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Courtesy of James P. Smith

This excellent tour combined the best of Texas and New Mexico and, once again, was a great success. We found many of the species that we hoped for amidst fabulous sunshine and generally warm winter temperatures. Indeed, on a couple of afternoons in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas temperatures reached 90 degrees Fahrenheit!

The elements of this tour couldn’t be more contrasting despite the fact that Texas and New Mexico are neighboring states and share the Rio Grande River. The first week concentrated on Central and Southern Texas with an emphasis on rarer species beginning on the very first morning with a fabulous cruise into Aransas Bay for Whooping Cranes. We headed south into the Lower Rio Grande Valley where we enjoyed a prolonged stay in Weslaco, an ideal base for exploration of sites such as South Padre Island, Frontera Audubon Thicket, Estero Llano Grande and, of course, the fantastic landfill at Brownsville. Whilst it may be true that Southern Texas lacked any major rarities during this particular winter, it still held some very good birds including several new species for the tour. Choice amongst these would have to be a day-roosting Flammulated Owl at South Padre Island, one of only a tiny handful ever to be found wintering in the US. Moreover, this small dark-eyed owl is often difficult to see anywhere in North America and our group were extremely fortunate to experience this one. Other surprises included over 150 Greater White-fronted Geese with Snow and Ross’s Geese north of Weslaco, a roosting Zone-tailed Hawk in Weslaco, Piping Plovers (South Padre Island), an unseasonal Wilson’s Phalarope (Weslaco), and several early-vocalizing Seaside Sparrows (Aransas Bay). The final stage of the Texas loop would take us through Zapata, onto Victoria and finally back to Houston. We had a great morning at Salineno with Altimra and Audubon’s Orioles, and found the first Red-billed Pigeons to be reported in the entire winter! Our final Texas birds came from the woods around Conroe where we enjoyed one of the most productive stops of the entire trip finding Red-cockaded and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Eastern Bluebird, Pine Warbler, Tufted Titmouse and large numbers of Cedar Waxwings and Pine Siskins. Further highlights from our week in Texas included White-tailed Hawk, White-tailed Kite, Aplomado Falcon, Anhinga, Yellow-crowned Night-heron, Roseate Spoonbill, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Gull-billed Tern (rare in winter), Black Skimmer, Eastern Screech-owl (macalli sub-species), Common Pauraque, Buff-bellied, Black-chinned, and Rufous/Allen's Hummingbirds, White-tipped Dove, Red-crowned Parrot (plus several other non-countable parrot species), Green Parakeet, Belted, Ringed and Green Kingfishers, Great Kiskadee, Tropical and Couch's Kingbirds, Vermilion Flycatcher, Green Jay, Cave Swallow, Black-crested Titmouse, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Brown, Long-billed and Curve-billed Thrashers and Olive Sparrow.

Logistics between Texas and New Mexico went smoothly and we enjoyed spectacular views of snow-enshrouded peaks and barren grasslands as we flew into Albuquerque. The first full day in New Mexico began with the traditional climb up to Sandia Crest some 10,000 feet above sea level. Sandia Crest is also a winter home to over 100 rosy-finches. Conditions were harsh at the top with lots of snow and ice, and a brisk wind keeping temperatures down. Undeterred we soon found Black, Brown-capped and Grey-crowned Rosy-finches at close range. These birds would often ‘surge’ towards the feeders, take a quick feed and then disappear for minutes at a time only to re-appear just when we thought they’d moved on. Sandia Crest provides one of the few opportunities in the US to simultaneously view all three rosy-finch species in North America, and was certainly one of high points of the trip. On the descent we found Pygmy Nuthatches, Townsend's Solitaire and an exceptionally approachable Williamson’s Sapsucker. By the afternoon we were birding in low-lying fields and Juniper covered hillsides finding Ferruginous Hawks, Golden Eagles, Western and Mountain Bluebirds and an out of place Sage Thrasher. A herd of Pronghorns cruising majestically over the grasslands really brought home the beauty and serenity of being in New Mexico. Just before reaching our base in Socorro, we found thousands of Snow and Ross's Geese, and Sandhill Cranes, at a site well to the north of Bosque Del Apache and simply enjoyed being surrounded by thousands of birds at dusk – that was all on our first full day!

The following days provided some of the best avian spectacles in birding with tens of thousands of Snow (and some Ross's) Geese and Sandhill Cranes at Bosque Del Apache and tens of thousands of dabbling ducks at Elephant Butte Lake, mostly Mallard, Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler and America Wigeon. Both of these sites also provided rare passerines including a Harris’s Sparrow amongst White-crowned Sparrows at the Visitor Center at Bosque Del Apache, and a quality session with longspurs at Elephant Butte Lake where we enjoyed close views of Lapland, Chestnut-collared and McCown’s Longspurs. Remarkably, we found Rough-legged Hawks at both of these locations, as well as good numbers of Bald Eagles and Northern Harriers. The vast expanse of Elephant Butte Lake also supported huge numbers of Clark's and Western Grebes, though oddly we struggled to find both species alongside each other, the northern end being full of Clark’s and the southern end being better for Western Grebes. Once again, the excellent gull roost at Rock Canyon Marina provided us with something special when Barry Batchelor picked out an adult Glaucous Gull and there was also a sub-adult Lesser Black-backed Gull at the same site. Both are very rare in New Mexico.

