Our March birdwatching tour to New Mexico begins with a morning flight from London Heathrow nonstop to Phoenix (Arizona), and short onward afternoon connection from there to Albuquerque, New Mexico.
We make the short transfer from the airport 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! It's a rare opportunity to look for them and to learn how to separate these most alluring but rather similar-looking species. Numbers do vary from year to year - but on our March 2019 tour, the flock numbered over 150 birds! Often by early March, Black are the most common, while the rosy bellied Brown-capped and Grey-crowneds have usually reduced in number. Amongst the handsome, rich-brown Grey-crowned birds we could also spot one or two ‘Audreys’ - birds of the “Hepburn's” race, with its greyer face than the interior form.
The feeders at the top also attract Steller’s Jay, Red-breasted and White-headed Nuthatches, and Mountain Chickadee, and with luck we may encounter American Three-toed Woodpecker and Red Crossbill, too.
Ploughed and salted, the road that winds up to Sandia Crest affords good birding and we’ll pause along the way to search for species in the Cibola Forest. Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, Red-naped Sapsucker, Pine Siskin, the attractive ‘Grey-headed’ form of Dark-eyed Junco and Brown Creeper are all present in March. Other possible highlights might include wintering Hermit Thrush and Cassin's Finch, plus chances of Mountain and Western Bluebirds, Clark's Nutcracker and (if we are lucky again this year) Townsend's Solitaire.
Picking up lunch on the way, we head around Albuquerque, driving a short section of the famous ‘Route 66’, to reach the Rio Grande Nature Centre. A refuge from the city life of Albuquerque, amidst its 270 acres of woods, meadows and farmland flourishing with native grasses, wildflowers, willows and cottonwoods, many species spend the winter. Wildfowl to watch for include Ring-necked Duck and Lesser and Greater Scaup, with ‘landlubbers’ such as Greater Roadrunner, Western Bluebird, White-breasted Nuthatch, Spotted Towhee and House Finch attending the Centre’s busy feeders. In the sedges and reeds we may spot an elusive Marsh Wren; Bewick’s Wrens are also present here in March, and Audubon’s Warblers overwinter as do Bushtits and Black-capped Chickadees.
Nearby is the Petroglyph Monument at Rinconada Canyon, where a short walk at the end of the day might produce Crissal Trasher or the smart Black-throated Sparrow.
Returning to our Albuquerque hotel for a second night, maybe we will pass along another section of 'Route 66' - though by now we should already have got our kicks! Night Albuquerque
Days 3 - 5
TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES
Leaving Albuquerque this morning, we travel a couple of hours south to the wonderfully named town of Truth or Consequences. We may pause now and then to stretch our legs – laybys in New Mexico often hold various sparrows, including the dainty Brewer’s, feeding in the grasses. We’ll also be keeping a keen eye open for Scaled Quail in the roadside scrub as we pass.
South of Socorro, we divert to pay our first visit to the famous Bosque del Apache reserve to look for wintering Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes. Having checked in at the lively (for birds) Visitor Centre, we will drive the north loop track to check the pans and fields. No doubt we will stop many times as we go, for the reserve is an oasis for wildlife amid the arid landscape.
Continuing south, ‘T or C’ is an excellent centre from which to explore key birding areas in the Rio Grande Valley, including Percha Dam State Park and Caballo Reservoir to the south of town. These two sites are not only beautiful state parks in their own right but two of the best places for landbirds in New Mexico and we will spend time over the next 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 home to 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 either Pyrrhuloxia or Phainopepla! The yellow-throated Audubon’s Warbler can be especially numerous at Percha Dam and often something unexpected turns up, so birding here is always exciting!
Both Elephant Butte and Caballo reservoirs are large and great places to look for wildfowl and gulls, including Bufflehead amongst the diving ducks. Out on the lakes, a mix of Clark’s and Western Grebes can often be seen, along with Hooded and Common Mergansers (Goosander). Around the shores many other wildfowl gather, the most numerous being American Wigeon and Green-winged Teal. Peregrines and Northern Harriers hunt the shores and Buff-bellied Pipits can be seen by the water’s edge.
