TEXAS AND NEW MEXICO 2009
Our first combined tour of Texas and New Mexico was a resounding success. Not only did we find many of the bird species that we'd hoped to see but also enjoyed great weather with fabulous winter sunshine throughout the entire trip – quite a boon for anyone coming from more northerly climes! Conditions for birding and traveling could hardly have been better. The trip wasn't just about birds though. Thanks largely to the input of Kenny Ross and Catriona Rayner, we recorded at least eighteen species of mammal on the tour.
The two elements of this tour are remarkably different even though Texas and New Mexico are neighboring states and share the Rio Grande River. Indeed, the Rio Grande Valley was the focus of our efforts for large parts of both segments of the tour.
The first week was dedicated to a whirlwind tour of Central and Southern Texas with the emphasis on rarer species. Our loop began with a direct flight to Houston and upon arrival we quickly moved on to the coastal bend region. Ultimately we headed for the Lower Rio Grande Valley where we enjoyed a prolonged stay in Weslaco. The final stage of the Texas loop would take us back through Victoria and finally back to Houston with a couple of extremely productive birding stops en route.
During the Texas week the group tallied an incredible 208 species! Highlights included; Ross's Goose, Richardson's Cackling Goose, Hook-billed Kite, Ferruginous and White-tailed Hawks, King Rail, Whooping and Sandhill Cranes, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Gull-billed Tern (rare in winter), Barn Owl (nesting at our motel!), Eastern Screech-owl (mccalli sub-species), Ferruginous Pygmy-owl, Buff-bellied, Black-chinned, Rufous and Allen's Hummingbirds, White-tipped Dove, Red-billed Pigeon, Red-crowned Parrot, Belted, Ringed and Green Kingfishers, Great Kiskadee, Tropical and Couch's Kingbirds, Rose-throated Becard, Green Jay, Cave Swallow, Black-crested Titmouse, Pileated, Golden-fronted and Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Clay-colored Thrush, Long-billed and Curve-billed Thrashers, Sprague's Pipit, Tropical Parula, Black-throated Gray Warbler and Wilson's Warblers, Ovenbird, White-collared Seedeater, Olive Sparrow, Crimson-collared Grosbeak, Altamira and Audubon's Orioles, and Blue Bunting.
We did a little 'twitching' as well for a potential first for the ABA area. A Pine Flycatcher was being reported from Choke Canyon State Park south of San Antonio, a site which turned out to be very productive with species such as Green Jay, Vermilion Flycatcher and Olive Sparrow present, along with an over wintering Least Flycatcher. We also saw the subject bird, a reputed Pine Flycatcher though the identification has yet to be concluded.
The whole ambience of winter birding in Texas and the Lower Rio Grande Valley gives a wonderful experience, one that we hope to repeat on future tours. Even in the depths of winter Texas remains and extremely bird rich state.
Travel logistics and flights went smoothly for the second part of tour and we enjoyed views of the snow capped mountains and barren grasslands of New Mexico as we flew into Albuquerque. Even before we landed, the feeling of space and big skies brought an immediate difference to our spell in Texas. Frances Cottell-Dormer was in the arrivals hall to join our cordial group of Bob Bailey, Catriona Rayner, Christine Rose and Kenny Ross. Jim Hamilton arrived on a later flight, but still with enough time for dinner before we all retired in preparation for an assault on Sandi Crest the next day.
Our first full day in New Mexico was glorious. The calm sunny morning continued through to an equally calm afternoon. Sandia Crest was warm, sunny and near windless – perfect for high elevation birding. The goal of the morning was duly achieved as we watched Black, Brown-capped and Gray-crowned Rosy-finches (including Hepburn's Gray-crowned) at exceptionally close range. Add to that a background of Steller's Jay, Mountain Chickadee, Red-breasted and White-breasted Nuthatches and several forms of Dark-eyed Junco, all set against and exceptional vista and you have the ingredients of a really fine morning in the field – not to mention wonderful views of Townsend's Solitaire that we had on the drive up to the crest.
By way of complete contrast we found ourselves birding the low-lying fields and semi-desert of the Rio Grande Valley by mid-afternoon which gave more than a taste of the spectacle to come. We found thousands of Snow and Ross's Geese, and Sandhill Cranes, at a site well north of Bosque Del Apache and spent the rest of the afternoon just enjoying being surrounded by thousands of birds! As it happened, the actual numbers of Ross's Geese (about 4,500) at this particular site would turn out to be much higher than in the main refuge itself. From here we moved onto the quiet town of Socorro, which, would serve as something of a hub for much of the tour.
