East Plains birdathon weekend–part 2: the Big Day

Sunday, May 1st was the second official birdathon I participated in the span of four days this spring. The day before was also a big day of birding, but not a Big Day. Why do birders try to see as many bird species as possible in one day? A lot has been written about this over the years and in books, magazines, and elsewhere online; why not add my thoughts, though?

Often big days are ways to raise money for conservation. The more species you see, the more money is raised (monetary pledges are often made per bird species seen). You could see these big days as a way to show how much biodiversity (though just among birds) can be found in a small area in a short amount of time. But big day team often drive all over a wide area like a whole state is pursuit of bigger numbers of species. (Big days are often done in whole counties or states and don’t get me started on arbitrary political boundaries defining lists despite my obsessive and methodical list numbers and compilations at the top of the page). Big days seem to come down to having fun and raw competition. I like having fun more so let’s get back to the big birding weekend earlier this month.

Speaking of listing, my New Mexico list stood at 276 the previous evening–could I reach 300 by the end of Sunday?

The Carlsbad Motel 6 was pretty much what you’d expect for $25 each a night and we picked up our first urban birds of the day around 6:10 am. If you’re ever birding and need a place to stay in Carlsbad, this is apparently the place to go. I heard my name from the balcony and there was Gary. He and three other birders (Sonia, and two from the Thursday birders) had been going since Friday morning, doing a four day birding tour of eastern and southeastern New Mexico and were headed north towards Roswell and Melrose. They had the lucky days at Melrose and Milnesand, and at our first stop of the day, Rattlesnake Springs where we were joined by another Dave for most of the day.

This lush riparian site is a large picnic area owned by Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Back in 2006, I camped at the nearby Washington Ranch during a geology trip to the Guadalupe Mountains of Texas and New Mexico. I wasn’t actively birding then, but I was surprised at the number of birds and the migrant diversity even though I wasn’t paying too much attention.

The fifty-odd species we saw here gave our day a big boost. Cassin’s Kingbirds called loudly during territorial disputes, Northern Cardinals chipped in the bushes, and Bell’s Vireos (NM bird # 277) sang but always out of sight. Rattlesnake Springs is a great migrant hotspot, but is one of the best sites in the state for Orchard Orioles and Painted Buntings. The former were easy to find (NM # 278) as they sang loudly, but the latter was tricky. I was away from the rest of the group when some of them found a bunting the first time.

We wandered down a small canal flowing behind the old ranger house where many birds came to get a drink or perched on the nearby fence. We found Lazuli Buntings, a Brown Thrasher, tanagers, grosbeaks, Vermilion Flycatchers, and a lingering Field Sparrow. Migrant diversity was low, but a female Wilson’s Phalarope was a surprise at the end of the ditch. The marshy creek in the middle of the site held some more migrants, especially around some fruiting mulberry trees. But the highlight here was seeing a Zone-tailed Hawk fly overhead while being chased by a Gray Hawk (NM # 279-280), the latter of which is still pretty rare in the state but increasingly seen at Rattlesnake Springs. The creek held some surprises: a Northern Waterthrush (not too unexpected, really), a Lincoln’s Sparrow and a late migrating Swamp Sparrow. I missed a Swainson’s Thrush at this spot.

Painted Bunting habitat

I still wanted to see a Painted Bunting before we left. I headed back to the desert scrub at the edge of the riparian area and found an Indigo Bunting (NM #281) but not the brightly colored relative. Someone called out nearby and had a gorgeous male Painted Bunting (NM #282) singing in the top of a bush. Success!

Washington Ranch

After losing Bill for a while, we headed over to Washington Ranch where dozens of Wild Turkeys greeted us, just as they did five years ago when I camped there. We picked up some more water birds at the ponds (Blue-winged Teal, American Wigeon, Solitary Sandpiper) and a few warblers (including Yellow and Common Yellowthroat). Bill and I looked up into a bare tree by the pond and almost simultaneously exclaimed “Rose-breasted Grosbeak!” (NM #283). This is a somewhat regular migrant in the eastern part of the state, but it’s just such a sharp looking bird, and the only one we’d see that day. Other nice birds were Western Tanagers, Black-headed Grosbeaks, and another male Painted Bunting that I found all by myself! If I had actually been birding when I camped here, who knows what I’d have seen.

A Western Kingbird checks out a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Then Raymond told us we’d check a spot for moorhens, nearby at the Cottonwood Day Use area. We walked down the hill and onto the wooden platform, looked downstream and there it was–a Common Moorhen. We also had a few new swallows for the day including our only Cave Swallows, saving us a trip to the caverns.

Seeing the moorhen

The entrance road to the caves was supposed to yield some dry scrub habitat birds, but few were around. We all saw a Rock Wren, but many of us missed the thrashers and other hoped-for wrens. We needed to get more birds on our list, so we headed to Brantley Lake just north of Carlsbad. On the way we kept our eye peeled for swifts, kites and Blue Jays in town, but came up empty.

The most productive parts of the lake were down extremely bumpy and washed-out roads. At a spot called Cheapskate Point, we found a mixed flock of roosting gulls and shorebirds. Franklin’s Gulls were the majority, but some Ring-billed and a Forster’s Tern (NM #284) were also present. The shorebirds took some more time but we found the usual Least and Western Sandpipers, a few Snowy Plovers, Western Willets, Lesser Yellowlegs, Wilson’s Phalaropes, and most surprisingly a basic-plumaged Sanderling! (NM # 285). As we were leaving the point, two peeps foraged well away from the water in the parking area. A quick look confirmed it: buffy brown overall, dark legs, wingtips beyond the tail. Baird’s Sandpipers.