Below the dams, two recreation parks – Paseo del Rio at Elephant Butte and Riverside at Caballo - offer chances to see Northern Rough-winged and Violet-green Swallows, Verdin, Rock Wren and Western Bluebird. The desert-dwelling Ladder-backed Woodpecker is quite common here and, in March, we also have chances of the exquisitely patterned Red-naped Sapsucker and the slender, more subtly marked Say’s Phoebe. Three nights Truth or Consequences
Days 6 - 8
SOCORRO: BOSQUE DEL APACHE & THE MAGDALENA MOUNTAINS
We bid farewell to Truth or Consequences this morning and take an easy drive back north (about an hour) to Socorro. A three-night stay here will enable us to devote plenty of time to the wonders of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, its 57,000 acres playing host to numerous birds in winter.
Keeping our fingers crossed for fine weather (March here averages only two days with rain), mornings at Bosque del Apache consist of early starts as this is the best time of the day for light and bird activity. As the desert sun lifts above the distant eastern mountains and the first hint of daybreak tints the sky, the sun warms the air and the crisp desert light strikes the surface of the pools and canyons about the reserve.
We’ll spend much of the next two days exploring the loop roads around the reserve, enjoying the spectacle of waterfowl and other species - including Western Meadowlarks singing from the tops of bushes, small mixed flocks of bluebirds perched on fenceposts and crowds of showy Red-winged Blackbirds.
Up to 25 species of wildfowl use the wide ‘pans’ as their winter home, among them Canada, Snow and Ross’s Geese, Canvasback, Redhead, Green-winged, Blue-winged and Cinnamon Teal, bobbing Ruddy Ducks, Ring-necked Duck and Lesser Scaup. Waders forage along the water’s edge, with Killdeer, Least Sandpiper, Wilson’s Snipe, Long-billed Dowitcher and Greater Yellowlegs all regularly present in early March. Red-tailed Hawks survey the busy scene from prominent dead branches and Northern Harriers quarter the marsh, while marauding Peregrines and Cooper’s Hawks create panic amongst the gatherings of wetland birds.
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, and we have a good chance of spotting 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 March sees the arrival of the season’s first brilliant Vermilion Flycatchers: all are well worth looking out for from and around viewing platforms as we drive the ‘loops’. The first flocks of hirundines also appear over the wetlands in March, with chances of Cliff, Northern Rough-winged, Barn, 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 out into forest and montane scrub. Along the way we will look out for Prairie Falcon, Loggerhead Shrike and Horned Lark. 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 across the southwestern US and here occurs as nearly pure stands of pine or 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 here and we should also find the attractive (and recently ‘split’) Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay, striking Bridled Titmouse and endearing Mountain Chickadee - not to mention the unfortunate Bushtit and Juniper Titmouse, two species unceremoniously dismissed in the Sibley Field Guide as ‘drab grey birds of the arid Southwest’. With any luck, the nomadic Pinyon Jay will also come our way.
The flat grasslands around about offer our best chance to find the superb Chestnut-collared Longspur, before it heads north to breed in the northern prairies. By March, the males should have acquired their smart spring colours and the numbers present are often good. Alongside them, pink-shawled and mustard-faced Horned Larks scuttle, whilst bold American Robins and beautiful Mountain Bluebirds perch along the fencelines. Three nights Socorro
RETURN TO ALBUQUERQUE, FLY LONDON
It's only a one-hour drive today from Socorro to Albuquerque, so we'll have time to enjoy some final birding this morning as we return north.
Late afternoon departure from Albuquerque to Dallas Fort Worth (Texas), where we connect with our onward overnight flight back to London.
Early afternoon arrival at London Heathrow, where our tour concludes.