After a night in Truth or Consequences we headed south finding our first Prairie Falcon, Crissal Thrasher and Phainopeplas of the tour. After this we incorporated a few changes to the itinerary and made a decision to spend most of our remaining time in the deserts of SW New Mexico rather than heading back north towards Santa Fe. This also meant changes to our target species and some rather unexpected finds. The first of these came from Columbus where our party found a Short-eared Owl (rare in New Mexico) close to a quiet road whilst looking through some Horned Larks. Earlier, we’d also found a leucistic Sandhill Crane amongst 7000 Sandhill Cranes at Columbus Waste Water Treatment Plant. Both of these birds were rather nice compensation for the absence of Long-eared Owls at a former traditional roost spot nearby.

The new itinerary really kicked in after a night in Deming when we headed south-west to some of the most remote areas of the tour including the Animas Valley and the Peloncillo Mountains. Along the way we found more Crissal Thrashers and our first Black-throated Sparrows, not to mention stunning views of Ferruginous Hawks. South of Animas, the star birds were Greater Roadrunners close to the road. These remarkably approachable birds led us to a drinking hole which in turn led us to many species including Brewer’s and Vesper Sparrows, Gambel’s Quails, Sage and Crissal Thrashers, and another stunning Ferruginous Hawk. Once in the Peloncillo Mountains we make our first stop in Clanton Canyon and started finding new and interesting birds immediately including Bushtit, Red-naped and Williamson’s Sapsuckers, and one of the big targets of the day, Arizona Woodpecker. Indeed, we found another pair of Arizona Woodpeckers at our picnic site – apparently they seem to be easier to find in New Mexico than they are in Arizona! The remainder of this eventful and intriguing loop brought us over the summit and west towards the Arizona state line. Here we found Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Canyon Towhee and had fantastic views of Bridled Titmouse. Once inside Arizona territory, a further stop gave us stunning views of Mexican Jay, Hutton’s Vireo and Canyon Wren before we sped towards Douglas and then headed north towards Road Forks in New Mexico. But our day wasn’t over. We tried one last random stop just before reaching Rodeo where John, with his penchant for thrashers, managed to pick out the one and only Bendire’s Thrasher of the tour just as the sun disappeared behind the Chiricahua Mountains. It was a fine end to an extremely interesting and pioneering day, elements of which we will likely repeat in future.

The last full morning of the tour was also spent in new territory, and with some success. The local waste water treatment plant at Deming gave us more stunning looks at Crissal Thrashers and the only Sagebrush Sparrow of the tour. At higher elevation in Emory Pass we found Pygmy and Red-breasted Nuthatches, and the first and only Acorn Woodpeckers of the tour. In the afternoon, we made another attempt to find interesting gulls at Elephant Butte Lake but sadly found no sign of the previously reported Thayer’s Gull before speeding on towards Albuquerque and our last night of the tour.

Special thanks go to Barry Batchelor, David Griffiths, John and Sue Rowe, Robin Sims and Stephan Waters for making this tour such an enjoyable experience. Next year's tour will take place during January/February 2014. In the mean-time, please enjoy this gallery of images from this year’s tour of Texas and New Mexico.

Good birding

James P. Smith, Amherst, MA.

Snow and Greater White-fronted Geese
Snow and Ross's Geese and Sandhill Cranes Snow and Ross's Geese
Plain Chachalaca Neotropic Cormorant
Reddish Egret – White morph White-faced Ibis
Bald Eagle – immature Zone-tailed Hawk
Sandhill Cranes Lesser and Greater Sandhill Cranes
Whooping Crane Glaucous Gull
Great Horned Owl Short-eared Owl
Common Pauraque Ringed Kingfisher
Williamson's Sapsucker Red-naped Sapsucker
Arizona Woodpecker Aplomado Falcon
Green Jay Crissal Thrasher
Lapland Longspur Chestnut-collared Longspur
McCown's Longspur Sagebrush Sparrow
Harris's Sparrow Northern Cardinal
Pyrrhuloxia Black and Grey-crowned Rosy-finches
Black Rosy-finch Brown-capped Rosy-finch
Racoon Collared Peccaries
Black-tailed Mule Deer Pronghorns
Bottle-nosed Dolphin
Sandia Crest
Whooping Crane

Whooping Crane