Yesterday I did my fourth crane survey, at the north San Antonio site with Ray, an undergraduate in the biology department and one of the banders of the Rosy-Finch project at the Sandia Crest.
We got to the site a little after we were supposed to start and the sky was beginning to get light. The cottonwoods to the north almost glowed golden and were surprisingly bright for how dark it still was. Some birds (wild and barnyard) were making noise and I heard what I thought was some livestock making some weird noise. One almost sounded like a Barn Owl, which might have been possible, but the sounds I heard turned out to be at least one Great Horned Owl. I spotted a large form in a dead tree which we could get a great look at through the scope. Ray told me that the weird noise was a kind of contact call between individuals, perhaps a young bird and its parent (I’m not sure when owl juveniles become independent, but they nest very early in the spring).
The morning survey was fairly quiet. We had a few dozen Sandhill Cranes fly north, probably from somewhere they roosted to feeding areas. Many American Crows flew south, continuing their migration. While I may enjoy listening the Counting Crows, trying to accurately survey all the ones that fly by can be a chore. But that’s what we’re paid to do!
A few surprises in the morning included a Phainopepla (NM bird 220, Socorro bird 103) flying south over the canal. It flew like a thrush or a solitaire, but white patches near the ends of the wings gave it away. I had just been thinking on Friday that I should look out for one flying by during the survey, and there it was! Too bad I’m not prescient or I could wish for all sorts of birds to show up. A Verdin popped in and out of the salt cedar while chipping very rapidly. Pine Siskins (Socorro bird 104) flew overhead now and then, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (#105) sang across the canal, and several Sharp-shinned Hawks (#106) flew around, one quite close to us. One lone Eurasian Collared-Dove (#107) winged its way north over the salt cedar.
Ray heard some birds flying overhead giving a rattle-type call and called out “Chestnut-collared Longspurs!” We were able to get on the four birds in the sky and they appeared a dingy buffy color and their tails looked odd to me–with a slight notch and some dark tips. I’ve never seen this species of longspur (and can’t remember the Lapland at Kiptopeake, VA on my life list) and I hardly got a good enough look or listen to say that I knew what it was. This species (and McCown’s) winter in New Mexico and I’ll have plenty of chances to see them much better and I hope on the ground! A fight longspur flew overhead about 10 minutes later but I didn’t recognize the call. My life list will wait for this species.
We met up with two other crane survey students in Socorro for lunch at Socorro Springs Brewing Company, where I’d just been last weekend with Mel and our Socorro friends. I had a pepperoni and green chile pizza and a little taste of their pumpkin ale (that I’ll be tasting more of in the future!). The four of us went down to Bosque del Apache NWR but didn’t find too much exciting. Many dabbling ducks fed in the ponds along NM 1 north of the refuge and we checked out some Lesser Scaups (Socorro bird 108) to see if any Greater hid among them and found three Eared Grebes (Socorrow bird 109). We spent some time on the comfortable couches in the visitor center watching dozens of House Sparrows (Socorro bird 110–gotta get it sometime) and Gambel’s White-crowned Sparrows, a few Spotted Towhees, and one female Pyrrhuloxia. Out on the refuge we looked for some recently-reported raptors like White-tailed Kite and Aplomado Falcon, but found neither. Several hundred Snow Geese were just off the flight deck and some of the Ross’s Geese decided to feed on the near end of the flock.
Along the Marsh loop, we stopped along the road to scope a raft of diving ducks on the lagoon which held Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Ducks, Redheads (Socorro bird 111) , and Canvasbacks (NM bird 221, Socorro bird 112). More species may have been on the big lagoon, but we had a schedule to keep. Around the back side of the loop, I made us all stop for a falcon that, in the light, was hard to identify. It turned out to be a Prairie Falcon (Socorro bird 113), not the Aplomado I hoped for, but still a great bird.
The afternoon survey was very slow at first and the later part dominated by trying to get accurate counts and positions of at least a thousand American Crows flying south. Some cranes headed back south and one odd flock contained five Snow Geese and a Ross’s Goose also flying in a V formation. Birds can be tolerant too at times. One Downy Woodpecker (Socorro bird 114) perched on a dead tree, but never flew passed us and went unsurveyed. An Eastern Bluebird flew over, calling, becoming Socorro County bird 115 for me.
Because there were very few birds, we played around with a fancy camera the lab had bought to document crane and waterfowl flocks. Ray got some good pictures of insects and flowers (as well as the required photos of larger birds in flight!) and I tried to get a good shot of a katydid or very green grasshopper. If I can get some decent pictures from Ray, I’ll post them.
The rest of the season’s surveys should record more and more cranes and geese even if the numbers of passerine migrants decline. But we could turn up anything–sitting in one spot for four hours can yield sightings otherwise missed.