Thursday, June 25, 2009

New Mexico Trip Report, June 10-24

This is my first report from the Southwest since establishing this blog last winter. Eva and I have been going to New Mexico at least once annually since 1996 and last year established a "home" base near the town of Datil located in the state's western mountains. The natural and cultural worlds of the Southwest contrast so dramatically with those of the Northeast, and every visit offers new adventures and learning experiences regarding the fauna, flora, ecology and geology, as well as the Hispanic and Native American peoples who have contributed richly to the past and continue to do so.

I would have liked to report two weeks worth of birding, unfortunately the downside of establishing a second home is another list of household chores in need of doing. So, this trip was a bit scant on the birding side of things, but nonetheless this report provides a snapshot of the birdlife of northern Catron County and other observations of particular note.

The weather over the two weeks was superb: daytime high temperatures were in the low to mid 80s; sunny, blue skies accented with scattered culmulus clouds; and a light breeze. Nights offered comfortable sleeping with temperatures typically in the 50s. This was in stark contrast to what we left behind in New England over the same period of time and eventually returned to. Rain is almost always a welcome event in the Southwest, but the monsoons (the Southwest's summer rainy season) held off until the evening before my departure. Since then weather reports have forecast the possibility of daily showers and thunderstorms. I cannot possibly put into words a description of the aromas given off by the arid vegetation (pinyon, juniper, creosote bush, etc.) following a summer shower...absolutely stimulating!

Over the two weeks foremost among my bird sightings was pair of nesting Ferruginous Hawks. The nest and two nestlings were in a juniper tree adjacent to NM Route 12 which traverses the southern extent of the Plains of San Augustin in Catron County. The plains are the southern most limit of the hawk's breeding range in the state. Over the course of the two weeks I periodically checked on the young and observed first hand changes in their development.

The nest and young were first spotted on June 12. As you can see in the photo below, the young on that date were predominantly covered in white down with some feathering beginning to emerge along the scapular region and in the wings. Despite the proximity of the nest to a relatively busy highway, the adults were exceedingly wary of human activity presented outside a vehicle and would promptly fly to other locations several hundred yards back into the surrounding rangeland taking positions on the ground or at the top of other junipers from which they emitted scolding high pitched whistles...kreee. Needless to say the separation distance between me and the adults presented less than satisfactory photo opportunities. On another day I tried a different strategy. Arriving before sunrise I took cover in a patch of saltbrush with scope and camera poised on the nest, but somehow the attending adult sensed my presence at daybreak and immediately retreated to its familiar distant vantage point. From that point forward my observations were made from a greater distance to minimize stress on the adult birds with the chance of causing nest abandonment.

On June 22 from 6 a.m. to noon I stole time from other commitments to dedicate to birding the 55 mile stretch of Route 12 between Datil and Apache Creek. The drive passes through several habitats: high desert grasslands, juniper savanna, pinyon-juniper woodlands(photo below top), ponderosa pine forest, riparian meadows and woodland (photo below bottom), and wetlands.

Essentially all birding was done from the road or involved very short ventures into specialized habitat (e.g., riparian woodland) resulting in a total tally of 47 species. Bird sightings included: Scaled Quail, Gambel's Quail, Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk, American Kestrel, Prairie Falcon, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Mourning Dove, a Common Nighthawk (dead on road), Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Lewis's Woodpecker, Northern (Red-shafted) Flicker, Black Phoebe, Say's Phoebe, Cassin's Kingbird, Western Kingbird, Loggerhead Shrike, Warbling Vireo, Pinyon Jay, American Crow, Chihuahuan Raven, Common Raven, Horned Lark, Violet-green Swallow, Cliff Swallow, Barn Swallow, White-breasted Nuthatch, Mountain Bluebird, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, Yellow Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Summer Tanager, Western Tanager, Spotted Towhee, Chipping Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, Black-headed Grosbeak, Red-winged Blackbird, Eastern Meadowlark, Western Meadowlark, Common Grackle, Bullock's Oriole, House Finch, and a Pine Siskin (dead on road).

By June 22 feathers had largely replaced the down and the young Ferruginous Hawks were taking on the appearance more akin to their parents (photo below top). And for whatever reason one of the adults remained on the nest long enough to allow me to snap off several images of it at relatively close range (photo below bottom). Perhaps it came to accept me not as a threat or the young having attained more advanced development (or independence?) may have been a factor.

With the preceding exception any other birding that took place over my two week stay occurred closer to "home" and was more or less incidental in nature. Habitat at our residence is primarily pinyon-juniper woodlands including some low elevation ponderosa pine and rangeland. Local sightings included: Turkey Vulture, Peregrine Falcon, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Mourning Dove, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Northern (Red-shafted) Flicker, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Say's Phoebe, Cassin's Kingbird, Western Kingbird, Plumbeous Vireo, Western Scrub-Jay, Pinyon Jay, American Crow, Common Raven, Chihuahuan Raven, Violet-green Swallow, Mountain Chickadee, Juniper Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Pygmy Nuthatch, Bewick's Wren, Western Bluebird, Mountain Blubird, American Robin, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Hepatic Tanager, Spotted Towhee, Chipping Sparrow, Black-headed Grosbeak, Brown-headed Cowbird, House Finch, and Lesser Goldfinch. Other wildlife observed were Botta's Pocket Gopher, Least Chipmunks, Rock Squirrels, Desert Cottontails, Black-tailed Jack Rabbits, Mule Deer, Elk, and this doe Pronghorn nursing one of a set of twins shortly after giving birth.

Based on the infrequency of bird sightings reported for Catron County via the New Mexico list serve and RBA, I am lead to conclude this largest of the state's counties in terms of land area (6,989 square miles) is vastly undercovered by birders with the exception of a few well publicized sites, namely the Catwalk and Mogollon near Glenwood and in the vicinity of Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. The county's human population is estimated to be 3,543, the third lowest in the state. Sixty-three percent of the county land area is under federal ownership of which most is adminsitered by the U. S. Forest Service under the Gila, Apache and Cibola National Forests. The largest standing body of water in the county is 131 acre Quemado Lake. No doubt Catron County is a bit off the beaten track for most birders, but I suspect it has a lot more to offer those willing to "tough it out" and explore its expansive back country.

Below is a very small sample of the 100 plus bird photos taken during this trip. Subjects include top-to-bottom: Clark's Grebe on Quemado Lake, male Black-headed Grosbeak, Plumbeous Vireo on nest, male Spotted Towhee, Ferruginous Hawk, Turkey Vulture, Loggerhead Shrike, male Western Bluebird, Prairie Falcon, and Curve-billed Thrasher with one of three nestlings visible.

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