Sandia Foothills Open Space, 9/7/10

Albuquerque’s parks include several “open space” areas, mostly on the edges of the city. These areas preserve some of the southwestern environments including riparian forest and scruby semi-desert. Two days ago in the morning I spent some time exploring some of the latter hoping to see some birds I hadn’t found yet.

The edge of the city

My first stop was at the end of Copper Avenue at the southeastern edge of the city. I’d been to one further in the mountains a few weeks ago, but the area was a little too remote and easy to get lost in that I didn’t feel comfortable going there by myself again. (My mother is now worrying about me. Hi Mom!). The Copper Avenue open space quickly became one of my favorite hiking spots, because of both the birds and the scenery. You can hike up in elevation pretty quickly in this area. North of the parking area, a small peak called the U Mound rises up pretty high. It is a favorite spot for climbing and bouldering. I didn’t make it all the way to the top, not because it was difficult, but because I didn’t know if it was a sacred Native American site or not (the volcanoes to the west of the city are and climbing to the tops is considered sacrilegious).

The U Mound. Don't know why it's called that

A network of trails crosses the area

Southern Albuquerque from high on the U Mound. I live near the tall white building in the middle about a third of the way from the left

The wind was blowing strongly for most of the time I was there, either keeping the birds down and hidden or blowing them right overhead. I did see a few Blue-gray Gnatcatchers (Bernalillo County bird #132) giving their distinctive mewing call. Western Scrub-Jays were everywhere and not happy about me walking about near them. A Sharp-shinned Hawk struggled to fly in the wind and was eventually blown south over the city. Farther up the slope, I encountered more and more sparrows and dozens of House Finches being blown about as they tried to fly. Some immature and winter plumaged sparrows can be difficult to identify, especially in the genus Spizella (including the familiar red-capped Chipping Sparrow). While most of the sparrows I saw were Chipping, there were at least a few Brewer’s Sparrows (Bernalillo County bird #133) mixed in. The highlight of the walk for me, however, was walking around a bend in the trail and finding a stunning male Scott’s Oriole! Not only is this bird gorgeous and its bright yellow and black colors look out of place in the arid southwest, but I had only seen this species this well once before, fifteen years ago in Arizona.

Male Scott's Oriole (picture from http://www.birdspix.com)

I wasn’t going to stop at Embudo Canyon that morning, but I’m glad I did. I walked up a trail towards a concrete dam and found what must have been an old lake or reservoir behind it. The soil was very silty and mudcracks showed evidence of some moisture. The area was dotted with small bushes and trees, each of which seemed to hold a few warblers or sparrows. I found Townsend’s Warblers, Orange-crowned Warblers, and many many Spizella sparrows. I saw most of the sparrows feeding in a small ditch but they would not stay still long enough to see them well enough! I picked out some adult Brewer’s and Chipping Sparrows; at least one of the birds was a Clay-colored Sparrow (Bernalillo County bird #135 and New Mexico bird #184).

The trail curved back around the dam towards a large fenced-in water tank. I noticed a small Empidonax flycatcher on the barbed wire oddly dipping its tail down and then back up. This behavior is characteristic of the Gray Flycatcher (life bird 528, Bernalillo County bird #136, and New Mexico bird #185) which is a drab looking as it sounds. A House Wren (Bernalillo County bird #137 and New Mexico bird #186) popped up from a vine on the fence. I followed the flycatcher for a bit to get good looks at this new bird for me.

A few months ago, a local birder found some nesting Cactus Wrens in this canyon. This is a bit unusual for the area. Last time I was here I couldn’t find them and thought they had moved on after nesting. To my surprise, I found one Cactus Wren (Bernalillo County bird #138 and New Mexico bird #187)  scolding me from a cholla cactus. It flew in very close to about ten feet away. Then I noticed another up the slope. Walking up there, I was amazed to find a group of four wrens! One was carrying some dead grass and hanging around a large nest made from the same material. Another was carrying a small insect and acting like it was going to feed its young. Maybe they were raising another brood. This wren is another bird that I haven’t seen since my trip to Arizona 15 years ago.

On a tip from a birder I met a few weeks ago, I checked out the trail at the end of Cedarbrook Avenue to try and see Rufous-crowned Sparrow and Black-chinned Sparrow. No luck with either of those but the area has great habitat in general with steep slopes dotted with bushes. The trail gets very remote quickly, and the canyon narrows after a short distance, so this is another place not to hike very far along alone.

I last went to Elena Gallegos Picnic Area in the northeastern part of the city. For some reason, I thought the area would be more forested like the other side of the mountains. It is a little more grassy than some of the open spaces to the south.

View of the Sandia Crest from the Elena Gallegos Picnic Area

I flushed a small sparrow with white outer tail feathers from a juniper bush: Vesper Sparrow (Bernalillo County bird #139). I never got a great look at it, however. Down in an arroyo, I caught a glimpse of a pair of Scaled Quail with a chick following behind. The rest of the walk produced similar birds that were at the other locations. A pair of Violet-green Swallows (Bernalillo County bird #140 and New Mexico bird #188) flew west. I’d somehow missed this species during the past month. One Juniper Titmouse sang from–where else–a juniper.

While I was there, a mountain biker had to be rescued from further in the mountains and airlifted to a hospital. Just another reminder to be careful.

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One Response to Sandia Foothills Open Space, 9/7/10

  1. The “U Mound” is named after the large letter that once was in existence on the mound. It was the letter “U”, which stood for University of New Mexico. it was removed in the early 80s after suburban development became common in the NE heights.

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