergoing a big flight in the southwest, with up to 10s of thousands seen in Mexico. Fewer are here in New Mexico, but their numbers are on the rise.

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Red-backed Dark-eyed Juncos at the Sandia Crest

This post is not about my sightings, and may a bit dry for those not fascinated with Dark-eyed Junco population distributions and taxonomy. Be forewarned!

(I also promised more science on the blog…and a discussion of Cackling Geese. That will have to wait until I finish some more pressing science matters: my Master’s thesis! One month away…)

The common Dark-eyed Junco population that breeds in New Mexico is the Gray-headed Dark-eyed Junco, Junco hyemalis caniceps. These birds are uniformly gray above and below with dark lores, pink bill, and a reddish back.

Gray-headed Junco in Sierra County, NM. Taken by Jerry Oldenettel and used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

New Mexico also has the Red-backed Dark-eyed Junco, Junco hyemalis dorsalis, which looks nearly identical to the Gray-headed Junco. It differs in having the throat and breast slightly lighter gray than the upperparts and a bicolored bill. The maxilla is dark and the mandible is dull pink. The Red-backed breeds along the Mogollon Rim in Arizona and New Mexico, but its distribution is not well known due to confusion with Gray-headed Juncos.

Red-backed Junco in Arizona. Taken by Celeste Ramsay and used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

One Red-backed Junco have been spotted recently at the Sandia Crest House to the north and east of their usual range. The banders even captured it last weekend, allowing close inspection of plumage and size characters. Those photos don’t show the underparts or the mandible very well, but the maxilla is quite dark. I have seen Gray-headed Juncos with a dark culmen (the top ridge of the bill) and otherwise bright pink bills. Is this normal variaiton or evidence of introgression between the two populations?

Like many variable species such as Dark-eyed Juncos, the situation is even more confusing. The plumage, vocalizations, and genetics of Red-backed Juncos are closer to Yellow-eyed Juncos, Junco phaeonotus. Red-backed Juncos seem to form a bridge between Dark-eyed and Yellow-eyed Juncos. In which species do they really belong?

The more common Gray-headed Juncos at the Crest House are often misidentified as Red-backed Juncos by visitors (including myself at first!). I know the banders have caught very few Red-backed Juncos; they do occur, but very infrequently.

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Alameda Bridge Mew Gull

Trying to point out a bird to just one other person can be hard enough. Add a few dozen people and the difficulty increases. When that bird is a distant gull standing in a sea of other nearly identical gulls and you are the only one who has seen it…well, it can be almost impossible.

That’s the situation I found myself in last week on a Thursday birder trip to the Alameda Bridge and Open Space in northern Albuquerque. Hundreds of Ring-billed Gulls loaf on sandbars in the Rio Grande north and south of the bridge and at times the large flock contains individuals of rarer species. This winter, single birds of four unusual species have been found: immature Thayer’s Gull, adult Mew Gull, adult Franklin’s Gull, and adult California Gull. The first two wandered here from the Pacific coast; the last two are expected in migration, but unusual in winter. Even more unusual is that the Franklin’s Gull is in full breeding plumage.

The four rare gull species found this winter at the Alameda Bridge. Clockwise from top right: immature Thayer’s Gull, adult Mew Gull, adult California Gull, and adult Franklin’s Gull. THGU in NM by Jerry Odenettel, MEGU in WA by Tom Talbot, CAGU in NV by J. N. Stuart, and FRGU in UT by Bryant Olsen. All photos used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 except FRGU under CC BY-NC 2.0.

When the gull flock rests south of the bridge, birders can search for the rare species from a fairly close distance only a short stroll from the parking lot. But if the flock is north of the bridge, a scope is essential for even decent views from the bridge itself or the east side of the river. Birders willing to put in more effort can walk over the bridge and then north through the bosque on the Corrales side of the river, although there are no official trails to follow along the river banks.

The gull flock last Thursday. The Mew Gull is eight gulls in from the right!

Close to 40 birders joined the trip last week–a huge number for one of these outings. The group ended up spread out along the riverbank trail trying to get direct views of the flock of gulls. I hadn’t brought my scope along due to some missing screws in the tripod legs, but I eventually scanned the flock through another birder’s scope. One gull caught my eye: it seemed to lack a black ring on the bill, but it wouldn’t stop preening. Some other birders took a peek and saw which bird I was looking at. Now the task of trying to describe where it was to everyone else. Wait, no, the bigger metal jetty jack beam. On the near edge of the flock, oh wait, it walked away from us behind two other gulls. Because of the angle between us and the edge of the flock, there was enough parallax between one end of the group and the other that describing the position of the Mew Gull only worked for each scope.

I think most birders in the group who wanted to get a look at the gull were able to. Gulls aren’t for everyone, and when the views aren’t that great and the bird doesn’t look much different from the gulls on either side of it, many birders can lose interest, understandably. Later in the trip, I offered to lead any who wanted a better look at the gull along the west side of the river. Eight of us walked north through the now very open bosque (most plants except for willows and cottonwoods have been bulldozed away). About half of the gulls had flown south, so there was no guarantee we’d get that better look. Luck was with us, and we found it! Even though we were closer, we sill had trouble picking it out as it walked and swam among the Ring-billed Gulls. From the new angle, depending on the lighting, the darker mantle color was clear.

This may not be the worst Mew Gull photo ever, but it’s close.

Success! My side trip paid off. The Mew Gull was a life bird for many in the group.

One birder on the trip was visiting from Massachusetts and was eager to see Cackling Geese. I ran into him later at the Rio Grande Nature Center where we had a short conversation about what exactly a Cackling Goose was and what all those tiny geese on the pond were. This topic will make a great next blog post, and one that I hope will shift the focus of my blog from merely local bird sightings to a more scientific look at the birds we see around us.

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