Following New Mexico’s Southwest Birding Trail

We exit Interstate 25 at Caballo Lake and head south. The aroma of onions wafts through the windows of the car as we pass fields ready for harvest. Yellow-breasted Chats call from the Russian Olives as we ease the car down the access road to Percha Dam State Park, our first stop along the Southwest Birding Trail (#34).

At the state park, which is nestled among the cottonwood trees along the Rio Grande River, we plan to look for nesting and juvenile birds. We spot a number of silky black Phainopeplas perched in trees laden with mistletoe – one of their favorite treats. Their crest gives them a perky appearance. When they fly, we can see the white wing patches on the tips of their wings.

One of our target birds is the Vermillion Flycatcher and we don’t have to wait long. A female whose belly and flanks are washed in pink sits in a small tree in a grassy area. On the ground below her is the dead body of her mate, its bright red feathers still glistening against the grass.

“Blue Grosbeak,” I call out quietly, but it flies off before the others can see it.

The tinny calls of Great-tailed Grackles provide a tropical ambiance, even though the area is fairly parched. Robins, Western Kingbirds and House Finches are everywhere. When someone starts to discount House Finch sightings, Karen tells us that they are endemic to New Mexico and a sign of a healthy ecosystem.

Further along we are startled when a flash of red and orange shoots from the foliage and lands briefly in the branch of a cottonwood before heading across the river. As we pull out our field guides hoping it is a Flame-colored Tanager, we are equally delighted to identify it as a first spring Summer Tanager.

Barn and Cliff Swallows are alternately swooping over the irrigation ditch catching insects and then flying into their mud nests under the bridge. I can see their tails peeking out from beneath the bridge supports.

We stop briefly below Caballo Dam where Yellowthroats are calling, and then head to the boat launch area at Caballo Lake State Park, both #32 on the Southwest Birding Trail. The lake is quiet; however, we pause on our way out to watch a Curbed-bill Thrasher tentatively stalking a Tarantula Wasp. Two Swainson’s Hawks are circle overhead.

Then we head west on state highway 152 through fairly barren terrain as the road slowly climbs to the foothills. We stop briefly in Hillsboro, glad for a brief respite under the large cottonwood trees that line the street in the main part of the former ghost town.

The road curves and winds its way up to Emory Pass at a little over 8200 feet, and we take the turnoff leading to the Forest Service lookout, stop #31. While the view over the valley and ghost town of Kingston is spectacular, it is birds we are here to see. A Mountain Chickadee is busy in the trees adjacent to the parking area. We catch glimpse of a warbler-sized bird flitting from branch to branch.

We park in the pull-off across from the forest look-out road to watch a Violet-green Swallow going in and out of its nest in a secondary cavity high up on the dead trunk of a Ponderosa Pine. Several of us walk along the trail where we hear a Hermit Thrush singing.

Our next stop is the Iron Creek Campground (Stop #30), a pine-oak habitat. A man sitting on a lawn chair at one of the sites reading a magazine spots our binoculars and tells us that he has just seen “a red and black bird that flashed white on its wings,” – a perfect description of a Painted Redstart.

Even though we can hear the Redstart calling, it will have to wait. A flycatcher grabs our attention with its ‘tail quiver’ each time it lands. Those darned empidomaxes! We began the group detective work to make our ID. Short-notched tail, eye ring, very short, narrow bill. “I can see the yellow on the base of the bill,” Mary says. When we narrow it down to a Hammond’s, we play the song and call note on Nancy’s iPod to verify our conclusion.

Then a Painted Redstart flies in, which is a life bird for some of our group. It flashes its tail at us and sings its melodic whistle each time it moves from branch to branch. As it finally flies off, a Red-faced Warbler lands in the tree in front of us. How good can it get!

We linger in the campground, following the road along the creek. More Painted Redstarts dance in the trees. Hermit Thrushes sing, House Wrens scamper in the brush along the creek, and Northern Flickers and Acorn Woodpeckers fly to their nesting holes. A male Western Tanager pops by for a visit.

I see a flash of gray and white, and then red as a small bird flies down into the still dry weeds. Pretty soon it flies back out – a Red-faced Warbler. “They hide their nests in the weeds along creek banks,” Ray tells me.

