Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Bosque's Winter Birds

One of my major duties at Bosque del Apache NWR this winter season was to drive a tour van for the 4 free Refuge tours each weekend.  Surprisingly, not a single one of them was dedicated to the Sandhill Cranes that most visitors come wanting to see.

As magnificent and thrilling as the cranes are, let’s face it, they’re big and rather slow-moving, predictable birds.  Pretty easy to spot, sit and watch for hours at a time—no binoculars or bird guide books required!  So, the tours aimed to focus on all the other birds of the Refuge.  The ones that might take a bit more help to spot and identify.

Each Saturday morning began with the Birding Tour (followed by a non-birding Refuge tour in the afternoon).  On Sunday, we’d do a Raptor Tour in the morning and a Duck Tour in the afternoon.  Here I am ready to load up the next group of happy Bosque tour participants into our trusty big-ass Chevy passenger van!

I was fortunate to drive for the Refuge's senior volunteer naturalist, Cathie, who was a never-ending wealth of knowledge about all our feathery friends.

At the start of the season, I was a pretty clumsy, novice birder.  While I'd served 6 weeks at Bosque in the Spring, most of the Winter species were completely different and had to be learned from scratch.

But as the season progressed, so did my identification skills.  The driver's role is to not only drive, but also to help scan and spot birds.  At first, I'd just quietly point to movement or lumps in trees and not attempt to identify them until Cathie did.  But soon, I started trying to identify them, and soon after that, was getting more and more of them right!

By late December, Cathie asked if I'd like to try leading the January Sunday afternoon Duck Tours to kick my naturalist skills up to the next level.  How oddly exhilarating it was to be "trading front seats" in the van!  Hopefully the January Duck Tour attendees didn't feel too slighted at having the rookie give them their tour rather than the expert-- it was an incredibly valuable training experience for me.

We got to see so many amazing birds on these weekend tours!  The Saturday morning general birding tour gave me a better appreciation of all the smaller birds of the Refuge, such as the abundant White-crowned Sparrows (who liked to hang out in the kochia bushes at the Tour Loop entrance among other places):

White-crowned Sparrows

Another bird here in large numbers was the Red-winged Blackbird.  During the winter season, they separate into giant same-sex flocks called murmurations.  Here is a group of females buzzing over some cranes and geese feeding at the South corn field.

Female Red-winged Blackbirds
Murmuration of female Red-winged Blackbirds

While large flocks would usually get initial attention, there were often plenty of other birds in a field too-- you just had to look for them a bit more, like these Western Meadowlarks and Say's Phoebe.

Western Meadowlarks
Say's Phoebe

On warmer sunny days, we'd often find a refuge perennial favorite, the Greater Roadrunner, dashing out in front of the van.  This one posed in front of a sign that, coincidently, is not only the speed limit for cars on the tour loops, but the roadrunner's maximum speed as well!

Greater Roadrunner

Another crowd favorite, the Great Blue Heron, was often found hunting for fish along one of the canal banks.

Great Blue Heron

Elephant Butte Lake (about 60 miles south of the Refuge) tends to attract more fish-eating birds such as grebes and pelicans.  But we would still occasionally see a few here, like the Kingfisher who made his home at the old rookery until the Christmas snowstorm sent him further south.  

Male Kingfisher 
Western Grebe

The Saturday before Christmas, I got to participate in a long-time favorite event among birders, the Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count.  I was teamed up with Cathie and the Biology volunteer, Elzie, to count every bird we could find in a section of the north end of the refuge that is closed to the public.  The highlight of that day was spotting this sleeping Western Screech Owl expertly camouflaged in his cottonwood tree. 

Western Screech Owl

While so many visitors today associate Bosque del Apache with sandhill cranes, the refuge was actually established in 1939 as a habitat for migratory dabbling ducks.  Consequently, the three largest duck populations today are all dabblers-- the Northern Pintails, Northern Shovelers, and Mallards.  Always gorgeous to see in their breeding plumages!

Male Northern Pintails
Northern Shoveler Male and Female
Mallard Male and Female

Another dabbler that I got to see quite a bit this season was the American Wigeon.  The males have a white mohawk across the tops of their heads that make them quite distinctive!

Male American Wigeons

When I had seen Gadwalls from a distance, they always seemed rather boring-looking-- just gray/brown all over.  That is, until I finally saw them up close and in the proper lighting.  Wow!

Male Gadwall

After sorting through hundreds of duck photos one day to give to the Ranger who manages the Bosque Facebook page, one was this photo of a Pintail who looked as if he was quacking.  I didn't think much of it until the ranger pointed out the illusion-- there was actually a second male pintail behind it (providing the "lower" bill)!

