Our winter birdwatching tour to New Mexico begins with a morning flight from London Heathrow to Dallas Fort Worth (Texas), and onward connection to Albuquerque, New Mexico. We make the short transfer to our nearby hotel, which will be our base for the first two nights of the tour. Night Albuquerque
SANDIA CREST & ALBUQUERQUE
Making an early start from our hotel we head just to the northeast of the city, where the ski road rises up to Sandia Crest, 3280m (10,760ft). Here we can drive right up to Crest House, well known amongst birders as a site to see all three species of North American rosy finches: Brown-capped, Grey-crowned and Black! This is a rare opportunity to look for them and to learn how to separate these alluring but rather similar-looking species. Numbers do vary from year to year, but often by early March, Grey-crowneds are the most common, then Black, while Brown-capped have usually reduced in number. Amongst the handsome, rich-brown Grey-crowned birds we could also spot one or two of the ‘Hepburn's’ race, with its greyer face than the interior form.
Ploughed and salted, the road that winds up to the Crest affords good birding and if possible we’ll pause along the way to search for species such as Steller’s Jay, Red-breasted and White-headed Nuthatches and possibly American Three-toed Woodpecker and Red Crossbill. The forest here is also home to Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, Red-naped Sapsucker, Pine Siskin, the attractive ‘Grey-hooded’ form of Dark-eyed Junco and Brown Creeper. Other possible highlights might include wintering Hermit Thrush and Cassin's Finch, and chances of Mountain and Western Bluebirds, Clark's Nutcracker and - if we are lucky - Townsend's Solitaire.
Fed and refreshed, we drop back down to head round the northern fringe of the city, to the Rio Grande Nature Centre. A refuge from the city life of Albuquerque, amidst the 270 acres of woods, meadows and farmland flourishing with native grasses, wildflowers, willows and cottonwoods, many species spend the winter. Wildfowl include Ring-necked and Wood Ducks, Greater Scaup and possibly Canvasback, with the likes of Greater Roadrunner, more Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, Eastern Bluebird, White-breasted Nuthatch, Spotted Towhee and House Finch attending the Centre’s busy feeders. In sedges and reeds we may spot an elusive Marsh Wren. Bewick’s Wrens are also present in March, and Myrtle Warblers overwinter as do Bushtits plus Mountain and Black-capped Chickadees.
On our return to our hotel, maybe we will pass along a section of the famous 'Route 66' - though we should already have got our kicks! Night Albuquerque
Days 3 - 5
BOSQUE DEL APACHE & THE MAGDALENA MOUNTAINS
After breakfast this morning, we travel the short distance south to Socorro, pausing now and then to stretch our legs and at a layby where various sparrows, including Brewer’s, may be feeding in the grasses or where a Northern Harrier might swing by. Scaled Quail frequent the roadside scrub and beautiful Mountain Bluebirds and numerous Red-tailed Hawks adorn the poles and fences as we pass. We’ll be keeping a keen eye open for the scarce Ferruginous Hawk, too.
Our three-night stay at Socorro will enable us to devote two full days to the wonders of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, its 57,000 acres playing host to numerous birds in winter. Mornings at Bosque del Apache consist of early starts to witness the spectacular flights of cranes and geese.
With our fingers crossed for fine weather (March here averages only two days with rain), as the desert sun lifts above the distant eastern mountains and the first hint of dawn tints the sky, the initial bugles and honks of one or two cranes and geese soon rise to a crescendo. As thousands of Sandhill Cranes and geese - mostly Snow Geese - lift into the air and leave their night-time roost, we’ll watch the clamouring hordes flighting out across the surrounding countryside to feed, soaking up the atmosphere before we ourselves head back for breakfast.
We will spend much of the next two days exploring the loop roads of the reserve, enjoying the spectacle of waterfowl and other species, including rails, American Bitterns and crowds of Red-winged Blackbirds. Birds of prey are numerous: majestic Bald Eagles survey the scene from prominent dead branches, as marauding Peregrines and Cooper’s Hawks create panic amongst the flocks of feeding waterfowl. Up to 25 species of wildfowl use the wide ‘pans’ as their winter home, including Canada and Ross’s Geese, Canvasbacks and Redheads, Blue-winged and Cinnamon Teal, Ring-necked Duck and Lesser Scaup. Waders feed along the water’s edge or crouch in the grass, with Killdeer, Least Sandpiper, Wilson’s Snipe, Long-billed Dowitcher and Greater Yellowlegs all regular here in early March.
