Finding longspurs in the middle of nowhere

Last Friday, Gary and I drove down to Bosque del Apache NWR in the hopes of seeing some rare birds of prey that have been hanging around for a while. Gary had tried many times to find an Aplomado Falcon there, so that was our first goal. White-tailed Kites have also been seen recently, and since I slept in on the day the Thursday birding group found one at the refuge, I was itching to find one of my own.

We didn’t find either species. The kite had been seen the morning before by the woman at the entrance booth and the falcons (three of them) were reported on the refuge sightings sheet. Gary and I ran into a photographer who had just seen an Aplomado Falcon and an adult Merlin along a trail at the south end of the refuge (the dreaded words, “You just missed it!”) We saw American Kestrels, an immature Merlin (that perched in a tree about 30 meters from us) and a couple of Prairie Falcons, but not the falcon we hoped for.

Aplomado Falcon in Venezuela by barloventomagico on Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0)

Aplomado Falcons once bred across the Southwest from Texas to Arizona but were essentially extirpated from the US part of their range by the early 1900s. Habitat loss is most often blamed for the decline. Bosque del Apache NWR began a breeding and reintroduction program and there is now a small population in the area.

White-tailed Kite in California by Len Blumin on Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0)

White-tailed Kites are not usually found in New Mexico, but it appears that this species’ range is expanding into the Southwest. One or two have been seen on and off at Bosque for about a year or so.

One of these trips we’ll see our target birds!

Other birds of note that Gary and I saw included a Savannah Sparrow (Socorro bird 117) which popped up along the edge of a canal along the falcon trail and an Eastern Phoebe (NM bird 224 and Socorro bird 118), which sometimes shows up in during the winter in eastern New Mexico.

Gary and I also went exploring on the east side of the Rio Grande looking for longspurs, small sparrows with long hind claws. In summer the males have distinctive, strikingly patterned plumage, but in winter they become drab, brown, and streaky. North of US 60, BLM land has a few watering holes for free-ranging cattle. In winter these are apparently good places to find larks and longspurs.

I’d marked the locations of the ponds in my New Mexico atlas, but the road numbers on the map didn’t match those on the road. Despite this, we found our way to one pond which was dry. The second pond we found was full of water and cattle and more productive. A Mallard flushed from the pond when we walked up and I heard the call of Chestnut-collared Longspurs overhead. A Horned Lark (Socorro bird 119) flew in and perched on the ground for a few seconds. Eventually the longspurs came back–three birds would circle the pond, settle on the banks to take a few drinks, and then fly off again. We got ok looks at the birds, enough to tell they were the longspurs. I hope to make it back later in the winter when there should be larger flocks which may include McCown’s Longspur.

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