How many Pintail ducks do you see?

One early October day, I mentioned to Cathie that I was having a hard time identifying ducks because they all looked like females (in other words, just mostly brown ducks with indistinguishable markings).  "They had been so easy to identify last Spring," I lamented.  She laughed and then educated me on the molting process and the differences between a duck's breeding and non-breeding ("eclipse") plumages.

When the ducks first arrive in the Fall, the males are still in eclipse plumage (so, they all look pretty similar to females).  But once settled in their winter home, over the next month or two, the males will molt into their more familiar (and colorful) breeding plumages.  All except for the little male Ruddy Duck, who waits until the end of Winter to get his bright blue bill and crimson sides.

Male Ruddy Duck, non-breeding plumage
This season, I honed in on improving my duck identification skills, ideally, without needing to use binoculars.  But some can be incredibly difficult if they're far away-- are those Ring-necks or Scaup? Redheads or Canvasbacks?  Ah, the challenge of becoming a birder!

One day, after watching a few buffleheads, I scanned a pond to see what I thought was just another bufflehead (based on it's white "notched" head).  But once I put the binoculars up to my eyes, I realized it was the much less common Hooded Merganser.  Ah, the unexpected thrills of birding!

Male Bufflehead
Male Hooded Merganser

Identifying female ducks is always a challenge (because most are similarly colored in brown).  Here, the trick is to look at everything except the color-- shape, bill, tail, and any other distinguishing marks.

Once I learned that trick, I could tell right away that this sleeping duck was a female ring-necked (rather than a female scaup) because of the ring around her eye.  What a cutie!

Female Ring-necked Duck 
Female Ring-necked Duck

Another group of birds I learned much more about this winter were the raptors-- birds of prey who hunt and/or eat other animals.  At first, it was extremely frustrating to try and identify these birds as they'd often be flying, or perched too far away.  But after assisting on the Raptor Tour for a few months, I became more familiar with their behaviors and how to identify (at least) the raptors on the refuge.

My favorite raptor was our smallest falcon, the colorful American Kestrel.  Cathie would often say they looked like little ice cream cones when perched in a tree, and indeed they do!  The female has light stripes down her chest with red feathers in the back, while the male has small spots on his chest and blue and red feathers.  It was quite a treat to see a pair of them together one day on the same tree branch!

Female American Kestrel
Female American Kestrel

Male American Kestrel
American Kestrel Pair
Our most common accipiter, the Cooper's Hawk, was often on the move and difficult to identify, but later in the season, one particular bird became quite willing to perch up near the tour loop road and pose for all the visitors who would stop to photograph him!

Cooper's Hawk
A raptor you'd almost always find on the move was the Northern Harrier.  While it was sometimes confused by visitors with the Red-tailed Hawk (both are similar size),  there are a few easy ways to distinguish between the two-- Harriers have a white rump patch on their backs (hard to see in the photo below, but easy to see when these birds are flying); Harriers also have a much straighter, narrow tail.  Harriers have an owl-shaped head and do most of their hunting by hearing their prey (i.e. small rodents in the fields).

Female Northern Harrier
Southwestern Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed hawks, on the other hand, are most often found perched rather than flying-- Cathie liked to say that, from a distance, they looked like "footballs" in trees, and they really do!  From the back, they usually have dark feathers that are either brown with some white speckles, or all brown.  Their famous red tails are relatively short, and barely visible beneath their long wings.  From the front, they often sport what is called a "belly band" of dark feathers across their light chests.  But that's not always the case-- the lighter versions of this bird on the refuge, the Southwestern and Ferruginous, have faint to no visible belly band across their light chests, whereas the dark morph version has an all-dark chest.  So, safe to say that these abundant hawks are the most varied in color of anything else on the refuge!

Western Red-tailed Hawk
Western Red-tailed Hawk

Another common resident of the Bosque, and a "raptor wanna-be" is the raven.  Both Common and Chihuahuan Ravens call the refuge home.  One thing I never knew about these birds is that ravens have an undercoat of white feathers beneath their shiny black exterior (visible on really windy days).

Chihuahuan Raven

Ravens are not true raptors because they lack talons on their feet (to kill prey with).  Rather, they are scavengers-- the clean-up crew who comes in to finish off what the larger raptors and predatory mammals kill.  I got a very, VERY graphic reminder of this one day as I rounded the corner to drive up the North Loop.  Nature is not all glory, and can be downright gory too....but disturbingly fascinating at the same time.

