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USA | New Mexico Bosque del Apache & Beyond

A 10-day, small group birdwatching tour to New Mexico

USA | New Mexico Birding Tours with Limosa Holidays: Our birdwatching tour to New Mexico is set amidst the dramatic, bird-rich landscape of desert and mountains of the Rio Grande Valley. Famed for its string of outstanding wildlife reserves - including the amazing Bosque del Apache - its late winter gatherings of wildfowl and cranes hold Snow and Ross’s Geese, Buffleheads and Sandhill Cranes. A bird tour to New Mexico in March also adds the exciting prospect of seeing Black, Grey-crowned and Brown-capped Rosy Finches in their mountaintop home, plus Ladder-backed Woodpecker and Chestnut-collared Longspur among a host of localised specialities. The first spring migrants will be arriving, too.

Tour Dates

2020

Spaces
3

Leaders
Brian Small

Max Group Size: 7
Duration: 10 Days

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Cost: £2995*

including return flights from London Heathrow to Albuquerque (New Mexico), with British Airways / American Airlines

Deposit: £400

Single Supp: £490*
Land Only: £2245

* Prices Provisional (tba)

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Black Rosy Finch 2 Sandia NM 0319 copy resized

Ooh!... Black Rosy Finch is one of three sought-after species of North American rosy finch to be found at Sandia Crest in March - where our photograph was taken © Brian Small, Limosa

In New Mexico, between Albuquerque and El Paso just 240 miles to the south, the Rio Grande snakes its way south before swinging west along the border between Texas and Mexico on its long journey to the Gulf of Mexico. As well as being supremely scenic - with grasslands merging into arid creosote flats, high mountains swathed in conifers, riparian forests, and dry canyons - this region of New Mexico is truly extraordinary for birds in winter. While its wetlands are world famous, there’s also a long list of other mouth- watering specialities to watch for here in March: from numerous birds of prey, Gambel’s Quail and Ladder-backed Woodpecker to Say’s Phoebe, all three species of rosy finch and Brewer’s Sparrow – the latter singing like Skylarks on speed!

Spend a day at the ‘jewel in the crown’ wetland of Bosque del Apache, just south of the town of Socorro, and the superlatives soon run out... Picture the sun rising over distant hills; rays of light cut through the clear desert sky and the songs of displaying Killdeer and Western Meadowlarks fill the air as the mirrored surface of the refuge’s pools reflect a host of wildfowl.

Many Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes spend the winter months at the Bosque del Apache Refuge. As spring approaches and they begin their long migration north, their place is taken by brilliant white, hulking American White Pelicans. Come early March, hundreds of Tree and Violet-green Swallows will be arriving too, bringing with them the first White-throated Swifts and eye-catching Vermilion Flycatchers.

These are but a small part of the wealth of birdlife on offer at Bosque del Apache at this season. As many as 25 species of wildfowl use the wide ‘pans’ as their winter home, among them Cackling and Ross’s Geese, Canvasbacks and Redheads, Buffleheads and Cinnamon Teal, while Northern Harriers float across the fields, eyeing their prey.

Just east of Albuquerque, Sandia Crest rises to 3280m (10,760ft), its summit still encrusted with snow at this time of year. After briefly following the legendary Route 66, we enter the Cibola Forest en route to the top, seeking to ‘get our kicks’ today from our quest for all three species of North America’s spectacular rosy finches: Black, Brown-capped and Grey-crowned. These sought-after yet confiding birds really stole the show on last year’s tour! Steller’s Jay, Mountain Chickadee, and White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatches will also delight us about the feeders as we sip a warming hot chocolate.

Heading south, we explore the lovely landscape of Water Canyon, set amidst the juniper and pine forests of the Magdalena Mountains - an excellent area for Acorn Woodpecker, Juniper Titmouse, Bushtit and the recently ‘split’ Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay.

Strung out like pearls along the Rio Grande are several productive State Parks - from the small and beautiful Percha Dam south of the town of Truth or Consequences, to the vast Caballo Reservoir, where Cactus and Rock Wrens, Crissal and Curve-billed Trashers, Phainopepla and Pyrrhuloxia (as hard to spell as they are to say), pink-sided Dark-eyed Juncos and Black Phoebe can all be found. While at Elephant Butte Lake we have the chance to compare the ‘look-alike’ Clark’s and Western Grebes amidst an array of thousands of wildfowl.

Out on the plains, where American Kestrels and Loggerhead Shrikes perch on fenceposts, we’ll go in search of Horned Larks and the exquisite Chestnut-collared Longspur – in March, the males already richly coloured before they fly north to breed. We should also see all three species of bluebird: commonest is Western, but Eastern and Mountain also join the roving flocks, hovering above the landscape in search of prey.

