12/12/2019 - 12/15/2019
You plan and you dream and you hope. It is the best you can do. Last weekend, my brother and I finally hopped on a plane and headed to Albuquerque, NM. It was a trip we had talked about taking for years. Albuquerque is home to the Sandia Crest, and Sandia Crest is one of the few places where you can see all three species of Rosy-Finch. Variously accentuated, North American Rosy-Finch come in three types: Black, Gray-crowned, and Brown-capped. In the winter, these finches head to the peak of Sandia Crest and visit the feeders of the Sandia Crest Guest House. I had seen Brown-capped in Colorado, but my brother still needed all three species; so, the plan was to hit up the Crest and then spend a few days birding locations around the state. He had a handful of other lifers to try and track down, and I had one other on my list, as well.
We arrived in Albuquerque around 12:30 PM on 12/12 and were at the top by 2:00 PM. We were fast. So, was the wind.... The wind was blowing a constant 10-15 mph and gusting somewhere around 20mph by the time we arrived. We were greeted by some fellow birders who told us that the finches had not been seen for a while. Adding to the bad news, we discovered that the guest house was not open during the week; only weekends. There are two feeders there; one on each side of the building. One is out in the open and easy to observe. The other is barely visible through some spruce trees and sitting on the deck railing. This feeder is best viewed from inside. To add to the bad news, the birds were reported to only be visiting the hard-to-see feeder. With no other options, we sat and waited and sat and waited, and then we waited some more. Finally, a small flock of about 8 flew in. As quickly as they arrived, they left. We compared notes and debated some IDs and were left with the opinion that we really needed a better look. A half hour later, we got some better looks. A flock of about 60 birds came gyring in and landed in some pine trees; taking turns at feeding and generally sheltering from the wind. Minutes later, they were back up in the air and circling in the winds before repeating the process all over again. They did this over the next 10 minutes before disappearing. We'd left our cameras in the car for most of this, and I did not end up with any shots. We ID'd all three species of Rosy-Finch and even managed a few of the Hepburn's form of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch. Cold, wind, and lack-of-photos aside, it was a great start to the trip. (Lifer count: Jeff -3; Mike - 2)
The next morning, we were up early and standing in the parking lot of Petroglyph National Monument just before sunrise. We were here to look for my other target bird for the trip - Crissal Thrasher. My brother already had this one, but we were going to look for a few sparrows that he needed while here, too. We walked a ways and did not see anything. I think we were just too early. After the sun crested Sandia Mountain, things picked up. We were enjoying some close Rock Wrens when the sparrows (Black-throated and Sagebrush) started perching up. While shooting sparrows, I caught a glimpse of a large, dark bird scurrying between bushes. A few seconds later, a Crissal Thrasher popped up in top of a bush in front of me. It turned out to be one of a pair that were chasing each other around the area. Periodically, they'd stop and perch up in a bush and then run off again.
Encouraged by our success, we hurried out and drove to a neighborhood near Embudito Trail, where Scaled Quail had been reported. This was a lifer for my brother, and I had high hopes for him. We drove the area for a bit and then checked out the trailhead, but we struck out. Morning was pressing on, and we decided to make another run up to Sandia Crest to see if we would have any better luck with the finches. We arrived around noon and were greeted with even stronger winds than the day before. In the end, the finches came in, again, much the same way they did the previous day. They would stay for brief periods and then fly up and around for a while; either returning to the feeders or disappearing into the distance. While I managed a few shots, I would not call them good for anything other than ID. They are the best Rosy-Finch photos I have, though.
Cold and tired, we headed back down the mountain. We made a stop at the Rio Grande Nature Center to check things out and found a somewhat cooperative Greater Roadrunner. (meep! meep!)
After some discussion, we decided it was time to head out of town. Our best bet for squeezing another lifer out of this trip was to head south and look for Scaled Quail. We had seen reports of quail at a park in El Paso, TX, and they seemed pretty reliable there. The biggest issue was that it was about a 3.5 hour drive south. To break up the drive, we made an evening stop at Bosque Del Apache. Bosque is one of those legendary birder locations. We were not here at quite the right time of year, though. Instead of thousands of cranes and geese, we had hundreds of ducks, a number of cranes, and a small flock of geese. Truth be told, most of the birds were probably out feeding in the various agricultural fields in the area. We drove the twin loops and had a good time trying to get some photos. It was, if nothing else, a welcome break in a long drive.
