After pushing our tour up a day to avoid high winds, we arrived at Ladder Ranch, situated between the Rio Grande and the Black Range in southwest New Mexico. Since my client was an avid owl photographer, we planned to stay up late and get up early. Arriving at the ranch late afternoon, we got in some birding along the cottonwood riparian habitat along Animas Creek. Breeding regulars such as Summer Tanager, Blue Grosbeak, Hooded Oriole, and Lazuli Bunting gave us a colorful welcome to the ranch. After dinner, we listened to the evening chorus of Common Poorwill and watched the resident Wild Turkey flock fly up to roost. Once dark, it was off to one of many known Elf Owl territories on the ranch. The birds were already yapping when we arrived (they sound like Chihuahuas to me). After brief tape playing, a pair flew onto an exposed branch directly above my head where my client got several great photos of the two preening each other. We moved further down the creek, tape-trolling for Western Screech Owl. At the third stop, several birds answered and we soon had an inquisitive bird in the spotlight. We hustled back to the ranch bunkhouse to grab a paltry 4 hours sleep. Up again at 3:00am, we loaded the car while a Great Horned Owl hooted softly down the valley. We drove an hour over rough roads to the nearest group of Ponderosa Pines in South Seco Canyon. Of the 4 owl species that my client sought Flammulated would be the most challenging. After playing tape in various spots, we finally got a response-and the bird was moving closer. Trouble with viewing Flams is that they usually stay in the tops of 80-100 foot pines. On this night, however, we were surprised when we heard a call from a nearby oak, not more than 15 feet high. After much searching, I finally got the bird in my light and with a sight line that allowed for a crippling view as my British birder friend says. Just in time as first light was coming. We tried repeatedly for Northern Pygmy Owl, the 4th species on the list, with no luck. Lingering in the canyon (before the winds routed us) we encountered many Black-throated Gray Warblers, Hepatic Tanager, Acorn Woodpecker, and a very vocal Zone-tailed Hawk that was nesting somewhere nearby. Just before turning to walk back to the car, I heard a sound from my boyhood birding days in New England. Sure enough, an off course Northern Parula had graced us with its presence.
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