Chihuahuan Raven feeding on a Mallard head
"Darth Vader" of the bird world?

The largest winter raptors on the Refuge are also scavengers.  Bald Eagles normally kill and eat fish, but as the fish here are minimal and mostly in canals rather than the large ponds, the eagles feast mainly on snow geese (that have died from natural causes).

We had about a dozen eagles on the refuge this winter in various stages of maturity-- some were all-dark juveniles, or speckled dark and white young adults.  Bald Eagles don't get their classic white heads and tails until about their 5th year.

But we had two mature adults that were quite something to see-- a pair in full courtship mode!  They'd perch near each other on a large tree, or a bit closer together on a medium-sized snag, and even closer still on a tee-tiny little branch barely above the water!

Bald Eagle pair
Bald Eagle pair
Bald Eagle pair

The last two photos were taken during my final weekend tours at the end of January.  What an amazing way to an amazing season!


  1. I thought our visiting hawk was a Cooper's. Now I am not so sure. Can you look at this post (somewhat gory) and tell me what you think?

    1. Your's is juvenile. The one above was an adult. Your's does look a bit more like a young Cooper's rather than a young Sharp-shinned (I'm guessing that from the head appearing to be a bit rectangular in some of the photos, and due to this hawk being bigger than the pigeon). Sharp-shinned hawks are very similar, but smaller birds with a more rounded head. Hope that helps!

  2. As usual you capture the moment in beautiful photos and insight. Is it too early to consider another calendar?

    1. Ha! Well my goal this year is to visit lots of pretty places this spring and summer, so fingers crossed I'll get a good enough assortment for another calendar. In the meantime, the Skinnie Winnie Baja Brigade (aka me, Hans & Ursula) are planning to head to San Felipe and Ensenada soon for a few weeks of fish tacos and sandy beaches. If Rufus is itching for a little get-away, come down and join us!

    2. I'll be watching the blog for your travel dates. I hope we can meet up in San Felipe, or Bahia Santa Maria.

    3. Great photo of the Screech Owl.

  3. Replies
    1. ha ha! Guess it takes one to know one! Well, I'm having fun with it. I got a Tilley hat, a digiscoping adapter for my iPhone to fit onto my binoculars, and a Pete Dunn book as my going away gifts from Bosque-- guess that REALLY makes me a bird nerd now!

  4. Can't believe all those Sandhills just standing around for people to watch them!

  5. Great post with a lot of useful information on identifying birds. And of course the pictures are spot on - as usual. I'm glad the time at the refuge went well and that you learned a lot. Have a great time in Mexico.

  6. Wonderful Post…. thanks so much for sharing!

  7. The photos are really great, I love watching the birds. Thanks for the bird tutorial. We have a Great Blue Heron at our community pond, along with the Canadian Geese and the ducks.

  8. Hello, Lynne - Wonderful photos! The browns and blues of your Sandhill Cranes photo at the top is great. I also like the dusting of snow with mountains and bare tree with the eagle pair. Very pretty.
    I was just rereading some of your info about mounting your monitor at your table. I have a peripheral monitor 22" that I used now with my Dell laptop and think this setup might still work when I get my Casita. Do you take the monitor out of the holder and wrap it up and put it on the floor when you are traveling? I'm sure you enjoy this new location for your tv watching, rather than looking way up there at the over-the-door position.
    Thank you for your very nice blog, Lynne. I really love seeing your photos and you have some really helpful information, although, I am not nearly as mechanical as you are. Happy Trails. Pamelab in Houston

    1. Hi Pamela-- yes, I do remove the monitor from the mount and stow it when traveling. I kept the dust-free cover it came wrapped in and wrap that in a big beach towel and then set it on one of the dinette bench seats or on the bed. The cushions absorb more road vibration than laying it directly on the floor. So far, after 2 years of travel (and some very bumpy roads!), the monitor still works great! I highly recommend the quick-disconnect mount-- much easier than having to screw/unscrew the 4 VESA mount screws every time.

  9. Thank you, Lynne, for taking the time to answer my questions regarding the monitor while en route. I was not aware of the quick-disconnect mount option, which does sound like a good idea.
    Looking over your photos again, and I don't see a bad one in the bunch. Thank you for all those beautiful and detailed photos - a real treat.
    Happy Trails.
    Pamelab from Houston

  10. Great photos. Your blog postings of your current job has peaked my interest enough that I am going to take my 1st trip to a local area called Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife park. Only 15 miles away that I have never checked out after living here for 19 years. I'll post photos and blog about it when I do make the trip. Should be soon, maybe once spring has arrived.


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