I might have a new career opportunity as a bird guide, if only the Albuquerque area had more bird specialties. Sure, there’s the three species of Rosy-Finches in the winter less than an hour away. But you hardly need a guide to get you up to the Sandia Crest house and drink hot chocolate with you as you sit comfortably inside while watching hundreds of Rosy-Finches swirl around the feeders. The winter Sandhill Crane show is pretty spectacular along the Middle Rio Grande Valley, but take a drive south on I-25 and you’re bound to see hundreds of cranes in the air if not feeding in scattered farm fields. But the birding can be good and helping a visiting birder find some target birds is a great excuse to seek out some birds easily overlooked.
That’s exactly what I did last week when Peter and his wife visited Albuquerque from Pennsylvania. He contacted me before the trip with a list of target birds and a general curiosity of where to go birding around the city. I was able to join him towards the end of the visit after he already had some productive days of birding.
On Monday, I showed Peter and his wife around Rinconada Canyon, part of the Petroglyphs National Monument. The wintering Prairie Falcon posed nicely in the early morning sun. We heard a thrasher singing in the distance, and with a quick play of the song on Peter’s handy iPhone, several Crissal Thrashers popped up nearby. First target bird down! The birds were sparse that morning, but the variety of petroglyphs made for an enjoyable walk. Rock Wren numbers seemed to be down since my last visit but Canyon Towhees were well represented. We even got good looks at a few Black-throated Sparrows and a number of Sage Sparrows, a species Peter had seen only once before. He also had his hopes on Scaled Quail, but we could not find even one despite much searching. I told him there might be a chance the following day at some other sites.
Gary joined us on Tuesday for a hike of Embudito Canyon. Our targets were sparrows, one resident and two vagrants recently found there. That morning, the parking lot was closed off for the filming of an episode of Breaking Bad in one of the nearby houses. Peter asked if they needed any birding extras.
Gambel’s White-crowned Sparrows were everywhere just north of the parking lot. Every movement we made sent half a dozen birds flying from one bush to another, never to be seen again. The recently-seen Harris’s Sparrow did not show itself, but two Scaled Quails scurried down the wash giving Peter a decent enough look at their cotton-tops before they disappeared.
At least every other bird we scared up along the wash must have been a Canyon Towhee. We didn’t find too much else until we reached the end of the wash where the canyon starts to narrow. The trickling stream still flowed at the surface before seeping into the ground and a mixed flock of sparrows and bluebirds were attracted to the water. Peter played a quick recording of Rufous-crowned Sparrow (the song of which sounds more like a wren than a sparrow) which drew in two curious individuals of this species. It was a life bird for Peter and Gary, a state and county bird for me (number 249 and 180).
I then noticed a plain-faced, dark-headed Zonotrichia sparrow across the wash. Yes, Golden-crowned Sparrow! It was still present despite a week of no reports. Gary couldn’t see it from his angle and it quickly moved away. I walked along the bushes towards Gary and Peter trying to gently move the birds out into the open a bit. We saw the Golden-crowned, then another, and then another. Three out-of-range Golden-crowneds in one spot! A great sighting for a life bird for all of us which brought my state and county lists to 250 and 181 (and my ABA list to 532). A few Western Bluebirds, a Townsend’s Solitaire, and many juncos also hung around the water.
Peter wanted to see some Pinyon Jays before he left. These birds are unpredictable and nomadic and the one sure-fire spot to see them held none for him earlier in his visit. We tried one of the city open spaces nestled between the southeastern part of the city and the air force base. Friendly signs warned us that we were under video surveillance but also that bird watching was encouraged. Birds were sparse here but a Sage Thrasher was a nice surprise. The only jays were a couple of Western Scrub-Jays.
I got Peter a few of his target species and if I could find owls or conjure up longspurs around the city I could have done even better. He and his wife really seemed to enjoy their trip. I enjoyed the chance to show off some of my new local birds!
When I got home, I found an email about a Yellow-throated Warbler (Bernalillo bird 182) found at the Albuquerque Marriott by a visiting birder on business. In an act of pure, unabashed listing, I went to see it. Michael, one of the birding undergrads at UNM was already there and stuck around to help me find it. I probably would have found it eventually, but no doubt with many odd looks from staff and guests as I poked around the parking lot and pool area.