We were supposed to meet the group at Whitfield at 8:30 for the Central New Mexico Audubon’s first Saturday birding trip. But 8:30 found us zipping down I-25 trying to make it before the group got too far out into the fields. Luck was with us, however: when we showed up at 9, they were just getting ready to head out.
The weather today was too hot to make for comfortable birding and many birds were not active enough to be easily seen. A few of us in the group saw some Orange-crowned Warblers (Valencia bird #78) and enjoyed seeing a Green Heron (#79) fly overhead and drop into a pond lined with dense reeds. Fall migration was well underway with American Goldfinches (#80) returning to join the resident Lesser Goldfinches.
On the back side of the wildlife area, the group searched for sparrows and other migrants in the Russian Olives and sunflowers but couldn’t turn up much. Some new birds for me in the county were a Cordillerian Flycatcher (#81) and a Downy Woodpecker (#82) calling from a dense tree. Blue Grosbeaks were all around so at least there was something nice to look at most of the time. Western Meadowlarks sang as we watched two Swainson’s Hawks circle overhead.
As we headed back to the parking lot, someone noticed a large flock of dark birds with fast wing beats. White-faced Ibises were headed south in large flocks; we saw about 120 in three flocks today. A Savannah Sparrow obligingly perched on a fence giving folks ample time to check all the field marks on this nicely patterned bird (for a sparrow!).
Most of the group left Whitfield and drove to the Taco Bell Marsh north of Belen. We first checked an area with prairie dog burrows for Burrowing Owls. I think most people wanted to head for the marsh to check for migrant shorebirds, but a few of us diligently searched with binoculars and scopes. I had to move the car to a better parking spot; as I drove by, Melissa gave me the thumbs up and an excited smile. She had found the only Burrowing Owl we would see that day! It spent most of its time just peeking above the top of a burrow but did fly in a circle before diving back in the burrow for good. It seemed to be interested in flying insects, but we weren’t sure if it caught any or not.
The marsh didn’t hold as many birds as we had hoped. All the avocets and stilts were gone unfortunately, as Melissa hasn’t seen them before. Two Wilson’s Phlaropes swam and fed very close to the road and the usual assortment of peeps and Killdeer fed closer to the far shore. Northern Shovelers with their huge, flattened bills sat in the middle of the pond and a Wood Duck (Valencia bird #83) flew off to the north. After scanning for a while, I noticed a larger sandpiper which probed in the mud for food with its bill like a sewing machine needle. This is a distinctive feeding behavior of dowitchers. Two very similar species breed in North America, the Long-billed and Short-billed. However, their bill lengths overlap! Long-billed is the expected species in New Mexico, but Short-billeds do show up now and then. The bird we saw today was in winter plumage when they are very similar. Luckily for birders, the two species have different shapes when they are bent over feeding. The Long-billed appears to have “swallowed a grapefruit”–its back and breast seem to be rounded out as if there was a large sphere in its throat. Our bird had a hump on the back, so we were confident in calling it a Long-billed Dowitcher (Valencia bird #84 and New Mexico bird #195).
Melissa and I went to get a snack from across the road (not at Taco Bell!) while other birders kept looking for a calling Virginia Rail. Of course not a minute after we left they saw it walking about at the edge of the reeds, they happily told us when we returned. The six of us remaining drove down the road to a field which had recently been flooded and held dozens of Cattle Egrets and White-faced Ibises feeding on insects stirred up by horses.