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.

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2016 in Review

2016 and its merits or lack thereof have already been discussed all over the internet, so I don’t need to say anything more in that regard (unless you want to read something positive). This is a summary instead of my year in birding that was 2016.

I am about to wrap up my second year of green birding, which I have become much more serious about. It started as a way to keep a fun new list of birds, but it has now become my preferred method of birding, a way to keep in shape, and a new hobby in and of itself in the form of bicycling. Over the summer I made the 20-mile round trip to work at least weekly, which is something I never would have done before. I missed out on my goal of 150 green species (I got 143), but I grew my overall green list (167) and improved on my number from last year (137). I will now be keeping track of this method in a master list on the new Green Birding page at the top of this blog.

My goal for 2017 will most definitely be to make and surpass the 150 mark. I am optimistic because I got close this year without seeing anything uncommon. In fact, I don’t think I even tripped the eBird filter all year except for maybe having an early date for Yellow-throated Warbler. This is in sharp contrast to 2015 where things like American Avocet and Black-bellied Whistling Duck made the list. I did see some pretty great and unusual Indiana birds this year, though, they were just birds I ended up driving to. So to put the whole year — both green and gasoline fueled — in perspective, here are a bunch of High Fidelity-style lists.

My Best Non-Green Birds of 2016

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#5 – Brown-headed Nuthatch (Wake County, NC)

Brown-headed Nuthatch was not a life bird, but it was one I saw in abundance during my two trips to North Carolina in July and November. It makes the list because there is no hope to see it anywhere besides the southeast, and nuthatches are cool.

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#4 – Buff-breasted Sandpiper (Boone County, IN)

I found this bird on a crap shoot of a detour while out running another errand. Without magnification and looking into the sun over hundreds of acres of sod, finding two of these birds was a pretty big thrill.

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#3 – Ross’s Goose (St. Joseph County, IN)

The easiest tick of the year, I was able to get this bird from my car in a parking lot while waiting for a meeting to start.

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#2 – Clay-colored Sparrow (Marion County, IN)

A life bird in a downtown Indianapolis city park, this was an exercise in patience. I found the bird at the last possible moment before I needed to leave and after over an hour of waiting, and I managed a pretty good photo on top of it all.

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#1 – Black-necked Stilt (Greene County, IN)

One of my biggest target birds this year became first life and state birds at the same time while on a trip far from home, but then followed up soon after as county birds. And they are just so cool looking!

My Best Green Birds of 2016

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#5 – Barred Owl (Foster Park)

This bird wasn’t new to any particular list, nor is it even uncommon (if you are a regular reader you are probably sick of seeing it on this blog). But the encounter I had in September with the individual pictured above was spectacular. Read more about it here.

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#4 – Broad-winged Hawk (Foster Park)

A new state bird and a new entry to the green list, I was out walking with my wife and kids when we stumbled into a huge kettle of hundreds of Broad-winged Hawks. This was the only time I saw them all year, and it was quite impressive.

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#3 – American Pipit (random field on the way to Fox Island)

I was biking to Fox Island earlier in the spring to pump up my list with migrants, but before I even got there I had to slam on the brakes to see what the birds way out in the field were. This is a great case of a bird I would have totally missed if I was driving. But it’s not the best example (keep reading).

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#2 – Red-headed Woodpecker (Amber & Branning Floodplain)

During my epic May ride of nearly 50 miles, I saw this bird foraging in the mud while looking for shorebirds. It was a random encounter to be sure, and a real right place right time moment.

#128 Henslow's Sparrow

#1 – Henslow’s Sparrow (random field on the way to work)

This photo is from 2013, and I never actually saw a Henslow’s Sparrow this year. But it is easily my best green bird of the year and the best example of what I would have missed if I was driving. My bike route to work is different from my driving route and takes me farther out into the country. I was passing a random overgrown and unbirded field when I thought I heard the chirping of a HESP. Needing to get to work on time, I was unable to stay and do a thorough check, but I sent an email to the listserv saying that I was pretty sure I heard one. A local expert stopped by the field later that day and confirmed that there was indeed a bird calling from that location. I rode by again the next day and heard it more clearly, and at that point made the decision that my skills are getting good enough to count heard-only birds that I am confident in like this one. From what I understand, this ended up being the only county record of HESP this year.

Not everything worked out that well, though.

My Biggest Green Misses of 2016

#5 – Black-capped Chickadee – I never made it far enough north to see a bird I was 100% certain was a Black-capped. Fort Wayne is smack in the middle of the Carolina/Black-capped overlap zone, with Carolinas being the much more common bird in 2/3 of the county.

#4 – Ducks – Northern Pintail and American Black Duck are frustrating misses.

#3 – Warblers – I missed several common ones, notably Chestnut-sided, Black-and-White, Bay-breasted, Wilson’s, and Canada.

#2 – Shorebirds – Dunlin, Semipalmated, and Solitary Sandpipers are all super embarrassing.

BNST

#1 – Black-necked Stilt

Black-necked Stilt is both my best non-green bird and my worst green miss. The pair in the photograph above were one-day wonders about 5 miles from my house, but the day they showed up I was too busy to make the ride out to see them. I ended up driving by on my way to the grocery store, though, so at least I got them as county birds. I found some great birds on bike that I would have missed if I was driving, but this was one I only managed to get by driving and just couldn’t get to by bike. Such is the life of a green birder.

Revisiting this last list of birds is making me all the more excited to get out there and reset the odometer in just a few days. I wish everyone else well with whatever your goals are for 2017, birding or otherwise. Happy new year!

Goose Chase

Work took me to South Bend this week. That was lucky, because there just so happened to be a notable white goose hanging around in the river in neighboring Mishawaka.

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Nope.

Just kidding. It was a lifer Ross’s Goose.

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Ross’s Goose

I could make all kinds of awful birder jokes about this goose’s name (…But how do you know that hummingbird’s name is “Rufus”?), but I will spare you.

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Nice to meet you, Ross.

I guess this was technically a “chase” even though it was only about three miles away from where I was going anyway and required literally zero effort to see: park car, step out of car, see goose, take photos, leave 15 minutes later and arrive early to 10:30 appointment. Nothing beats finding birds yourself, but it’s always nice to have a successful chase.

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Bufflehead

I haven’t gotten many new green entries recently, but the most recent and most notable addition to that list was this Bufflehead seen at Foster Park two weeks ago. This is the first green bird so far this year that I did not see on my 2015 list. Let’s keep them coming! (Towhee, anybody?)

On that note, Indiana’s towhee game is strong at the moment: Eastern, Spotted, and Green-tailed are all in the state as of this week. The latter two are a three- and five-hour drive away from me respectively, but still, that’s a good showing here.