We stood captivated watching the Great Horned Owl scrutinize us from its perch in a niche in the red sandstone ruins at Quarai National Monument. Its silence matched the stark walls of the desolate church remains. The fall air had warmed slightly, and the sky was a deep azure blue. I felt blessed.
I was on my weekly outing with the Central New Mexico Audubon Society’s ‘Thursday Birders.’ We had gathered at 8 AM at the Four Hills Shopping Center and car pooled to a member’s home in the Manzano Mountains where we warmed ourselves with hot coffee and watched the activity at their myriad feeders from the windows that run the length of their home. It was also a time to catch up. A newcomer was about to build a house in the mountains, someone had returned from spending the summer in Michigan, and another spoke excitedly about their upcoming Elderhostel birding trip to Ecuador.
“There is a Calliope Hummingbird on the right,” someone exclaimed, as we watched hummingbirds buzz in and out at one of the feeders.
“How can you tell?” someone else asked. “They all look the same.”
“Watch the bill,” Karen explained. “It is much shorter than the bills of the others.”
Sure enough, I could see the difference. I learn something new every time I am with this group, many who are very accomplished birders. Regardless of where I have birded, I have experienced the generosity of helpful information from other birders.
After an hour, our car pool snaked its way south along State 357.
“We’re watching a raptor circling,” a voice announced over the walkie-talkie. We all inched our cars onto the shoulder and got out to ID the bird, a Red-tailed Hawk. A kettle of Turkey Vultures wafted on the thermals.
Further along, we could see small pale brown birds flushing from the bushes as we passed, and again, we pulled over to examine them. They were ‘chippies,’ or Chipping Sparrows, migrating in for the winter. Western Bluebirds and Western Kingbirds rested on the fence railing across the highway.
The scenic road passed through several old land grant villages, one with the oldest apple orchard in North America. At State 55, we turned west, and after a nonproductive stop at Manzano pond, we headed to Quarai.
Just beyond the ruins where the owl continued to sit, Lou spotted movement in an ocotillo cactus, and we all gathered around. It kept flying out and then back, this time to some dead branches above the cactus, indicative of a flycatcher – but which one?
Rebecca, our bird call expert, recognized the sharp “whit,” indicative of an empidonax type of flycatcher. “Its tail is flicking down,” someone observed.
“Notice that its head looks largish for its body,” noted Russell who was a visiting birder from Austin, Texas. “And its breast is pale. I would say that it is Least Flycatcher.”
Sure enough, a glance at my National Geographic Field Guide to Birds, showed its migration route knifing through New Mexico. I would have had difficulty with a positive ID without the collective wisdom of my birding friends, enabling me to get a new life bird.
The breezes rustled the leaves of the cottonwood trees as the group ate lunch.
On the next Thursday trip we explore migrants in the Corrales Bosque. Life is good.