Albuquerque, Part 3: Farewell in the Foothills

First, let me say that if you are here because of the 5MR group, welcome! I want to assure you that I actually am birding locally in 2019, but before I get into that I have one final trip post from my stint in New Mexico.

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Eurasian Collared Dove and a hot air balloon

I awoke early on Sunday morning to a nice purple sky. When I stepped to the window to admire it, I noticed that there was a hot air balloon flying over the neighborhood like it was the most normal thing in the world. Putting on clothes to go investigate and take some scenic photos, I managed to line it up with a Eurasian Collared Dove on a street lamp. I feel like this particular scenario would never happen in 49 other states.

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White-winged Dove

Back at Will’s house, this White-winged Dove was keeping watch over the front yard. These birds are as common as pigeons in Albuquerque so I had lifered them on my first day in town, but this was the best up-close experience I had with one. After Instagramming it with the requisite Fleetwood Mac joke, we got breakfast and then headed to the foothills.

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Elena Gallegos Open Space

Our destination was the Elena Gallegos Open Space on the east side of town which was chosen specifically by my host for its excellent scenic attributes and high-quality hiking.

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Western Bluebirds

Of course I was also acutely aware that the rocky hills peppered with juniper and cholla would bring all kinds of new birds to me, too. To prove my point, a flock of Western Bluebirds greeted us almost immediately upon exiting the car. Lifer.

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Townsend’s Solitaire

Pretend that this in-focus photo of the front of a juniper shrub is what I actually want to show you. The blurred Townsend’s Solitaire in the background is just a bonus. This was unfortunately the best shot of the flighty little things I could manage even though they were numerous in the juniper. Lifer again.

3 - our climb

Challenge: accepted.

We followed the established trail for quite a while until my guide saw a rocky ridge protruding out from the hills and decided that we had to climb it. It intimidated the hell out of me, but with my guide’s expertise in bouldering I decided to go with it.

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Human for scale

Here is a photo of Will to show the scale of the boulders on which we were scrambling. The climb took a solid hour and ended up being almost 500 vertical feet above the trail. It would have been a relatively easy climb except for the prickly pear and cholla growing in between most of the rocks. I managed to complete the climb while only getting shanked once.

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Our view from the top

The ridge we climbed wasn’t even a minor prominence among the canyons, but the view from the top was spectacular.

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Our view looking the other direction

Looking out over the valley and the city, it felt like I had just summited a major peak. But turning 180 degrees showed just how high the crest was beyond us, nearly 4,000 feet higher still. “Sandia” is the Spanish word for watermelon, and it was apparent why these mountains were named as we were up close and personal with their pink granite.

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Common Raven

The only birds around as we climbed were dozens of Dark-eyed Juncos fleeing before us. After we reached the top of our climb, I tried to meditate but was easily distracted by a soaring Common Raven flying overhead. Lifer once more.

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Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay

The climb down was a little easier but we still had to be strategic in our descent. I was rewarded at the bottom with exceptional views of curious Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays. Lifer, again, for the record.

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Western Red-tailed Hawk

The last life bird for the trip was a Ladder-backed Woodpecker that we flushed out of the brush while bushwhacking. I did not get a picture of it, so here is a dark-morph “Western” Red-tailed Hawk, a color of the species I had never previously seen. In all, I saw 54 species on the trip, 16 of which were lifers. My total life list now checks in at a tantalizing 299 species. My next one will be a neat milestone, and while the trip was fantastic it will be kind of cool to most likely get it close to home.

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One last look

Albuquerque was a phenomenally great place to visit, and if I ever get the chance to go back I definitely will. The combination of the atmosphere of the city, the scenery, the outdoor adventure opportunities, the food, and yes also the birds made it one of the most remarkable places I have ever been, and it was made all the better by getting to visit such a cool person in the process.

Something I learned after my visit is that New Mexico has the fourth highest state species list in the country, ahead of such places as Arizona and Alaska, and trailing only California, Florida, and Texas. So what I’m saying is that if you want to plan a trip, go to the land of enchantment. See lots of cool birds, but do lots of other cool things there, too!

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Eagle Marsh

Birding has played second fiddle to life this summer, but I got out to Eagle Marsh on Sunday. I had a few species on my mind that I wanted to see, but when I got there it was obvious that the sheer number of individuals would be the highlight. Post-breeding dispersal is on in the Midwest.

