Albuquerque, Part 2: Lifer Train on the Rio Grande

After Will went to go rehearse the tango for his part in Maria de Buenos Aires, I took a ride over to the west side of the city to visit the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park.

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Spotted Towhee

There were feeders everywhere and birds all around. One of the first species I saw was a dapper male Spotted Towhee, a lifer.

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Dark-eyed “Oregon” Junco

Among the flocks gorging on seeds were dozens of Dark-eyed Juncos, a species of which I have seen thousands in my life. But I had never before seen the Oregon race. Lifer color morph!

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“Audubon’s” Yellow-rumped Warbler

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“Red-shafted” Northern Flicker

Along with the Juncos were western color variations of my familiar Yellow-rumped Warblers and Northern Flickers. I made sure to document each of these in the off chance they get split into their own species some day. Similarly, I paid some attention to the big, pale western White-breasted Nuthatches that have recently been proposed for a split. Having now seen and heard them, I can understand that thought process.

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Porcupine

I saw all of these things within yards of the visitor’s center. And then there was this porcupine. It was actually one of two I saw at the park that afternoon to represent a lifer mammal!

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Banded Cooper’s Hawk

At the base of the same tree that the porcupine was snoozing in, I watched this banded Cooper’s Hawk enjoy its meal. I reported the band, 31C, but with the federal government shutdown I am not holding my breath on a response any time soon.

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Black Phoebe

As I wandered west toward the mighty Rio Grande, remarking in the process how she dances on the sand, I viewed my next lifer: this Black Phoebe. Seeing flycatchers in January is a novel experience for me!

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Lesser Goldfinch

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Bushtit

Two small, photo-shy birds were working the brush above the Phoebe, and they were also lifers: Lesser Goldfinch and Bushtit!

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Rio Grande Bosque

The trail opened up into the cottonwood forests all along the Rio Grande. It was pretty incredible to me how one city can contain so many totally different biomes. Compared to the high mountains I was in during the morning and the desert of the city, the river bosque was a unique world unto itself as well.

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Bewick’s Wren

Among the trees in the bosque, birds were less numerous. But there were still lifers to be had, like this spunky Bewick’s Wren. Interestingly, this species used to be common in the east within the last century including in Indiana, but now it is totally absent except in just a few random pockets of Ohio Valley hill country. Maybe one day I will stumble across one in the Midwest.

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A view with a view

I hiked along the river for a while and then looped back to explore the wetlands on the other side of the park. I stopped to enjoy the view of the distant Sandia Crest where I had been just a few hours earlier.

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Ross’s Goose

My eye was then drawn to the white blob in the middle of the other geese on the pond, where I saw that I was looking at only my second ever Ross’s Goose, and coincidentally right behind it my second ever Canvasback.

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Cackling Goose

Then I realized that the little guys that Ross was swimming around with were not just Canada Geese, but instead actually mostly Cackling Geese to keep the lifer train going. I stood and watched them for a while and then struck up a conversation with an older gentleman birder. We remarked how interesting it was for me to be so enthused by his common Cackling Geese, while at the same time he was so geeked about the apparently uncommon White-throated Sparrow under the feeders. I saw the sparrow too, but I didn’t pay it much attention because of how numerous they are for me at home.

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Greater Roadrunner

He asked me if I had seen any Roadrunners, and I told him unfortunately not. He remarked how they like to run around the parking lot at the nature center, and that I should watch for them there. We had our backs facing said parking lot, so I turned around to see where might be a good spot to look, and one was standing right there. Not to beat a dead horse, but — lifer #12 for the day!

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Roadrunner Sunbather

My first instinct was to be amazed at how huge Roadrunners are. I have occasionally felt that photos of certain species do not properly portray their size, either large or small, so that I have been impressed when I first lay my own eyes on them. But this Roadrunner was HUGE. Even though the field guides tell you measurements, for whatever reason I always envisioned them maybe a little larger than a Blue Jay. But now I know that they could actually give a Cooper’s Hawk the business.

