A Bald Eagle searches the marsh at Bosque Del Apache NWR for crippled cranes and waterfowl. Photo: Beth Russell
Riverine cottonwood stands along the Upper Rio Grande River, expansive fields and ponds where countless waterfowl and cranes spend the winter, large lakes attractive to wintering waterbirds, and snowcapped mountains swathed in conifer forest form the backdrop as we explore the central corridor of New Mexico. Along the way we’ll witness one of North America’s greatest wildlife spectacles, as tens of thousands of geese, ducks, and cranes fill the air at Bosque del Apache NWR. We’ll also be able to study New Mexico’s many wintering sparrows and raptors, and hope to encounter all three species of North American rosy-finch, which are not easily accessible elsewhere together in winter.
Day 1: The tour begins at 6 p.m. in the lobby of our Albuquerque motel.
Day 2: We’ll visit a nearby canyon where hillsides are covered in pinyon-juniper and montane scrub to search for resident birds such as Scaled Quail, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Western Scrub-Jay, Juniper Titmouse, Bushtit, Cactus Wren, Rock Wren, Western Bluebird, Curve-billed and Crissal Thrashers, and Townsend’s Solitaire. After an early lunch in Albuquerque we’ll drive to the Rio Grande Nature Center, a bottomland hardwood stretch along the Rio Grande. Here we’ll encounter large numbers of waterfowl, including Cackling Goose and Wood Duck, as well as a good cross-section of landbirds such as Black-capped and Mountain Chickadees, and various finches and sparrows. Later we’ll drive south to Socorro where we’ll visit the Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in the late afternoon. If time allows we may stop at the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge in Albuquerque’s south valley, which often hosts New Mexico’s largest wintering flock of Richardson’s Cackling Geese, and the occasionally Greater White-fronted Goose in amongst the masses. Night in Socorro.
Day 3: If we have the good weather, we’ll be in for a real treat this morning at Bosque del Apache. A slight chill will permeate the crisp, still-dark morning air as we stand along the road at the refuge. Just as the first hint of dawn encroaches from the east it begins: a few isolated bugles and honks at the start and then a rising swell of sound. As dawn takes hold, literally thousands of Snow and Ross’s Geese begin to leave their nighttime roosts, filling the air with their bodies, and our ears with a veritable symphony. Listening to this cacophony and watching the flocks whirl overhead in the early morning light is an awesome experience. After the morning fly-out, we’ll spend the rest of the day exploring the two loop roads around the refuge, the refuge headquarters, and a trail into desert scrub just south of the refuge for a host of grebes, ducks and geese, Greater Roadrunner, passerines such as Sage and Black-throated Sparrow, and raptors such as Ferruginous Hawk, Merlin, and Bald Eagle. As twilight approaches we’ll visit a different roosting pond to watch the spectacular evening return of Sandhill Cranes. Night in Socorro.
Day 4: We’ll depart early and drive south to areas around Caballo Lake and Percha Dam, some of the best birding locations in the state. Extensive stands of cottonwood and stretches of Chihuahuan Desert scrub attract large numbers of wintering landbirds, and we’ll be alert for such species as Gambel’s Quail, White-winged Dove, Greater Roadrunner, Black and Say’s Phoebes, Chihuahuan and Common Ravens, Verdin, Cactus Wren, Red-naped Sapsucker, Pyrrhuloxia, and Phainopepla. If adequate rains have occurred an impressive diversity of sparrows use the area in winter, including Sage, Black-throated, Brewers and Grasshopper. On almost every visit to these areas something unexpected turns up, and birding here is always exciting. We’ll also look over Elephant Butte Lake, rich in waterbirds and perhaps the best place in New Mexico for wintering gulls. On previous visits we have turned up rarities such as Glaucous and Lesser Black-backed Gulls among the flocks of Ring-billed Gulls. A visit to a feeding station at Las Animas Creek, the only drainage east of the continental divide with native Arizona Sycamores, should produce gaudy Acorn Woodpeckers and perky Bridled Titmouse. Night in Socorro.
Day 5: This morning we’ll visit a native grassland just east of Bosque and look for wintering raptors, several species of grassland sparrows and longspurs, and the distinctive lilianae subspecies of Eastern Meadowlark. Later we’ll drive to Santa Fe by way of a scenic highway that passes through juniper-clad slopes, expansive grasslands, and deep canyons where we may encounter birds such as Pinyon Jay, Canyon and Rock Wrens, and Western and Mountain Bluebirds. The grasslands along this route are often great places to find Golden Eagles. Night in Santa Fe.
Day 6: We’ll spend the morning exploring the road up to the majestic Santa Fe Ski Valley, where we’ll hope to encounter Clark’s Nutcracker, Gray Jay, Pine Grosbeak, and possibly the ever elusive Dusky Grouse. Once we’ve finished birding in the mountains we will, weather permitting, drive north to the expansive short grass prairie at the Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge or farther to Maxwell NWR. Here we hope to encounter more northerly species such as Rough-legged Hawk, Tundra Swan, Black-billed Magpie, and American Tree Sparrow. Depending upon conditions we may elect to drive north to Taos and Angelfire, along the scenic Rio Grande gorge, where wintering American Dipper and Barrow’s Goldeneye are possible. Night in Santa Fe.
Day 7: Our final full day will find us exploring Sandia Crest with hopes of studying three species (and four subspecies) of rosy-finch. The Sandias are one of a handful of locations in the U.S. where all three “rosies” occur at the same time, offering an unusual chance to learn how to separate these sometimes similar species. This site has been the host of a seventeen year banding study of New Mexico’s wintering rosy-finch population, spearheaded by your guide back when he was 12 years old, and with any luck we’ll have the chance to view these birds in-the-hand and learn firsthand all about their natural history in the state. The road that winds up to the crest offers good montane birding, and we’ll search for species such as Northern Pygmy-Owl, Steller’s Jay, Red-breasted and Pygmy Nuthatches, and possibly American Three-toed Woodpecker and Williamson’s Sapsucker. Finches are generally plentiful in the coniferous forest here, and most years we encounter flocks of Pine Siskins and Red Crossbills as well as the occasional Cassin’s Finch. Night in Albuquerque.
Day 8: The tour concludes this morning in Albuquerque.
Updated: 17 November 2020