Around the information centre, Gambel’s Quail and various sparrows feed - notably Spotted Towhee, White-crowned and White-throated. Woodpeckers can include Ladder-backed as well as Northern Flicker and Red-naped Sapsucker, while American Barn Owl can be picked out at times and we have a good chance of seeing the impressive Great Horned Owl. The abundance of easy prey attracts scavenging Coyotes, too.
Both Black and Say’s Phoebes overwinter in the area and we even have a chance of Vermilion Flycatcher: all can be seen from and around viewing platforms as we drive about the ‘loops’. Hirundines begin to appear in March and we have chance of Northern Rough-winged, Tree and Violet-green Swallows.
On one afternoon we will head up into Water Canyon in the lovely Magdalena Mountains, rising up through the grasslands and on into forest and montane scrub. Along the way we will look out for Prairie Falcon, Loggerhead Shrike and Horned Lark, but soon the grasslands give way to pinyon-juniper woodland at the entrance to Water Canyon. This habitat is one of the more extensive vegetation types found in the southwestern US and here occurs as nearly pure stands of pine, juniper or a mix of the two.
Three juniper species are found in the canyon: One-seed, Rocky Mountain and Alligator. The sociable Acorn Woodpecker occurs and we should also find the attractive (and recently ‘split’) Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay, the nomadic Pinyon Jay, and the striking Bridled Titmouse and Mountain Chickadee - not to mention the unfortunate Juniper Titmouse and Bushtit, two species unceremoniously dismissed in the Sibley Field Guide as ‘drab grey birds of the arid Southwest’. Three nights Socorro
Days 6 - 8
TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES
Leaving Socorro, we have another easy drive south today to the wonderfully named Truth or Consequences. We will divert en route to visit Monticello Point, at the northern end of Elephant Butte reservoir. The flat grassland here offers a good chance to find the superb Chestnut-collared Longspur, before it heads north to breed in the northern prairies. By March they have acquired their lovely colours and the numbers here are often good. Alongside them, pink-shawled and mustard-faced Horned Larks scuttle, whilst American Robins and Mountain Bluebirds perch about the fences. Out on the lake itself, a mixed gathering of Clark’s and Western Grebes can often be seen, along with Hooded Merganser.
‘T or C’ is an excellent centre from which to explore several key birding areas in the Rio Grande Valley, including Percha Dam State Park and Caballo Reservoir to the south of the town. These two sites are not only beautiful state parks but two of the best places for landbirds in New Mexico and we will spend time over these two days gently walking through them searching for feeding parties.
Percha Dam is small but perfectly formed, its mix of riparian woodland and contrasting desert scrub attracting a wide variety of birds. Extensive stands of cottonwood trees attract large numbers of wintering birds and we’ll hope to see species such as Gambel’s Quail, White-winged Dove, Greater Roadrunner, Black Phoebe, Chihuahuan and Common Ravens, the plush-capped Verdin and the king-sized Cactus Wren, all the while hoping that we’re not the one to spot and have to call out Pyrrhuloxia or Phainopepla! Often something unexpected turns up, and birding here is always exciting.
In comparison, Caballo reservoir is large, encompassing 11,000 acres. In winter, it’s a great place to look for wildfowl and gulls, including the dapper little Bufflehead amongst the diving ducks. Around the shores, we may find the desert-dwelling Ladder-backed Woodpecker, the exquisitely patterned Red-naped Sapsucker and the slender, more subtly marked Say’s Phoebe, while keeping our eyes open for Bald and Golden Eagles that sometimes grace the skies. Below the dam itself, at Riverside Recreation park, we have a chance to see Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Verdin, Rock Wren, Western Bluebird and American Pipit. Three nights Truth or Consequences
RETURN TO ALBUQUERQUE, FLY LONDON
Even though we have reached the southernmost point of our journey, it's only a two-hour drive today from Truth or Consequences back to Albuquerque. Flight schedules permitting, we should have time to enjoy some final birding this morning on our way back north.
Late afternoon departure from Albuquerque to Dallas Fort Worth, where we connect with our onward overnight flight back to London.
Early afternoon arrival at London Heathrow, where our tour concludes.