As Raymond navigated the maze of awful roads, he braked to a halt when he heard a sparrow singing, and I saw my second life bird of the day! A Cassin’s Sparrow was singing and skylarking very close to the cars. Since it was a lifer for me (#537, NM #286), we got a scope out and I got a great look at this uninteresting-looking sparrow, but one with a striking song.

We had a long drive to Roswell with little birding in between. A Red-tailed Hawk along the highway was to be our only one of the day! A stop in Roswell itself for Chimney Swifts or Mississippi Kites was fruitless so Bitter Lakes was next. By this time the wind was picking up–not a good sign.

The old visitor center on the refuge has several large cottonwoods and fruiting trees which held some of the days surprise birds. A Nashville Warbler perched in full view for everyone except for Dave who was looking the wrong way despite being just underneath it. A Townsend’s Warbler, Lazuli and Indigo Buntings, a Western Tanger, and a Black-headed Grosbeak brightened up the area, but the biggest surprise was a dark red tanager with a dark bill I saw fly out of some junipers. Raymond got on it and called out a Hepatic Tanager (NM #287)–quite rare in the eastern part of the state.

The wind was getting brutal by this point and if you’ve been to any national wildlife refuges, you know that wind + scope + far away birds is a bad combination. I didn’t even get my scope out of the truck because of my old unsturdy tripod. Many of the unusual birds from Saturday had moved on or were hiding. The only unexpected birds were a lone Forster’s Tern and a trio of Stilt Sandpipers. Four Long-billed Curlews hunkered down out of the wind near the exit were a nice parting gift from the refuge.

The next part of the big day was the longest drive yet and a big investment of time to get to Bosque del Apache NWR. I’m not sure it payed off as much as it might have, but most people on the trip had to get home to Albuquerque that night and it made sense to head that way. What did we pick up on the way? We saw our only Greater Roadrunner, Western Bluebird, Spotted Towhees, Red-shafted Flicker, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and Sora. The latter two were at a tiny reed-edged pond in the mountain town of Capitan in Lincoln County.

Bad weather

We were really running behind now, trying to beat the sun to Bosque del Apache. It wasn’t looking good. The road across the desert and lava flow west of Carizozo was slow going at times, but I was lucky enough to spot an Evening Grosbeak flying over.

Pohoihoi lava flows

At 6:50 PM, about 40 minutes before it would start getting dark, we made it to the visitor center where the wind must have been 30 miles an hour. Gambel’s Quail was the target here: easily seen and heard. The two birders from Santa Fe/Los Alamos caught a look at a Scott’s Oriole that played hide-and-seek with the rest of us.

On to the marsh loop! Neotropic Cormorants–check. Redheads–check. Black-crowned Night Herons–check. Glossy Ibis–what? (NM #288) Raymond did it again. I don’t know if he saw a different ibis in the flock from the truck or what, but he grabbed the scope and there it was in the middle of the White-faced Ibises. As a bonus, a Wilson’s Snipe ambled behind the rare ibis.

The sun was down at this point, but we weren’t giving up. I was kind of cold and tired of the wind, but we had a few more birds to see. In the murky darkness, someone noticed a darker heron among the dozens of roosting egrets. It took a while for everyone to get on it, but we eventually convinced ourselves that the dark bird among the Snowy Egrets was, indeed, a Little Blue Heron! (NM #289). After the heron and the ibis, the Virginia Rail and Lesser Nighthawks were nice but anti-climactic.

After dinner reservations for pizza in Socorro were made, we tried for owls. A Great Horned Owl was easy to find perched on a utility pole between the refuge and San Antonio. Along the canal south of town, Raymond called in a Western Screech-Owl (NM #290) and got a light on it for us to see (though I was fine with just hearing it). Yes, it’s been this long before I heard/saw one of the southwest’s common owl. I’m not good with finding owls and I don’t have a way to play calls. I guess I’ve got to go into the mountains at night and just listen. Or hope that wherever I live next in the city has a local pair of owls to keep me up at night.

I was ready to head home after dinner, but the rest of the group wanted to check for owls and poorwills in Water Canyon. It was cold and windy and, perhaps not surprisingly, we found nothing but a Great Horned Owl calling. We all called it a day, and made our way home from within Water Canyon. I got home after 12:30. Ugh.

Despite the late night owling, the weekend was a lot of fun. We saw some great birds, I saw two new life birds, and visited some beautiful parts of the state. We drove quickly though Lincoln County, but that’s one place I’d like to go back and spend more time. I don’t have records of my earlier big day totals, but I think the 161 I saw on Sunday beats them all.

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3 Responses to East Plains birdathon weekend–part 2: the Big Day

  1. Joe Fitzgibbon says:

    Matt,
    Well written. This was a great trip and I enjoyed reading about it. I have a couple photos I wanted to offer you before you posted Part II, but you got it out before I could write.
    If you’d like to see them let me know.

    Joe Fitzgibbon

    • Matt says:

      Thanks, Joe! Yes, I’d be happy to include some of your photos and I’ll give you credit, of course. You can send them to mjodon at gmail dot com

  2. Rebecca Gracey says:

    What a well-written birding adventure. It sounds like you guys had a great time.

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