This venture to the Sacramento Mountains near Ruidoso in southeast NM was a trip for a bird photographer. With a number of species on his wishlist, we started early and headed to the Fort Stanton NCA (national conservation area). Basically, this is a pinyon/juniper habitat with interspersed grasslands and small groves of Ponderosa Pines. With many species of interest possible, we began predawn by playing for Montezuma Quail, a bird I had seen at this location in early May. Although we had several responses, no individuals came closer to us. We then pursued Black-chinned Sparrow, a bird at the east edge of its range, and found several active territories. This species can be shy outside of the breeding season but several males were singing from the tops of junipers. While taking photos of these birds, there was a fly-over of Pinyon Jays which we quickly pursued. Most seemed to be birds of the year with a few adults riding along with the herd. The swarming, raucous group feeding of this species is always entertaining. A fairly common species, Blue Grosbeak, was on my client's list and we were able to get photos of some territorial males. Certainly a beautiful species that is vocally talented.
Next stop was much higher up in mixed conifer at the edge of a recent burn. We had been told about a Spotted Owl territory that was actually located in the burn with a nest about 50 feet up in a broken off Ponderosa trunk. One fledgling was still in the nest tree but two more larger siblings were on the ground. One proceeded to climb up a sapling using its beak to hoist itself along while flapping its wings. Quite a sight. The adult female watched from a nearby tree-I surmised it could sense we meant the offspring no harm. As an unexpected bonus on the hike out, we encountered a pair of Three-toed Woodpeckers, amid a myriad of flickers and Hairy Woodpeckers, all working the recent burn. This area has few records for this woodpecker as it represents the extreme southeast point of its range.
In mid afternoon we were able to glimpse a Common Blackhawk on its nest along the Rio Hondo. This bird seems out of place along a drainage that is surrounded by desert. Later we checked another side canyon in pinyon/juniper habitat and were able to find two more species on the photo wishlist-Virginia's Warbler and Hepatic Tanager. The tanager seemed to be a first year male as it still sported some patches of yellow. We ended the day by calling in a Cassin's Sparrow on our way back to Santa Fe. This bird prospers in seasons of ample rain, such as this year, and combines its breeding song with a feeble display flight which it performs over and over.