We ended the day in Las Cruces - on the night before graduation at NMSU. We had a bit of a hard time finding a place to stay. (Lifer count: Jeff - 3; Mike - 3)
Our final day of birding started an hour before sunrise and took us into Texas. It took a bit of digging the night before, but I was finally able to confirm my suspicion. Franklin Mountains State Park (the largest urban park in the US) had a photography blind. It appears that Scaled Quail is a regular visitor there. We arrived just at sunrise, but the park is located in a canyon, and the sun would not crest the walls for a while longer. We found the area with the blind right away and were immediately greeted by the call of a Scaled Quail. A quick scan of the area showed one sitting atop a park bench and calling. Five or so others were wandering the trail nearby. Happy and excited, we ducked into the blind and waited. Things were a bit slow. Some quail came by, but we were a bit over-lensed for shooting there. We bailed out and hit the nature trail loop, where we had even less. Returning to the blind, we waited some more. Eventually, things picked up, and we had Scaled Quail, Cactus Wren, Curve-billed Thrasher, Canyon Towhee, Black-throated Sparrow, and White-winged Dove making appearances.
At one point, we headed back out of the blind and drove the rest of the road up to the turn-around; checking various areas along the way. We did not have much, but my brother noted a thrasher diving for cover at one point. We stopped the car, and I started "pishing" out the window. A Bewick's Wren popped up and started scolding me. While I was photographing it, I looked back towards the rear door and was suddenly staring at a Crissal Thrasher. These birds become a lot easier to see once you have actually seen one, I guess. We parked the car and got out to see if we could get some photos. In the end, a pair of Curve-billed Thrashers and a pair of Crissal Thrasher were in the area. We even got a quick-change experience when a Curve-billed Thrasher perched atop some yucca dove into a bush and then popped back up on the yucca as a Crissal Thrasher. Neat trick!
With the sun up above the canyon rim, we headed back to the blind for a bit longer. While there, we finally had someone else show up. Richard Love was a long-time park volunteer and had actually built the blind we were in. It was nice to meet him, and we were definitely appreciative of his work. Not long after, another birder from Texas showed up to shoot. We had been there a while and not seen anything new; so, we called it a day and let him have the blind to himself.
The drive back to Alubuquerque was long but not uneventful. Just north of Las Cruces, near the dairy farms, we spotted a couple of large raptors on a pole being harassed by what appeared to be a falcon. We could not get very good looks and decided to double-back on a frontage road to see if we could get closer. By the time we arrived, the falcon was gone. The distance and lighting was still bad, but we concluded that the birds were western Red-tailed Hawk. The real excitement was spotting a Ferruginous Hawk perched on some irrigation equipment nearby. It was a beautiful adult bird. Happy with our find, we resumed the trip back north. Not much further up the road, we had our second fortunate find. A large, adult Golden Eagle was soaring and turning in the winds low over the sagebrush. We pulled over and watched the bird briefly. Another really cool and unexpected find. The rest of the trip was a lot less exciting. We saw a lot of Chihuahan Raven along the way, but not much else.
We arrived in Albuquerque about an hour before sunset. We made a run at locating a Burrowing Owl colony but busted on it. We finished the night with the worst pizza I think I've ever had and readied for our 6:00 AM flight the next morning. (Lifer count: Jeff - 4; Mike - 3)
In spite of the lack of Rosy-Finch pics, we had a really great trip. I look forward to going back some day to see them, again. For now, I'm just happy to have seen them. The two Rosy-Finch lifers were numbers 2099 and 2100 on my world life list. The thrasher brought me to 2101. Not too bad of a way to wind down the year.
Thanks to my brother, Jeff, for coming along and handling all the driving. He's a machine.
Thanks for reading,