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Portrait of a Killer

My next thought was that, wow, I must be lucky and I shouldn’t move too quickly or risk scaring this incredible bird away. But no. The thing didn’t care at all that I was standing right there, and then it just fluffed out its feathers and started sunbathing. I variously watched, photographed, and Instagrammed the beast all while it acted like I was not there and basically ran across my foot at one point. Finally, it had a friend appear to see what was going on, and they both decided that there were more interesting things to see/eat in the bushes out of sight.

It was incredibly cool to end the day with such an amazing animal that also happens to be the state bird of New Mexico (note: New Mexico might have the best state bird). Having spent nearly the entire day hiking and birding within a range of nearly 7,000 feet of elevation difference, I was pretty exhausted. I met Will back at his house, crashed for a nap, then we wrapped up the evening at a combination pinball arcade/techno club downtown, which itself was also a lifer experience.

The Last Week Or So

With what has been happening over, oh, the last week or so, I needed to get out of society for a little while this weekend.

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Fox Island

Fox Island in the snow made the perfect escape for a couple of hours. It was a really good snow. The flakes were big, they fell slowly, and it was hovering right around the freezing point so they didn’t make a mess of things.

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Carolina Chickadee sporting a snowflake

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Dark-eyed Junco sporting a snowflake

Birding was slow. On another day, I would have been disappointed. But it was good to hang out with familiar friends and just be in the moment.

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Hairy Woodpecker

This Hairy Woodpecker did a pretty good job of showing how I felt most of the week: sluggish and wanting to close my eyes in response to everything.

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The wisdom of woodpeckers

I empathized with the woodpeckers a lot, actually.

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The hard work of woodpeckers

Frequently, I have felt like banging my head against a tree.

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The logic of woodpeckers

Seeing what is going on in my country makes me want to bang my head against a tree so hard that it breaks through to the other side.

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Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers

The woodpeckers had it right in more than one way, though. They were doing their best with each other, even when species and ecological niches collided. There was no conflict in this tree that for a moment held both a Hairy and a Downy Woodpecker.

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American Elm

Despite all odds, this American Elm reaches to unexpected heights in an area of the country where they have been all but extirpated by Dutch Elm Disease. This particular tree grows right next to a trail and has a plaque next to it that says something along the lines of “American Elms rarely grow this large before they are killed by disease. They are characterized by their unique bark, which alternates between layers of red and white much like the stripes on the American flag.” How is that for a heavy-handed metaphor? Hopeful, nonetheless.

If you have felt the way I do since about January 20th, don’t despair. Keep doing what you are good at. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are too angry or that you are not angry enough. And if nothing else, take the words of my state’s greatest author to heart:

“If you can do no good, then at least do no harm.” -Kurt Vonnegut

At the very least, go outside and look up, be it into the sky or into the tree tops. It will help.

Novembirds

Greetings again reader(s)! After a month since my last birding outing, I know that my “big year” has become laughable, but I have had to balance my life with other things, such as having nonsense conversations with Walter (who is now 3 months old), being busy with a promotion at work, attending a way cool UU church, and listening to the new Arcade Fire on vinyl (happening now… I especially dig ‘Joan of Arc’ and ‘Awful Sound’). Despite this other life I lead, I got out to Eagle Marsh today and had a fruitful day with the birdies.

#146 Herring Gull and #147 Dunlin

#146 Herring Gull and #147 Dunlin

This is basically all I had to look at, but there are two new year birds in this photo! The Herring Gull (#146) was one I was worried I would miss out on entirely this year. Up until today, it is probably the commonest resident Indiana bird that I had not seen. The larger, browner bird in front of the Ring-Billed Gulls is a first-winter Herring. Way behind the gulls in the background are a bunch of little peeps running around. Those are Dunlins (#147 + lifer). This is the best I could do photo-wise, so you just have to trust me here.

