Today I learned that there is no quick way to get to Los Alamos, NM or Bandelier National Monument. Santa Fe is less than and hour away, but the next 40 miles takes over an hour. So why did I head up there on a random Monday? I saw a report of a Sabine’s Gull (a juvenile, not as striking as the picture in the link, but still a good bird) at the park service sewage maintenance ponds. Birds pick really scenic and pleasant places to show up sometimes. These ponds are tiny and I figured that if the bird was still there, I could get some nice looks at it close up. Some Sabine’s Gulls migrate over land rather than along the coasts and often show up in the fall at lakes throughout the West. They had recently been seen at Maxwell National Wildlife Refuge (3.5 hours away) and Conchas Lake State Park (2.75 hours away) but Bandelier seemed like a better option.
On the drive up, I spotted two Black-billed Magpies north of Santa Fe. This species was once much more common in the West, but had declined due to West Nile Virus. For some reason, the virus affects crows and their related species more than other birds.
Well, the gull wasn’t there. I found the ponds past the residence area in the park after a little searching around. An older man was working near the ponds and maintenance yard but didn’t have a problem with me looking around even though the area is technically off limits to visitors. Some sparrows drank from the edge of the pond, but no other birds were around. Because the entrance fee for the monument is expensive at $12 and I’ve never seen pueblo cliff dwellings before, I decided to spend part of the afternoon at Bandelier rather than check other lakes nearby to try and re-find the gull or any other migrant waterbirds.
I first walked around the Juniper Campground where I found lots of Lesser Goldfinches including one of the black-backed forms more common to the east in Texas. Clear, short whistles alerted me to the presence of Townsend’s Solitaires (New Mexico bird #196) two of which I found perched on top of junipers. A Red Crossbill flew in circles overhead, calling. Some unfamiliar, large, grayish birds with huge beaks fed in the junipers. They were clearly grosbeaks, but had no orange coloring below like Black-headed. Then it hit me: white patches on the wings and tail, gray plumage, huge bill–female Evening Grosbeaks! Wow! It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this species and the last time was when one flew overhead many winters ago in Pennsylvania.
I spent the next couple of hours wandering around the monument. The entrance road descends into Frijoles Canyon which, with its permanent water supply, supports a lovely riparian forest. The leaves were already starting to change at the bottom of the canyon.
My wanderings first took me through the trees where I found dozens of Audubon’s Yellow-rumped Warblers, a few Hermit Thrushes, and singles of Steller’s Jay, MacGillivray’s Warbler, and Lincoln’s Sparrow (one of my favorite sparrows and New Mexico bird #197). Then it was time for the cultural part of the trip. I didn’t buy the trail guide at the visitor center so I don’t know too many details about the cliff dwellings, but they were nice to see anyway. Melissa and I might go back this weekend since the entrance pass is good for 7 days and $12 was a lot for one visit!
There are a couple of significant dwelling sites in the canyon. The first I came to (since I was walking the trail backwards which made for some backups on narrow staircases later) was the Long House where two story houses used to be lined up at the base of the cliff. Some archeologists were restoring the foundations with a new type of mortar. When the ruins were first excavated in the 1930’s or so, archeologists tried to preserve the foundations with a cement-based mortar to keep the walls from crumbling. This mortar turned out to be harder than the rocks themselves, which were taken from the huge deposits of volcanic ash which make up the bedrock in the canyon (and much of the area around Los Alamos). In the winter, freeze and thaw cycles started to destabilize the walls anyway. Now they are replacing the mortar with another substance that will not fall apart. I’ll learn more about it when I go back.
A huge circular series of rooms was built on the canyon floor. Called Tyuonyi, it had over 400 rooms most of which were probably used for storing food and keeping turkeys penned up. There are many turkey petroglyphs on the canyon walls above locations of houses.
The Park Service allows visitors to enter a few of the cliff dwellings where chambers were excavated back into the ash. The temperature is much cooler inside and would make for a great place to live in hot summers.
I tried to take a series of pictures to make a panoramic shot of the canyon, but it got distorted when I put them together:
Here’s a better panoramic shot:
I left the main part of the monument and headed west towards the Ponderosa campground hoping to find Acorn Woodpeckers which are part of a small isolated population of this species. No luck on that woodpecker, but I did see a female Williamson’s Sapsucker on the way.
On the way home, I decided to try my luck at Cochiti Lake for a possible migrant Sabine’s Gull or something else exciting. The lake is huge but no birds were on the lake at all. Maybe next time!