RTHA

Red-tailed Hawk

The first bird to catch my attention was a young, begging Red-tailed Hawk that sounded remarkably like a Ring-billed Gull.

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Swallow Flock

PUMA 2

Swallow Swarm

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Purple Martins

As I hiked down the Towpath Trail, I became increasingly aware that there were thousands of birds around. Most of them were swallows, and of those, 99% were Purple Martins. Two huge flocks were congregating on electrical transmission towers at either end of the preserve, with uncountable birds buzzing and swooping around in between. I estimated at least 500 martins to trip the eBird filter, an accomplishment always good for a birder badge of pride. I have seen most of the other swallow species flock like this in late summer, but never PUMAs. A good half looked like first summer birds.

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Northern Rough-winged Swallow

A few other species mixed in with the flock, mainly Barn Swallows. But I was able to pick out a small group of Northern Rough-winged Swallows clustered to themselves off to one side of the power lines.

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New Impoundment

I hiked up the trail to the newly created levee that forms the “continental divide” between the Mississippi and Great Lakes watersheds. When this was completed a year or two ago it made a new impoundment between Eagle Marsh and the neighboring Fox Island preserve to the south (the trees in the photo above are in Fox Island).

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Common Gallinules

I spent some time scanning the new impoundment to see what might be around. The water was much too high for shorebirds, but a somewhat unexpected sighting was a family of Common Gallinules, with mom and five chicks. I have only seen one other bird in Allen County before, so it is cool to know they are breeding here!

Viceroy

Viceroy

Eagle Marsh is a pretty good stopover for Monarch butterflies, and the Little River Wetlands Project holds an annual Monarch Festival there each year. So it was a little surprising to see so many Viceroy butterflies out and about. In addition to their smaller size, the stripe through the hindwing is the best way to tell Viceroys from their bigger sisters.

GBHE

Great Blue Heron

Try as I might to tread softly, I kept startling Great Blue Herons from either side of the levee. If I were to guess what the devil sounds like, Great Blue Heron calls would be a good bet.

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Heron Feather

One of them angrily dropped a feather as it fled before me. Here is my size-13 cankle for size comparison.

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Double-crested Cormorant

Before I left, I stopped to observe a fishing Double-crested Cormorant. Plenty of these birds were around, but a group of his buddies on a partially submerged log did not yield any increasingly common in Indiana Neotropic Cormorants.

It was such a nice day that I took a long detour home to look for Blue Grosbeaks. I didn’t find any, but I did get my waaaaaay overdue first of the year American Kestrel. It plus the martins and gallinules meant three new green species, bringing my total to 131 for this year.

Birds with Red Anatomy

Some birds have better names than others. Many names are utilitarian; describing exactly what the bird looks like. Case-in-point:

RHWO

Red-headed Woodpecker

The Red-headed Woodpecker is a woodpecker with a red head! This is the bird I was talking about in my last post. It is still hanging out at Lions Park directly across the street from my home. I have yet to add it as a yard bird, but last Sunday I spent some quality time getting to know it. And it is a gnarly-looking example of a usually stunning species. This bird was born last year and is very awkwardly in the midst of transitioning from immature to adult plumage. I suppose everyone’s adolescence is rough.

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Red-tailed Hawk

A young Red-tailed Hawk seemed to be doing much better in appearance, as it too was spotted at Lions Park last week. The mess of viscera and fur hanging below it was a Fox Squirrel.

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Fox Squirrel

It might have been this squirrel. Or it might have been this squirrel’s friend, mother, or mortal enemy. We will never know. Also seen at Lions Park, pre-hawk sighting.

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Red-necked Grebe

We have covered red heads, tails, and now we move on to the neck. A power outage at work today allowed me an extra hour in which to go birding. I decided to check the water treatment ponds to mop up some of the last remaining regular waterfowl. Despite my best plans, there was almost no activity, save for a bird completely off my radar: Red-necked Grebe! I have only ever seen this bird on one other occasion, in the exact same place in 2014 when we were having a particularly brutal winter and much of Lakes Michigan and Erie were frozen. That year the ice drove a lot of usually deep water birds like this inland in search of open water in reservoirs, so Fort Wayne got a few of them. To see one today in 40+ degree temperatures this far inland was very low on the list of expected things to see! Green bird #53 for the year, and #189 in my life.