The following days provided some of the best avian spectacles in the World with tens of thousands of Snow (and some Ross's) Geese and Sandhill Cranes dispersing from roost at Bosque Del Apache. All this would take place in the relaxed New Mexican atmosphere that we found highly conducive to great birding and photography. We also searched the high plains and Valleys West of Socorro successfully finding excellent species such as Prairie Falcon, Red-naped and Williamson's Sapsuckers, Juniper Titmouse, Cactus Wren, Red Crossbill, Pine Siskin and Chestnut-collared Longspur. Notable mammals included Pronghorn and Cliff Chipmunk.
Further south we gradually dropped in elevation and the high plains gave way to semi-desert and grasslands. We found nesting Golden Eagles en route, and enjoyed birding the vast expanse of Elephant Butte reservoir which supported huge numbers of Clark's and Western Grebes and even an excellent gull roost at Rock Canyon Marina! Here a relatively small flock of about 500 gulls contained American Herring, Ring-billed, Mew, California, Thayer's and Lesser Black-backed Gulls (the latter being a state rarity). The surrounding desert gave us great views of Scaled Quail, Western Meadowlark, two huge flocks of Chestnut-collared Longspurs and finally our first Greater Roadrunner.
After a night in Truth or Consequences we continued south to Percha Dam state park, which produced an outstanding morning with, amongst other things, Cackling Goose, Crissal Thrasher, Say's and Black Phoebes, Hammond's Flycatcher, Cedar waxwing and the bizarrely-named Phainopepla. A spontaneous but unanimous decision to devote the rest of the day to a long distance twitch resulted in success with a Long-eared Owl roost near the Mexican border containing at least six birds! Although the site was well south of our planned itinerary, it turned out to be a fine diversion. Not only did we find the owls but also, we enjoyed wonderful views of many desert and wintering species that might have been difficult elsewhere. These included Pyrruloxia, Black-throated, Brewer's and Vesper Sparrows and plenty of Lark Buntings giving the best views one could wish for. Before leaving we found another Crissal Thrasher and marveled at the abundance of Northern Harriers throughout the grasslands, they were simply everywhere! By the evening we were back in Socorro.
The following day gave us another chance to view the stunning spectacle of thousands of Snow Geese which this time remain settled for a longer period, and gave some of the finest photographic opportunities of the trip as the sun rose through the mist etching thousands of birds before us. Mountain Bluebirds gave wonderful looks at the refuge headquarters and just as we were leaving the area Jim finally cracked his nemesis bird for the trip – Ferruginous Hawk! We were thrilled to find a young bird being extremely accommodating close to the road. Little did we know at that point, but the rest of the day would go on to produce seven more Ferruginous Hawks as we crossed the vast plains and farmland north-east of Socorro. We would also encounter a vast swirl of larks and longspurs at least 700 of which turned out to be McCown's Longspurs.
After spending a night in Santa Fe we climbed the road to the Santa Fe ski-basin, which, perhaps not unexpectedly, was the coldest part of the trip. Birds were few but we did see our only Clark's Nutcrackers of the tour, along with Hairy Woodpecker, Steller's Jay and more very good looks at Townsend's Solitaires. In early afternoon, whilst unsuccessfully following up a report of Northern Shrike in Santa Fe, we had fantastic views of Mountain Bluebird and our only Canyon Towhees of the tour. We finished the day, and the last birding of the tour, with a concentration of Wood Ducks at the Valley Nature Center in Albuquerque. The Wood Ducks put on a fabulous display and looked resplendent in the late afternoon sunshine.
We said our good-byes to Frances in Albuquerque and then traveled back to Houston before flying on directly to the UK. Remarkably the whole tour finished with a combined group total of 275 bird species and 18 mammal species, testament to the excellent input from the entire group. This trip instantly becomes our third most diverse North American tour, bettered only by California (record 285 species) and Texas in spring (record 326 species).
I should like to thank Bob Bailey, Christine Rose, Frances Cottrell-Dormer, Jim Hamilton, Kenny Ross and Catriona Rayner for helping to make this inaugural tour of Texas and New Mexico such an enjoyable experience. Next year's tour will take place January 13–28 – join us for some superb southern US, with the flavour of Mexico, birding.
James P. Smith