Each Thursday morning, the Central New Mexico Audubon Society has a bird trip to spots around Albuquerque. This week, we went to the Belen Marsh (also known as the Taco Bell Marsh) and the recently-opened Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area near Belen, about 30 minutes south of Albuquerque. I rode down with a retired couple who were a pleasure to talk to about their various birding trips to Central America and the Caribbean. Someday I’ll go there too! Burrowing Owls (Valencia County bird #68) live near the marsh and can sometimes be seen from the Taco Bell parking lot. We found one on Thursday
The marsh is a short walk down the road from the Taco Bell. The residents nearby know the marsh is a hot spot and many of them waved to us as they drove by. Birders can sometimes cause tensions when birding along public roads, but the Belen Marsh seems to be one place where everyone gets along. The marsh is not natural, but formed when soil and rock were removed for building a nearby road. Shallow groundwater then filled up the basin.
We first found some Mallards and some teal in eclipse plumage. Blue-winged and Cinnamon Teal are both present, but are difficult to distinguish during this time of the year, when they look brown like the females. A Spotted Sandpiper fed along the shore in plain view while a Wilson’s Snipe (Valencia County bird #69) hid in the shadows of the reeds and was much harder to see. Movement in the reeds at the edge of the water turned out to be a Virginia Rail (Valencia County bird #70 and New Mexico bird #179). Not everyone got looks at this often secretive bird.
We spent some time looking through the many shorebirds that either nested here over the summer or use the marsh as a stopover on their southern migration. Black-necked Stilts, American Avocets, and Killdeer, all larger birds with distinctive plumages were hard to miss. Smaller sandpipers take more time to identify but all we could find were Least and Western Sandpipers. A few Cattle Egret (Valencia County bird #71 and New Mexico bird #180) flew overhead and a Belted Kingfisher (Valencia County bird #72) called as it flew around the marsh.
After about an hour we drove over to Whitefield Wildlife Conservation Area. This area is managed by the county Soil and Water district especially for cranes in the winter. This area has very little shade and it was already close to 10 am and quite hot. There wasn’t too much exciting at this spot, but we treated to views of an early Northern Harrier, soaring Swainson’s Hawk, an American Kestrel feeding on a small rodent, and many beautiful Blue Grosbeaks. A flock of tiny Bushtits (Valencia County bird #73) followed us for a while through the bushes and Russian Olives.
Sparrows are notoriously hard to identify and we were stumped by a small sparrow in the genus Spizella. After much discussion and many looks through scopes, we concluded that it was probably a Brewer’s Sparrow (Valencia County bird #74 and New Mexico bird #181), mountain breeders which should be migrating through now. A female Bullock’s Oriole (Valencia County bird #75) flew by, distinguished from a female tanager by a longer tail and more elongated look overall. A Summer Tanager (Valencia County bird # 76) called from the bosque. Later in the walk, after not seeing much else, a Vesper Sparrow (Valencia County bird #77 and New Mexico bird # 182) flew up and perched on a wire fence. A key field mark for this species is rusty “shoulder patches” on the wings are often hard to see, but were plainly visible today.
As we were leaving, someone found a bizarre insect which I later identified as a blister beetle of the genus Megetra. This insect is out of someone’s nightmare.
We ate lunch at Harla May’s Fat Boy Grill in Belen, a restaurant with a stage inside. A sign outside welcomed “Coots on Scoots” which seems to be an elderly motorcycle group.
On the drive home as we crossed the Rio Grande, I spotted a pair of Swainson’s Hawks (Bernalillo County bird 131).