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Cedar Waxwing

Since last time, I also picked up Horned Grebe (two courting birds dancing around the Redneck above), Eastern Phoebe, Rock Pigeon, and this furtive Cedar Waxwing trying to hide from me on the Purdue campus yesterday.

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White-breasted Nuthatch

Yes, that means I got to go birding on back-to-back days, a rare treat to enjoy. While today had a bigger highlight, yesterday was equally enjoyable even though it was mostly common folk like this White-breasted Nuthatch cramming itself into a tree crevice.

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Hey tree, your Raccoon is hanging out.

The nuthatches weren’t the only ones jamming themselves into trees. Walking through my favorite local woodlot, I heard scraping sounds that I hoped would be a cool bird. It turned out to be a Raccoon quickly hurrying away from me. It must have been very alarmed by my presence, because it frantically tried to jam itself into the tiniest tree hole ever. It got halfway in and then appeared to be stuck for a very long and awkward moment, bum to the world.

Rac-hole

Rac-hole

It eventually got all the way in somehow. That hole was only a few inches across, so I hope it was worth it for that Raccoon turning itself into a sausage to get away from me.

Some Thoughts on Fall

I have been to much (although admittedly not all) of this country, and I have very strong feelings about fall in the Midwest being one of the greatest season/location combinations possible.

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Foster Park

Things are still green here, but once September 22nd hit, fall was official. Football season returns. You don’t have to feel weird about eating soup. And all manner of farm-related family activities beckon you to the countryside. These are not the trappings of high-brow culture. But, man, are they fun.

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Portrait of a Barred Owl

I feel the same way about my recent September birds. I haven’t gone anywhere extravagant, and I didn’t see anything at all rare. But I enjoyed the run-of-the-mill immensely, even though the blogosphere might make you think you are not living life if you aren’t seeing a Juan Fernandez Petrel.

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I know this guy well.

I would much rather spend some quality time with some good friends, the common birds in my neighborhood. I hear this Barred Owl every once in a while, and occasionally he even makes a roost in the spruces in my back yard. It isn’t that big of a surprise to see him along the southern part of the woods at Foster Park, either. And that is exactly where I found him on Friday, but this was one of the best encounters with any bird I have ever had.

As I was following a trail, he flew up from ground level just a few yards ahead of me. He perched in a low branch very close, and watched me for a minute as I tried hard not to move or make any noise. Then, he turned his attention to an acorn falling through the foliage, and watched for the Blue Jays calling in the area. He wasn’t concerned with me. For a bird to ignore you, is that respect? It felt like it. It was an incredible sighting.

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Northern Flicker

As I continued my walk, I came upon a big mixed flock of birds. Notable in it were some Black-throated Green and Blackpoll Warblers, both green year birds. I didn’t get great photos, but that doesn’t matter when the young Northern Flicker they were with was quite willing to fill in.

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Cooper’s Hawk

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Red-tailed Hawk

Next, a Cooper’s Hawk successfully chased away a young Red-tailed. The much larger buteo was undoubtedly making its first go of it alone in the world.

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Eastern Phoebe

This Eastern Phoebe was hanging on to summer for as long as it could. Rather than joining the mixed flocks and starting an adventure south, this bird perched in a tree and called “phoebe” the whole time while it sallied for bugs like it was still the early stages of June.

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Broad-winged Hawks

The next morning, I woke up and went for a walk with the family. As we neared the park again, we saw a huge cloud of hawks swirling around in the morning sunlight. At least 100 Broad-winged Hawks were all tailgating together, with some of them eventually making their way right above our house. A pretty incredible sight for a yard bird.

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Broad-winged Hawk

A lone bird landed in the spruces behind my house, chasing away a Mourning Dove. Not only was this group representative of a new species in the yard, but they were a state bird as well.

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Blue Jay

Few hawks are game to stand up to a determined Blue Jay, however. This fellow and his posse were successful in running off the guy above who could have otherwise ruined everyone’s day.

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Monarch

Hawks weren’t the only migrants making impressively large southward flights. Nearly two dozen Monarchs were also there this weekend, making their annual march to the hills of Mexico.

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Eastern Tailed Blue

Other smaller leps have also made a last push recently. Eastern Tailed Blues were all over my yard for a few days, and then all of a sudden were gone.

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Giant Swallowtail

Others, like this Giant Swallowtail at my in-laws’ house, decided to go it alone as the days shortened.

