Northeast New Mexico birding over the weekend: loons and a jaeger!

Most of my birding in New Mexico has been in the area around Albuquerque and Santa Fe. There are great locations and great birds all around here, but I’ve been itching to get to some different areas of the state. The Central New Mexico Audubon led a trip to Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge northeast of Santa Fe and I took the chance to explore some spots up towards Colorado.

My plan was to make my way up to Maxwell National Wildlife Refuge in Colfax County on Saturday and bird my way back to Santa Fe for the night. Melissa was in the city for a research group conference and her adviser was hosting a party on Saturday night. Then I’d join the field trip at Las Vegas on Sunday. Big plans!

I woke up a little late and didn’t get out of the house until about noon. Oh well.

Saturday’s birding wasn’t too productive. I explored the area along Santa Fe County road 56, southwest of the city. Here I found a few birds, most of them new for me in the county: Loggerhead Shrike, Song Sparrow, Horned Lark, Western Meadowlark, and Great Blue Heron. The Santa Fe Rover flows near the road, which explains the last bird.

Storrie Lake near Las Vegas, NM

After this, I decided to book it up to Las Vegas NWR and see what I could find in the area before the trip. The drive was a lot longer than I expected and I didn’t get there until after 4 PM, less than an hour to sunset. At Storrie Lake State Park, I found Western and Clark’s Grebes, and some California Gulls (NM bird 225) mixed in with the Ring-billed Gulls. I was hoping for more ducks or even loons on the lake, but no luck. By this time it was sunset and I headed back to Santa Fe for some good company and good make-your-own pizzas.

Why is this cat on the stove? Such a weird but lovable cat!

As luck would have it, Common, Pacific, and Red-throated Loons were all sighted in Colfax County where I had planned to go. I got the email at 11:30 and decided to get up at 6:30, get up to see the loons and then join up with the field trip about an hour after they got started at Les Vegas. This plan worked!

The view into Colorado

The drive north from Santa Fe is beautiful. The interstate first winds through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and then goes across high plains and prairie after Las Vegas, NM. To the north, snow-capped Colorado peaks loom on the horizon. When I got to Colfax County, I began to recognize some of the features at the Philmont Scout Ranch were I did two backpacking trips during high school. The famous Tooth of Time ridge is easily seen just to the west of my destination Sunday morning, Springer Lake.

Welcome to Springer Lake!

The eastern edge of Philmont

Common Loon

I found some of the loons quickly when I pulled up to the lake. Most of them were Common Loons (NM bird 226) at first, but I picked out one Red-throated Loon (227) farther out on the lake. Dozens of Eared Grebes dotted the water while Horned Larks flew overhead. I noticed an egret on the far shore of the lake, certainly a late record whatever species it was. On the other side of the lake, I was surprised to find that it was a Great Egret. An American Avocet, another late record, fed nearby. From the other side of the lake I was able to see the Pacific Loon (228) and number of other expected duck species including some female Red-breasted Mergansers (229).

Red-throated Loon

Pacific Loon

Eared Grebes

A real treat for me was finding two Ferruginous Hawks (NM bird 230) flying over the dam. I just saw my first of this species over the summer and only while riding in a car. These looks were much better. In addition, one of the birds was a dark phase which only makes up about 10% of the population. This plumage is very distinctive with dark feathers on the inner wing, white feathers on the edge of the wing and an all white tail which contrasts with the dark body–unlike any other North American hawk.

As I was leaving the lake, another car passed me. Turns out it was an Albuquerque birder whom I did not recognize. She found all the loons plus a Horned Grebe which is rarer in the southwest than Eared Grebes. She joined the field trip about an hour after I did.

Las Vegas NWR held most of the expected water birds: Snow Geese, Northern Pintails, Redheads, Canvasbacks, coots and hundreds if not thousands of Sandhill Cranes. Two Bald Eagles graciously spooked the Snow Goose flock, allowing us to see a few of the smaller Ross’s Geese mixed in.

McAllister Lake

Poor lizard

The nearby McAllister Lake Wildlife Management Area held a different array of ducks including some female Common Goldeneyes (NM bird 231). I later saw two pairs of Goldeneyes back on the refuge.

Most of the field trip folks went home around 2:30, but I convinced three other birders to check out the refuge again before the end of the day. And good thing I did!

We met up at an observation deck over Crane Lake, the largest pond on the refuge. As we looked through the ducks, geese, and cranes, we talked about what gulls we might be seeing on the lake. Ring-billed Gulls were all we found, though I had seen California Gulls nearby the previous day. One of the birders in our little group (the one who passed me at Springer Lake in the morning) said “speaking of odd gulls…” I looked through her scope and immediately knew what she meant–it was a juvenile jaeger! The three species of jaegers (Pomarine, Parasitic, and Long-tailed) breed on Arctic tundra and mostly migrate over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans to winter in tropical oceans. A few migrate overland each year, however. These sightings are exciting, but tricky as each of the three species can be very similar.

Just about the best photo I could get.

This all-dark juvenile bird proved to be a bit of a challenge. We went a little crazy trying to get good views of the bird and looking through field guides to try and figure it out. Long-tailed was out because of the color and it was a little too big to be this species. Plus it didn’t have the eponymous long tail (although it is much reduced on young birds). Very few Parasitic Jaegers are all dark and this one didn’t have the head and bill pattern of this species. That only left Pomarine Jaeger (NM bird 232). See the end of the post for better pictures of all three jaeger species.

The bird sat on the water for a while before flying off to the west, circling higher until it went out of sight. It’s flight resembled a gull’s rather than a falcon or tern which again points to Pomarine over the other two species. It flew directly in front of us, but for some reason I didn’t get any great looks at it in flight. Maybe I was too excited, but I was also scrambling to get a photo on my little digital camera through a spotting scope. Any inland sighting of a jaeger really needs to be documented and getting a photo is the best way. I keep forgetting that I can take videos on my camera, and even a short clip of it in flight would have been very informative. Next time… None of the pictures came out well at all. We’ll see what the bird records committee makes of it, but we were pretty confident we had seen a Pomarine Jaeger.

We saw the bird fly off to the north in the direction of Storrie Lake. We checked the lake but didn’t find it there.

Sunday, by far, was the most exciting day of birding I’ve had yet in New Mexico!

Adult Long-tailed Jaeger in Scandanavia. By Stephen Clegg on Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0)

Adult Parasitic Jaeger offshore from Florida. Photo by Dan Irizarry on Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0)

Adult Pomarine Jaeger offshore from North Carolina. Photo by Nate at http://thedrinkingbirdblog.com/ on Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0)

Juvenile Pomarine Jaeger offshore from North Carolina. Our bird looked much like this. By Jason Forbes on Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0)

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