#148 Wilson's Snipe

#148 Wilson’s Snipe

The final new bird of the day was one that I almost overlooked amongst the Dunlins: Wilson’s Snipe (#148 + lifer)! You can’t see much in this super grainy photo, but the absurdly long bill gives him away.

Since my field days have been limited, I have been birding Grosbeak Gardens (aka the back yard) much more frequently lately. Some highlights:

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Carolina Wren

Carolina Wren

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

Dark-Eyed Junco

Dark-Eyed Junco

Carolina Chickadee

Carolina Chickadee

I have since learned that the Chickadees floating around the yard (and much of Fort Wayne, actually) are Carolina, not Black-Capped. Apologies for the error. Additionally, everyone has been happy in the yard recently (especially the Carolina Wrens) with the installation of a new suet feeder (not pictured).

Mary Gray Bird Sanctuary

I eagerly watched eBird all week for signs of the continuation of Evening Grosbeaks at the Mary Gray Bird Sanctuary in Connersville, about an hour and a half east of Indianapolis. After seeing no updates, I impatiently asked on the Indiana Birding Facebook group if they were still there, and I was met with an affirmative answer! So the first thing I did on Saturday (after cleaning the house and walking the dog) was to pack up and go bird.

I pulled up to the parking lot right at 9:00, and a gentlemen approached my car and asked if I was looking for the Grosbeaks. He turned out to be the resident manager of the sanctuary, and he brought me to the glassed-in porch behind his home where dozens of common feeder birds were feasting on sunflower seeds. I only had to wait about five minutes before the giant yellow beasts showed up, and I owe him life bird #187 and year bird #042! (Thank you!)

Evening Grosbeak

#042 Evening Grosbeak

Evening Grosbeaks only appear irregularly during the winter in Indiana, and sometimes they don’t show up at all. To be able to see them so easily and at such close range was just awesome. This is just another bird in the great bounty of this winter’s huge irruption.

Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker

#044 Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker

Year bird #044 was this Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker that was banging away on a pine tree on one of the sanctuary’s many trails. I wasn’t expecting to see this woodpecker until after I had encountered the much more common Hairy Woodpecker, but to date, the Hairy is the most notable absence on my year list.

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

Continuing the theme of woodpeckers was a Downy Woodpecker, a species that I had previously seen this year. Because they are everywhere.

House Finch

House Finch

Another of the already seen and common birds was the House Finch. This one swooped in after the Grosbeaks left and started noshing on seeds. For those keen observers keeping track at home, year bird #043 was this guy’s friend, a Purple Finch, that was hanging out with the flock, but I did not get his photo.

Dark-Eyed Junco

Dark-Eyed Junco

For good measure, here is another common winter bird, the Dark-Eyed Junco.

Since this was the last weekend of January, my total for the month will most likely stay at 44 birds, unless something unexpected lands on my head or I finally see a Hairy Woodpecker around my neighborhood.

Winter Specialties

This is a totally rad year for winter bird irruptions, and Indiana is getting its fair share. It all started with Red-Breasted Nuthatches all the way back in September, and the party has been continuing lately with both Red and White-Winged Crossbills.

White-Winged Crossbill

White-Winged Crossbill

In a trek out to Eagle Creek last week, I managed to see the White-Winged variety chomping on some pine cones (lifer). This might be one of the coolest birds I have ever seen. The kind folks at Cornell have a video telling you why:

I didn’t see any of the other famous winter finches, but it was a great trip with three lifers in total, including this guy:

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrows have suffered since the invasive House Sparrow (or Bitch Sparrow as it is known in the Majewski household) has arrived. But these guys came down from Canada to see what was going on for Thanksgiving.

Dark-Eyed Junco

Dark-Eyed Junco

Dark-Eyed Juncos are probably the most common winter-only bird in the Midwest, but this picture is terrible anyway. It took a long time before Jaime believed that they actually exist, because I would always talk about them while walking our dog, Emma The Dog, but we would never see any.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention my other lifer, which was not the Junco but a Bonaparte’s Gull that I failed to get a picture of.