Southeast New Mexico May 2-4, 2015
Southeast New Mexico has a great diversity of landscapes, from the Chihuahuan Desert Oasis of Rattlesnake Springs near Carlsbad, to the shorebird stop-over at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge on the Pecos River, to the varied foothill and mountain landscapes of Lincoln County near Ruidoso. An uncharacteristic violent rain front came through that changed our plans mid-trip but we persevered and got to see an impressive mix of birds. The Guadalupe Mountain range west of Carlsbad is a limestone "reef" that was once an ancient sea bed. The Elf Owls calling at our campsite reminded us of how far south in New Mexico we were. At Slaughter Canyon we heard typical desert canyon dwellers such as Common Poorwill, Lesser Nighthawk and Scott's Oriole. In addition, favorites such as Gray Vireo and Varied Bunting had just returned. At Rattlesnake Springs we found the entertaining regulars such as Vermilion Flycatcher, Orchard Oriole, and the stunning Painted Bunting. as well as migrants such as Clay-colored Sparrow and a rare encounter with a Yellow-throated Vireo. The desert east of Carlsbad is home to southeast NM specialties such as Harris' Hawk and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. We saw both, including a Harris' Hawk nest where the adult birds were being pummeled by the local Western Kingbirds. Downtown Carlsbad hosted both Chimney Swift and Mississippi Kites and a straggling holdover from winter-a Long-tailed Duck. Certainly an odd sight in early May that far south. Heading north we stopped at Lake Avalon and were surprised to hear a Least Bittern calling at mid day, a new location for me for that species. Further north at Brantley Lake, where the water was the highest I have ever seen, we found a group of Franklin's Gulls and a very early Common Nighthawk. Enroute to Roswell to the north we were treated to a savannah-like scene with a small roadside group of Cattle Egrets perched on the backs of some local cattle. At Bitter Lake Refuge, we caught the last of the shorebird migration including Willet, Marbled Godwit, Stilt Sandpiper, and Semipalmated Sandpiper. The breeding Snowy Plovers had returned and one pair was even leading a chick over the salt flats. A pair of Least Terns had found this remote inland breeding area as well. Our time at higher elevations in Lincoln County to the west was productive as well. In the foothill pinyon/juniper habitat we heard several Montezuma Quail and had the good fortune to observe an impressive male at close range. The same area hosted breeding Black-chinned Sparrow and Black-throated Gray Warbler-both at the extreme eastern edge of their ranges. Further west along the Rio Hondo, the annual pair of Common Black Hawks had taken up residence in their nest of many years. Being right next to a major highway, these birds showed remarkable indifference to the semis roaring by. Higher up towards Sierra Blanca peak, we enjoyed many resident and newly returned species such as Acorn Woodpecker, Pygmy Nuthatch, Virginia's Warbler, Indigo Bunting, and Band-tailed Pigeon. At a local high altitude lake we were fortunate to see an overwintering Pacific Loon in mid molt as well as a very late Horned Grebe. Night birding was rewarding with encounters with Mexican Whip-poor-will, Flammulated Owl (despite the cold temps), and a very vocal Northern Saw-whet Owl. Once again, the bird diversity of the Land of Enchantment continues to reveal itself.