Thursday birding high in the Sandias 9/9

Thursday was not the day to forget my camera. I was headed to the top of the Sandias with the Central New Mexico Audubon Thursday birding group, but the sight of the Sandias clouded over made me think those plans would change. I rode up the mountains with Robert, a local birder who is part owner of a restaurant in Nob Hill. As we gained elevation, the clouds enveloped us more and more. It made for a scenic drive, however and I was regretting forgetting my camera. I spotted a bulky bird on a dead branch and Robert pulled off to the side of the road. It kind of looked like a pigeon…and it was! A Band-tailed Pigeon (Bernalillo bird # 141 and New Mexico bird #190) sat for a while before flying away. These birds are quite pretty–purplish head and breast and iridescent scaly plumage on the neck with a white collar above that.

They eat at feeders like city pigeons! (image from Wikipedia)

We were the first to reach Ellis trailhead parking lot, just below the crest of the Sandia Mountains. We were entirely fogged in and birding prospects looked very poor. When everyone else assembled, we decided to go down in elevation to the 10K trail, which is so named because it generally lies at the 10,000 feet above sea level, almost a mile above Albuquerque. Very few birds were here, however. Red-breasted Nuthatches climbed around on tree trunks, while a couple of MacGillavray’s and Wilson’s Warblers skulked in the bushes with a Chipping Sparrow and a Gray-headed Dark-eyed Junco. All the sounds of the forest were muted in the clouds and if it weren’t so chilly and birdless, it would have made for a good hike. The group headed down the mountain to the Doc Long Picnic Area and Bill Spring Trail.

The weather here was sunny and much warmer. We encountered a few flocks of migrants which included the highlight of the day for me, a Cassin’s Vireo (life bird #529, New Mexico bird #191 and Bernalillo bird #142). These are the Pacific Coast relatives of the eastern Blue-headed Vireo and the Rocky Mountain region Plumbeous Vireo. The Cassin’s which looks very similar to the Blue-headed is a regular fall migrant, but is absent in the spring. A small Empidonax flycatcher high on a twig gave us some trouble but we eventually decided it was most likely a Dusky Flycatcher (New Mexico bird #192 and Bernalillo bird #143). The numerous migrant warblers included Audubon’s Yellow-rumped, Townsends, Virginia’s, and Wilson’s.

When the trip was over, Robert and I decided to drive east of the Sandias into Torrance County to see if we could find any Mountain Plovers, a species I’d never seen before and one that is declining due to loss of habitat in the Rocky Mountain area. South of Moriarty (“Crossroads of Opportunity”) Robert spotted a kingbird in a tree. The light was bad, but it was not a Western–a Cassin’s Kingbird became New Mexico bird #193.

We didn’t find any plovers, but a stop in Estancia at Arthur Lake Park yielded some migrants. In the eastern part of New Mexico, any stand of trees in the plains will attract migrants. A quick walk around the lake turned up Eurasian Collared-Dove, Western Wood-Pewee, Orange-crowned Warbler, Audubon’s Yellow-rumped Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Lark Sparrow, and Western Tanager.

We made our way back towards Albuquerque on a scenic road through the Manzanito Mountains. Back in Bernalillo County, we noticed a flock of bluebirds and pulled off to check them out. I’d been surprised to not see any Western Bluebirds yet, though I hadn’t been birding in the right habitat much. At least some of these bluebirds were definitely Western Bluebirds (New Mexico bird #194 and Bernalillo bird #144). I’ll have to pay attention to bluebirds more in the future–the color of the throat is more diagnostic than anything else especially in birds with worn plumage. A Pine Siskin perched on the fence with some goldfinch for my Bernalillo bird #145.

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