East plains birdathon weekend–part 1

I got a call Friday afternoon (back on April 29th) from Raymond who asked me if I was still planning on tagging along on the east plains birdathon he was doing with one of the several local birders named Bill. (There are many Matts, Bills, and Daves; it’s rather confusing)They would be leaving at 4:30 the next morning and coming back Sunday afternoon–could I do that? Sure!

Saturday was the more “relaxed” day but the birding was just as good as on Sunday when we were trying for as many species as we could. Over the whole weekend the whole group (turned out to be seven of us in two vehicles) saw 191 species, of which I saw 186. Not too bad! On Sunday, the birdathon day, we all had 169 species: only 10 more than the Thursday birders three days prior. My total was 161. And the grand total for my three crazy days of birding (Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday) was 216.

The 4:30 departure time was a little rough, but the four of us in Bill’s truck (including Dave) seemed pretty awake. After about three hours, we arrived at our first stop, the Melrose woods, where we met the rest of our team: Rob (who co-owns the two O’Neill’s pubs in Albuquerque), Joe F., and Bo from Santa Fe. Many other birders were there to catch the height of spring migration.

The Melrose woods burned in a huge fire a few days after my first visit to the site. [I see that I never wrote about that trip.] I was hoping to show pictures both before and after the blaze, but I can’t access the earlier pictures at the moment. The west side of the woods, before a tangle of bushes was now bare sand.

We birded Melrose in between two good days. Very few warblers were present, but Lark Sparrows, Hermit Thrushes, and many flycatchers dominated the avifauna. I saw my first Common Grackle in New Mexico there (#266 for the NM list). We picked through the flycatchers finding a single Eastern Phoebe out in the open. The empids were tougher and we learned a lot separating out the common Dusky Flycatchers from the less common Gray and Hammond’s Flycatchers (the latter being #267 for the state). One Field Sparrow still hung on from the few wintering here and a singing Brewer’s Sparrow was a treat to hear. The only major surprise was a flock of Franklin’s Gulls flying northwest.

Melrose, NM

We made our way east and south heading along the eastern edge of the state through many small towns. Many of these towns have the only trees for miles and provide cover for migrating birds. Raymond promised us a Barn Owl and would you know it, that was the first bird we flushed out of the trees in Pep, our first stop on our way south. This would be the first of several seemingly miraculous promises that he made and kept over the weekend. The town had few trees and birds and we moved on, but I lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher (NM # 268) which everyone else missed as we drove off towards Milnesand, famous for two things: the High Plains Prairie Chicken Festival and the stunning number of eastern migrant passerines that drop in on migration.

Shinnery oak covered dunes: Lesser Prairie-Chicken stomping grounds (literally) in eastern NM

Lesser Prairie-Chickens are easiest to see in early spring when the males display at leks and the females watch to evaluate their moves. To see one, birders usually have to reserve a spot in a blind near a lek, arrive well before sunrise, and wait in the cold until the chickens show up. Or you could bird with Raymond, who had another surprise for us. He knew of a water tank just north of town where prairie-chickens sometimes come during the day. We pulled off the road, got out of the trucks, and–wow–there were two Lesser Prairie-Chickens (life bird #536, and #269 for NM) crouching in the scrub.

Lesser Prairie-Chicken!

That made the weekend for me! But there was more excitement ahead.

Milnesand itself has some extensive stands of trees, both deciduous and evergreen. Like Melrose, we were there in between good migrant days. A Northern Waterthrush (NM #270) frequented a trough of water but few other warblers were around. A couple of Great Horned Owl chicks nestled in a tree fork and we flushed out another Barn Owl. As we walked the roads a bit out into the oak scrub, we found Northern Bobwhites (#271 for NM), here at the western edge of the species’ range. More unusual was a migrant Swamp Sparrow, out of place in a small bush on the side of a country road in the plains.

