I am just back from a brief trip to Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge. Three friends and I drove down together and a fifth drove over from Arizona to join us, so we made five musketeers. We took one day to drive down and one to drive back with a few stops along the way and had two full days on the refuge. Bosque del Apache is one of the gems of the National Wildlife Refuges. It is managed largely for the sand hill cranes and snow geese which winter there in great numbers but it is also very people friendly. We were a little late in going this year but it was the only date we could all find the time to go. Normally, the greatest number of cranes and snow geese can be seen between late November and mid February. Thus the numbers of both were reduced but still plenty to see. Perhaps as many as 2,000 sand hill cranes were left and we saw several small flocks of snow geese, including several juvenile birds with their gray plumage. There were plenty to satisfy us, just not the huge fly-outs every morning and fly-ins every evening that is usual in winter. And, yes it was already early spring down there. About twelve miles south of Socorro, New Mexico, the refuge was delightfully warm during the day. Only at night did the wind off the mountains blowing across the open water, make us put on our parkas.
We stayed at a working ranch that also runs a bed and breakfast. It was delightful and much better than going into Socorro every night as we could see the stars and walk about the ranch, get up early and get back late. We had our own kitchen and bath with beds for five in a unit called the “bunk house”. Very comfy and we ate our meals either there or on the refuge, tailgating, so we didn’t miss any birding time. All the ponds were open and waterfowl were moving north in fair numbers, as were raptors. Northern pintails, mallard, ring-necked duck, green-winged and cinnamon teal, northern shoveler, American wigeon, gadwall, wood duck, bufflehead, common goldeneye, hooded merganser, ruddy duck, lesser scaup, pied-billed grebe, Clark’s grebe and Canada geese were seen by all and mostly up close enough for good views. Most of these birds were in full spring plumage and as handsome as they can be. A few were already displaying and many were paired. In the raptor department we didn’t do as well but we did see red-tailed hawks and northern harriers in good numbers and bald eagle, Cooper’s hawk and kestrals in fair numbers. One northern harrier was of special interest; it was quite close to us on the ground along one of the pond shores. At first look, I thought it must be an owl because t showed distinct facial discs. But after long and close looks we decided it was a dark phase juvenile northern harrier. It was a beautiful dark brown, with almost black longitudinal streaks on its neck, throat and breast on a golden background. The facial discs were almost black surrounded by a ring of golden feather tips and the back feathers were also tipped with gold. It was a special treat for not only was this bird exceptionally beautiful it was also a plumage I had never seen before and I learned a lot. It finally flew off with the usual tilting flight and white rump patch of a harrier telling us our identification was correct. Shore birds were also low in numbers, we saw only greater yellowlegs, avocet, long-billed dowitcher, and killdeer but that was probably partially due to the fact that the water level in the ponds was high and there were no mud flats for them to feed on. Land birds were also low. We saw a few robins, whether they were wintering birds or spring migrants would be hard to say. Bluebirds had already passed through for we saw only one on the refuge and they are already arriving in Evergreen. The one particularly noticeable land bird was the black phoebe, a handsome black and white phoebe that just come into southern Colorado along Burntship Creek just west of Colorado Springs. They had increased in numbers on the refuge, which may have been because migrants were still passing through, but I couldn’t help but think that it might be due to the increase of available nesting sites. They love to nest beneath bridges and the refuge has put in more roads with bridges and many more viewing decks out over the water, which is very similar to a bridge. It seems as if at least one pair of black phoebes had claimed every new site. They were a welcome sight and perhaps they may continue to increase in southern Colorado. We saw a few doves both in town and on the refuge that we thought to be Eurasian collared doves but they were too far away to identify for sure. We also saw about 500 rock doves in Santa Fe. Doves sure seem to like that desert country. Our only owl for the trip was a great horned owl which was nesting in the same hole in an arroyo bank where we had seen one six years ago.
The last afternoon we decided to leave the refuge and take a trip down the sand road that ran beyond the ranch all the way to Texas. We went 25 miles down this road looking for oryx. These big African antelope were introduced into New Mexico by the Division of Wildlife in hopes of having an animal to hunt that could survive in their desert. They have done well and have increased so that they do now allow hunting. We had just hoped to see one but could not see one anywhere. All we found were fresh tracks in the sandy road ahead of us but we finally had to turn around as the sun was setting. We reached the ranch in time to see Venus and the thin crescent moon before it set in the western sky.