And though it is perhaps the spectacle of the Bosque del Apache Refuge that most birders initially come to New Mexico for, it won't take long to discover that this easy-paced tour offers a fabulous journey through a special landscape laden with exciting winter birds!

Guide Brian Small designed and led our March 2019 tour to New Mexico, and our 2020 visit will be his third trip there.

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Greater Roadrunner - New Mexico's State Bird - doing its thing outside the Rio Grande Nature Centre © Brian Small, Limosa

Day 1            
FLY ALBUQUERQUE
Our March birdwatching tour to New Mexico begins with a morning flight from London Heathrow to Dallas Fort Worth (Texas), and 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

Day 2
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

Day 9                      
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, where we connect with our onward overnight flight back to London.

Day 10
ARRIVE LONDON
Early afternoon arrival at London Heathrow, where our tour concludes.

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Ross's and Snow Geese at Bosque del Apache Refuge, with Ring-billed Gulls behind © Brian Small, Limosa

What To Expect

A 10-day winter birding tour to New Mexico, set amidst the dramatic, bird-rich landscape of desert and mountains of the Rio Grande Valley. Famed for its string of outstanding wildlife reserves - including the amazing Bosque del Apache - its late winter gatherings of wildfowl and cranes hold Snow and Ross’s Geese, Buffleheads and Sandhill Cranes.

A bird tour to New Mexico in March also adds the exciting prospect of seeing Black, Grey-crowned and Brown-capped Rosy Finches in their mountaintop home, plus Ladder-backed Woodpecker and Chestnut-collared Longspur among a host of localised specialities. The first spring migrants will be arriving, too.

March is a great time to visit New Mexico, as there is very little chance of rain and days are mostly sunny with little cloud. With cold air coming down the Rio Grande Valley from the north, winter temperatures at Albuquerque are rather low - in March, typically between 1-16C (34-61F). As the air is dry however, usually it doesn’t feel too cold. Nonetheless you should come prepared with warm winter clothing, and the possibility of some snow at altitude above Albuquerque. As we travel south towards Socorro and Truth or Consequences, on some days the weather can feel rather warmer, with highs on some afternoons in March up to 15-21C (59-69F).

Maximum elevation this tour: Upland roads are ploughed and salted to give access to the mountain ski resorts during wintry conditions. The road to Sandia Crest reaches a maximum elevation of 3280m (10,678ft), where we spend a couple of hours looking for the rosy finches.

Some good to excellent photographic opportunities on this trip, especially at Bosque del Apache and at the various feeding stations – mainly birds, but other wildlife possible. Some great scenery, too.

Birds

130-160 species

Accommodation

8 nights accommodation in New Mexico, in comfortable US-style hotels of good North American standard. All rooms en suite.

Meals

All main meals are included in the tour price, commencing with dinner on arrival in Albuquerque on Day 1 and concluding with lunch prior to departure from New Mexico on Day 9.

Food is good, varied and plentiful. Breakfasts are usually buffet-style at the hotels. Lunches will generally be picnics though we may sometimes visit a local restaurant or diner. In the American fashion, evening meals will usually be taken at a local restaurant since many North American hotels lack in-house restaurant facilities.

[Our tour price also includes the expected 15-20% gratuity for all meals in North America.]

Walking

Walks are short and mostly easy; moderate at times in the mountains. Our walks at Water Canyon and Caballo Reservoir involve a bit of walking (some uphill), but will be taken at a gentle pace. At Bosque del Apache, we drive the loops, getting out of the bus regularly to view from the bunds or viewing areas.

Upland roads are ploughed and salted to give access to the mountain ski resorts during wintry conditions. The road to Sandia Crest reaches a maximum elevation of 3280m (10,678ft), where we spend a couple of hours looking especially for the rosy finches.

Trails are generally good, though may be rocky and uneven in places, and some vegetation can be spiny. Wear comfy waterproof walking shoes with stout corrugated soles for grip.

Travel

Return flights from London Heathrow to Albuquerque. Please note there are no direct flights from the UK to New Mexico, so a change of planes is necessary in the US.

Currently, the best schedules are offered by a British Airways / American Airlines codeshare, nonstop from London Heathrow to Dallas Fort Worth (Texas), with an onward 50-minute connecting flight from there to Albuquerque (New Mexico).

Ground Transport  By air-conditioned minibus or people carrier.

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The attractive Bridled Titmouse is well worth watching out for in the mountains around Socorro © Brian Small, Limosa

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