Northern Waterthrush--horrible photo

A fire west of Milnesand burned a lot of prairie-chicken scrub habitat leaving barren sand

The town of Crossroads held little unusual except for a singing Cactus Wren, so we booked it down to Tatum and the town’s excellent sewage ponds. No seriously! Unlike many other sewage ponds that are great for birding, the town constructed a small wetland and pond where the relatively clean water flows out. En route to the sewage ponds, someone in our car (probably Raymond) spotted a Burrowing Owl off to the side in a barren area of scrub. We found a total of five of the little owls an yet again I was the only one to see a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher as we drove off.

The trees around the Tatum sewage pond outflow pond hold a Black-crowned Night-Heron rookery and attract a number of migrants. We found a Gray Catbird, a Cassin’s Vireo, another Northern Waterthrush, a sharp-looking MacGillivray’s Warbler, and a Lincoln’s Sparrow among more usual birds. the picture to the left shows a very long Bull Snake that Bill tried to pick up.

Our next stop was the Waldrop rest area between Tatum and Roswell. Access to the birding habitat requires hopping a fence with few toe holds. Hopping a barbed wire fence on the way out, Joe slipped and impaled his palm on a small twig which I saw happen right in front of me. He seemed ok and wasn’t bleeding too much, though after he pulled it out. The birds here weren’t too active or plentiful, but a bright male Bullock’s Oriole played hide and seek with us in the leaves (you wouldn’t think a bright orange bird could hide so well). A couple of Vermilion Flycatchers added to the local color.

Barn Owl wing laing among the mesquite

Jaws of some kind of canine (dog or coyote)

Duskywing species

On the way to Roswell, while I was driving, I slammed on the brakes for one more Scissor-tailed Flycatcher perched on a fence. Luckily it stayed put and all seven of us got good looks.

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge was to be our last stop of the day. Already 5 PM when we got there, the extensive impoundments held lots of great shorebird habitat and required a few hours to properly bird. We’d be coming back here and it was important to scout out the area for the big day. Ducks and shorebirds were abundant everywhere we stopped and we found a number of goodies (few of which stuck around for us on Sunday).

At the visitor center, a Great Horned Owl perched on a small bush down the hill in a narrow canal before flying off. Odd to see one so out in the open. We worked through the shorebirds finding one of the locally breeding Snowy Plovers (NM bird #272), stilts, avocets, peeps, and dozens of Wilson’s Phalaropes. Each of the stops along the wildlife drive produced much the same, though we (well, Raymond, actually) found a Pectoral Sandpiper out in the grass at the first pulloff. At the second pulloff, things got more exciting. Robert thought he had a tern, and sure enough, a Caspian Tern (#273) sat roosting with Franklin’s Gulls. This species is a fairly rare bird for the state, but things would get even more exciting.

Caspian Tern with Franklin's Gulls, Western Willets, Wilson's Phalaropes, a Black-necked Stilt, and Cinnamon Teals

As I rounded the corner at the south end of the refuge, we stopped to scan and Raymond jumped out of the car to grab a scope saying he thought he had a Whimbrel–an even more rare migrant in the state and a state bird for almost all of us. The shorebird fest was rounded out by a pair of Stilt Sandpipers and a beautiful Dunlin spotted by Joe (NM birds # 274 and 275).

Whimbrel and Green-winged Teals

Back in Roswell while waiting for a table for dinner, and while I was outside making a phone call, I spotted a Lesser Nighthawk (NM bird # 276) flying in the lights of the parking lot. Dave had been looking forward to this bird, but it didn’t return. Our table was then ready and that was the last bird of the day! I drove on the way down to Carlsbad where we spend the night at the very posh Motel 6. The big day was next! More to come in the next post.

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3 Responses to East plains birdathon weekend–part 1

  1. Wow! Great writeup of what must have been a fabulous trip. Thanks.

  2. Rebecca Gracey says:

    Matt, I’m glad you added so many birds to your New Mexico list, and what wonderful birds they were.

  3. Matt says:

    Thanks, guys. I’m glad you enjoyed reading. Not something I’d do every weekend, but it was still a lot of fun.

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