Sunday, October 11, 2009

New Mexico, September 29-October 6

This is a time of seasonal transitions whether in New England or the Southwest. We recently returned from a week in New Mexico preparing our home there for winter and fitting in some fall birding in the western mountains region. Certainly not as stunning as Vermont's foliage change, nonetheless New Mexico offers its own version which can be just as breathtaking when contrasted against the dominance of varied earthtones characterizing the landscape much of the year. Late summer rains have added a pastel green tint to the grasslands and mountain slopes not unlike the all too brief period of misty green Vermont's terrain displays during early spring. On top of this green tapestry are accents of southwestern flora in full bloom, including the bright yellows of chamisa (rabbitbrush), plains zinnia and daisies, the silvery-white plumes of winterfat, blues and purples of asters, and orange-reds of globemallows.

Within a day or two of our arrival the bird feeders were replenished and in no time were rediscovered by a variety of birds affiliated with the surrounding pinyon-pine woodlands. Ten species were observed visiting the feeders over the week: Eurasian Collared-Dove, Western Scrub-Jay, Pinyon Jay, Mountain Chickadee, Juniper Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Chipping Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Dark-eyed (Gray-headed, Pink-sided, Oregon) Junco, Cassin's Finch, and House Finch. Others seen in the "yard" but not at the feeders included Northern (Red-shafted) Flicker, Common Raven, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Western Bluebird, Townsend's Solitaire, American Robin, Green-tailed Towhee, and Spotted Towhee. A couple straggler hummingbirds (Selosphorus spp.) were spotted all too briefly to nail down identification, but I suspect they were Rufous Hummingbirds. As back here in New England virtually all the resident nesting neotropical species have already departed for Mexico and beyond.

On Sunday, October 4 we made a day trip to Glenwood 105 miles south of our home in Datil and hiked into Whitewater Canyon in the Gila National Forest. The canyon is known for the Catwalk, a metal walkway bolted to the canyon walls and formerly a 3-mile long pipeline constructed in 1893 to deliver water to generate electricity for the short-lived mining town of Graham. The present day Catwalk trail follows a perennial stream that flows through riparian woodlands dominated by cottonwoods, Arizona sycamore and walnut. The easy hike can offer productive birding including specialties like American Dipper and Painted Redstart. Time of the year and windy conditions made for challenging bird watching this visit with only 11 species sighted: Sharp-shinned Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Northern (Red-shafted) Flicker, a vireo ("Solitary" group, possible Cassin's Vireo), Common Raven, Bridled Titmouse, Canyon Wren, Yellow-rumped (Audubon's) Warbler, Townsends Warbler, Chipping Sparrow, and White-crowned Sparrow.

The most noteworthy sighting was not that of a bird but rather a rare, nonvenomous snake, the Narrow-headed Gartersnake Thamnophis rufipunctatus (photo below), a state threatened species in New Mexico and a U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service species of special concern. As far as gartersnakes go, this species is very atypical in that it lacks the long stripes along the body, instead being spotted, and having an unsual head shape. The individual we sighted measured about 18-20 inches in length and was crossing the trail within several yards of Whitewater Creek. The Narrow-headed Gartersnake is a highly aquatic species associated with clear-water, rocky streams having abundant streamside vegetation (NMDGF 2007). It is primarily a fish-eater, although amphibians are also consumed. When alarmed it typically dives to the stream bottom and takes refuge under stones.

At the end of our hike we were treated to a group of five Javelinas (Collared Peccaries) foraging in the dry river bed. Among the group was an adult female with two young. They casually munched on vegetation and from time to time where heard overturning stones presumedly looking for prey. As the sun sank behind the horizon we continued our trip back home along the way spotting another larger group of javelinas, Mule Deer and and Elk. An enjoyable and rewarding day.

Now back in Vermont, we're enjoying the fall foliage season at its peak and getting caught up on fall chores (moving fire wood inside, putting the vegetable garden and flower beds to rest, and soon raking an almost endless crop of leaves). Following photos: Western Scrub-Jay, Mountain Chickadee, "Pink-sided" and "Gray-headed" Juncos, Javelina with barely noticable young, and Greater Roadrunner.


New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. 2007. Narrow-headed Gartersnake (Thamnophis rufipunctatus) recovery plan. NMDGF, Conservation Services Division, Sante Fe, NM. 22 p.

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