The end of fall migration on the east plains of NM

Eastern New Mexico’s dry plains host a surprising number of neotropical migrants during the spring and fall. Many of these birds are vagrants from the east at or beyond the extreme western edge of their migration routes. Isolated woodlots act as traps as migrants head for the nearest cover to rest, feed, and stay hidden from predators. Most of these birds fly at night; when they find themselves at dawn surrounded by flat grassland, they may take whatever trees they can. Almost all of these migrant traps are artificial: cottonwoods planted around farms and ranches or county parks providing shade for picnic tables. A few, along rivers, contain naturally occurring trees. I can only winder what effect the more recent artificial migrant traps have on bird populations.

Some pretty amazing reports came from hotspots all over the eastern part of the state this fall. I convinced Joe and Rebecca to head out that way earlier this week to check for some of these migrants and perhaps some late season butterflies moving up from further south. We were too late for many of the migrants and didn’t luck into too many butterflies, but we did see a few goodies. Joe also wrote about our trip.

We made a few stops on the way to Fort Sumner where we spent the night. Sumner Lake between Fort Sumner and Santa Rosa held a Forster’s Tern contentedly sitting out on the water like a gull.

The Melrose trap was pretty quiet the day we were there, in contrast to the many bird reports from previous days in the sightings log at the site. A few hummingbirds zipped around two feeders. We determined that both Black-chinned and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (#302 for NM) were present, the latter a rare migrant and tough identification challenge in the West. Also from points east, two Yellow-shafted Northern Flickers (Joe’s photo) were present. One crouched on a stick near the water tank looking very lost out in the open. Many sparrows played hide-and-seek in the scrub, including the ubiquitous White-crowned and Chipping, as well as a surprising number of Clay-colored Sparrows. A pair of Field Sparrows and a single White-throated Sparrow rounded out that group. The biggest surprise was also hanging out with the sparrows: an eastern Bell’s Vireo (Joe’s photo). The status of this population of Bell’s Vireos in the state is uncertain. It certainly wasn’t rare enough to make the NM rare bird alert but there are very few records of any Bell’s Vireo in east-central New Mexico.

It draws all the birds in!

I convinced Rebecca to drive an hour or so east to visit the Clovis wastewater treatment plant. I think this is my first visit to a bonafide wastewater facility to look for birds. The ponds that birds favor are full of treated water, so it didn’t smell too bad except near the sludge tanks. Stopping here was a great choice. We got to see hundreds of grebes, thousands of coots and various species of ducks, and a good number of shorebirds. We especially enjoyed a small flock of Long-billed Curlews hunkered down out of the wind. As we drove in around the ponds, I yelled “Stop! we’ve got a swift!” Chimney Swifts breed in cities in eastern New Mexico, but October is really late. Vaux’s Swifts are sometimes seen further west and are much rarer. The swift was spending most of its time on my side of the car so I asked to use Joe’s camera to try and get some shots. I didn’t want anyone getting out of the car quickly and scaring off either the swift or the numerous shorebirds and ducks nearby. Based on the few photos that came out well, I think it is a Chimney Swift (#303 for NM), just a very late migrant.

The flock of ducks nearby held our target: a pair of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks (#304 for NM) that had been hanging out for a month or two. These ducks are a bit smaller than Mallards but stand taller on longer legs. Their bright orange legs and bills really stand out.

After the sewage ponds, we made an unsuccessful stop at Ned Houk Park north of Clovis. I think we went to the wrong part. When I looked at an aerial photo of the park, I noticed another, larger pond with hedges around it to the southeast of where we were. The NM bid finding guide mentions the most productive spot at the southern end of the park–we went north. Oh well.

A trio of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers brightened the drive from Clovis back to Fort Sumner.Bosque Redondo park was fairly unproductive–too late in the season and too late in the day. There were a number of butterflies, most of which got away from us. We wanted to get back to Sumner Lake before sunset so we didn’t spend much time there.

We checked below the da at the lake in an area of cottonwoods and junipers. But this too was slow and unproductive. The lake itself held more Ring-billed Gulls than the previous day. I was hoping for a Sabine’s Gull to fly by and we got a little excited when a small, tern-like gull flew in to join the rest. After getting better views, we could tell that it was a Franklin’s Gull. We first thought a nearby tern was the Forster’s from the previous day, but a closer look at this larid showed it to be a Common Tern (#305 for NM) A raft of fifty or so American White Pelicans lined the far shore.

As we were walking closer to the gulls to get a better look, we kept flushing tiny brown birds just feet in front of us. It took us a little too long to realize that we were chasing longspurs! I recognized some of the flight calls of Chestnut-collared Longspurs (Joe’s photo) but there was a different call coming from the flock as well. It took forever to track down a bird and get a glimpse of it on the ground before it flew off. they knew too well how to hide in grass and tiny plants no more than a yard away. One stayed still and not as hidden long enough for us to get the scope on it. This one was a McCown’s Longspur (a lifer, #547 for my US list and #306 for NM), lighter than the Chestnut-collared with a longer, lighter supercillium. These first winter longspurs are the epitome of LBJ’s, or little brown jobs. The adults, especially the males, are much more colorful.

We missed the bulk of the exciting fall migration, but the trip was still fun, with good company, and just enough unusual birds (and cool more common birds) to keep the day interesting.

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2 Responses to The end of fall migration on the east plains of NM

  1. Good post, Matt. Definitely need to make a return visit to Melrose when the weather’s more cooperative – imagine that’s why we didn’t get a few more there.

    • Matt says:

      Next time! The birding was “better” the weekend before and after, but that happens all too often. I’m surprised people weren’t more excited about the Eastern Bell’s Vireo.

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