As we are about to leave we notice a bird with gray wings, white wing bars and a yellow head. Is it the Olive Warbler we are coveting or is it a female Western Tanager? The bill is too long and slender for a tanager and when it flies, we can see white under the tail. We conclude it is an Olive Warbler – a life bird for me!

We spend the night in Silver City and head out at 6 a.m. for the McMillan campground beyond Pinos Altos, #23. A Dark-eyed Junco is singing its heart out at the top of a ponderosa where the sun has reached, and we can hear a Cordilleran Flycatcher’s high pitched peet. We can’t see it yet in the shaded foliage.

As the sun begins to warm patches of the road, a large hummingbird flies by, and briefly lands on a nearby branch. Its green throat and purple crown flash. “A Magnificent (Hummingbird).” Karen gasps.

We admire the blossoms on the New Mexico Locust growing profusely along the road.

Reluctantly we head for our next stop – Mangas Springs, located about 18 miles northwest of Silver City. We exit off of US 180 onto a stretch of the old highway where cottonwood trees tower alongside Mangas Creek and adjacent wetlands.

Nancy plays the call of a Virginia Rail and two answer her, but don’t come into view. Male Red-winged Blackbirds are calling on territory. As we wander down the road, we notice a male and female Vermillion Flycatcher flying in and out of a tree and surmise there must be a nest. After a while we locate a mossy nest with a female just settling down.

We hear a Northern Cardinal singing and soon spot him amongst the foliage. A first year Summer Tanager flies by and we easily identify it this time. Then we see a male Western Tanager and soon afterwards a Black-headed Grosbeak. Western Wood Peewees are present and Yellow Warblers are singing.

Gary beckons us down the road where he has spotted a Great-horned Owl sitting on a low branch in the shade of the cottonwoods. Dave sets up his scope so we can get a good look.

We drive down Bill Evans Road until it dead ends at a riparian area along the river, #20. Cliff Swallows are sailing over the area adjacent to the parking area. We head down a trail to eat lunch under the trees.

We finish birding for the day at the Catwalk National Recreation Trail, #15, a few miles northeast of Glenwood. Some of the group heads up the trail before the rest of us and make it all the way to the hanging bridge.

We start up the paved trail through the picnic area where children are splashing in Whitewater Creek. We stop to admire a Collared Lizard sunning itself on a burl.

When we cross over to the ‘easy’ trail, we scout the rapids for signs of a Dipper, but didn’t see one. Karen spots a male Hepatic Tanager and points out its grayish flanks, compared with the more brilliant Summer Tanager. Further up the trail we find the female, which is more orangish-yellow than the pale yellow Summer Tanager.

We gather at the Glenwood Fish Hatchery, #14, at 7 a.m. the last morning and enjoy watching the Belted Kingfishers gather and begin feeding. Northern Cardinals and Acorn Woodpeckers announce their presence.

We wander down to the other end of the property in search of the Black Hawk’s nest and are rewarded with a female sitting on her nest high in the ‘V’ of a dead trunk. Both Western and Cassin’s Kingbirds are perched on a nearby fence awaiting insects, which gives us a good opportunity to notice the differences. A juvenile Say’s Phoebe is also scouting insects. Its wing bars are a light orange, as opposed to the two-toned gray wings of an adult. A Bullock’s Oriole calls from a sycamore tree and then we see two American Kestrels perched nearby.

Our final stop is the Apache Creek Campground, just past Reserve. As we cross over the creek, we spot a Great Blue Heron standing along the creek bank. After we alight from our cars at the campground we see Lewis’s Woodpeckers flying between various Ponderosa Pines. Spotted Towhees and Western Wood Peewee’s are calling. As we explore the campground we find Western Blue Birds and Acorn Woodpeckers. A pygmy Nuthatch flies in and starts scaling one of the ponderosas.

As we pull out the last of our provisions to eat lunch, Ray notices Wild Turkeys wandering between the trees at the edge of the campground. While we eat lunch we go through our lists and are delighted to tally up 80 different species – a delightful three days following the Southwest Birding Trail.

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3 thoughts on “Following New Mexico’s Southwest Birding Trail

  1. Nice account, Judy. Merri and I had some fun birding on the campus of NM Tech in Socorro on our way to a night in Water Canyon and another in the Datil Mountains (Thompson Canyon). Accidentally camped next to a flicker nest — their ‘complaint’ was almost mammalian. peace, mjh

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