It is very easy to enjoy all of these species, no matter how common. I like to make metaphors in the things I see, which I guess is pretty cheesy, but makes the common things more relatable and more enjoyable. Cheesy yet enjoyable. Kind of like pumpkin spice everything, corn mazes, and homecoming. Fall in the Midwest is great. Bring it on.

January Birding in the Midwest

Is a mad dash to get a few dozen species right at the beginning of the year and then a whole bunch of slow progress to tick off the random birds here and there that you miss. On a cold but sunny Sunday, I took a 20+ mile ride to both Fox Island and Eagle Marsh to chase a few less common birds (Purple Finch, Rough-legged Hawk) but mostly just ended up watching common fare. I did add two new species to the green list, though: Song Sparrow and Barred Owl.

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Song Sparrow

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American Tree Sparrow

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Hairy Woodpecker

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Blue Jay

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Red-tailed Hawk

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Virginia Opossum

Birding Fatherhood

Over the weekend, I birded for the first time since Walter has been here. It took a couple of weeks, but things have finally settled down enough to the point where Jaime and I are able to do some of our old things. For me, that meant a trip to Franke Park on Saturday morning.

I missed quite a few passerines on spring migration due to the chaotic changing around of our life, so I was hoping to add at least a few new ticks to the year list, and I succeeded. I ran into a flock of Warblers, Vireos, and Chickadees in the middle of the woods and was able to pick out a few species before some, ahem, gentleman’s unleashed dog came crashing through the underbrush, jumped up on me, and scattered the birds.

#141 Cape May Warbler

#141 Cape May Warbler

This Cape May Warbler was the first year bird of the day for me, bringing my total to 141. I was confused by this species’ fall plumage and couldn’t make up my mind at first, but the presence of the white wing patch as opposed to wing bars sealed the ID.

#143 Black-Throated Green Warbler

#143 Black-Throated Green Warbler

The only other new Warbler for me for the year was this Black-Throated Green, good for year bird #143 (Swainson’s Thrush was #142 and only made a brief appearance for no photo).

Warbler Duo

Warbler Duo

Black-Throated Green was a very popular individual and even spent some time discussing accent colors with this Black-and-White.

Red-Eyed Vireo

Red-Eyed Vireo

Also among the flock was this Red-Eyed Vireo, which at first I didn’t recognize because I am so used to seeing them as little specks calling from the tops of trees. This guy was frolicking under the canopoy, however, and gave me the best look (and photo) of the species that I have ever had.

Red-Tailed Hawk

Red-Tailed Hawk

Not all birds seen were small, however. This Red-Tailed Hawk was basically right next to my car as I was leaving. You can’t see it in the grass, but this fellow was chowing down on a snake.

Since my birding time in the field has been limited as of late, I have spent more time in the backyard, with son in one arm and camera in the other, trying to document some of the birds closer to home. I spent about an hour sitting on our patio a couple of weeks ago documenting the denizens of Grosbeak Gardens:

American Goldfinches

American Goldfinches

House Finch

House Finch

Pam

Pam

White-Breasted Nuthatch

White-Breasted Nuthatch

And a final bird of note was one seen at Metea Park, where Jaime and I were married exactly two years ago on August 6 and went again this year on our anniversary. He was behaving much more like a Goldfinch than a Woodpecker:

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

February 23rd Update

It is bitterly cold outside, which is seriously ruining my ability to see waterfowl close to home. The only bodies of water that are not frozen are the big reservoirs, so I decided to hit a few this morning. My first stop was the Scott Starling Sanctuary just to the north of Eagle Creek.

#053 Killdeer

#053 Killdeer

Bird-wise, there wasn’t much exciting going on except for my first Killdeer of the year. He was running around on the frozen mud looking like he was thinking about what a huge mistake he made coming back up north this early.

Coyote

Coyote

But, the non-avian fauna was pretty impressive. I stumbled upon two surprised coyotes rooting around in a field. In the past year, I have come across quite a few coyotes, and they are always cool to see. I think it is especially interesting that they get so close to the central city of a place as big as Indianapolis.

Red-Tailed Hawk

Red-Tailed Hawk

While we’re on the subject of apex predators, I also saw this Red-Tailed Hawk at the Eagle Creek Reservoir. I went with intentions of finding some ducks or maybe non-Canada Geese, but was happy to see this fellow surveying his domain instead. I usually only see Red-Tails on the side of the highway as I speed by at 70 miles per hour, so to actually stop and get a good look was nice.