Saturday, June 27, 2009

Thursday, June 25, 2009

June Adventures

Mescalero Sands
Ah, back to the oil fields. We established a new camp in a caliche pit North of the metropolis of Maljamar, population 64. Apparently, the town’s name is derived from the 3 children of the town founder, Mallory, Jamie, and Mary, or something like that. This pit turned out to be a much better choice for the most part. No light pollution, no horrible acrid oil and sulfur, no broken glass, no pesky ants, and no packrats and associated poop. Although we had every intention of arriving early in the afternoon so we could establish camp, we arrived well after dark on the 1st after a long delay due to car trouble. On the 2nd, I awoke at dawn to find a burrowing owl and pair of horned larks perched 40 and 20 yards away respectively. Happy birthday to me!! We spent the day establishing camp and opening traps. As the evening approached a nasty storm blew in. The next few hours were spent hiding beneath our A-frame to avoid the driving wind and rain. The weather continued throughout the night. The next day yielded 22 snakes including a huge hognose found AOR en route to check traps. The next week went like this - bad weather for the next few days, and playing host and tour guide to 2 groups from Bosque School in ABQ and Western New Mexico University (Silver City, NM).

As the trapping session was winding down we finally had camp to ourselves so I decided to sit in the car to catch a few minutes of one of my favorite programs - NPR’s Marketplace. I was in the car perhaps 5 minutes when I began to exit the car to grab a water bottle only to see a huge cloud of dust and debris 60 yards behind me. I was barely able to close the door before the dust-devil passed over the car. When I exited the car a moment latter, I was less than thrilled to see that our camp was destroyed. The A-frame was wrecked as the winds had pulled several of the stakes out of the ground (keep in mind these stakes were driven into very hard, rocky ground), snapped several anchor ropes, ripped the tarp and the whole structure was discombobulated and had flipped over my car, putting a good size dent in my hood and smashing my driver’s side mirror. I think we were lucky that the heavy lid to one of our large 20MM ammo cans didn’t smash a window seeing how it flew 25 yards and landed 3 feet from the rear window. After we retrieved our gear, which was blown as far away as 150 yards away, I decided to go look for Barn Owls with my friend Bacardi in a large arroyo (dry riverbed) that Aubrey found earlier in the week. Sure enough, we found where 2 adults were residing in a small burrow about 15 feet above the ground. Less than 48 hours later we gladly wrapped up the week and got the hell out of dodge.

Here is our count including a few recaptures:

66 Coachwhips
14 Western Hog-nosed snakes
9 Milksnakes
4 Gopher snakes
3 Longnose snakes
6 Glossy snakes
1 Plains Black-headed snake
5 Massasaugas
2 Prairie Rattlesnakes
12 ornate box turtles, 3 Hog-nosed, and 2 coachwhips near the traps
Plus another half dozen snakes and turtles on the roads.

South TexasAfter a long 2 weeks in the oil fields of southern New Mexico, we headed south to visit with Aubrey’s grandmother in Weslaco, Texas, near the Mexican Border. If you haven’t driven through West Texas lately, well then count yourself lucky. I would consider driving 80 mph (that’s the speed limit) on I-10 for 6 hours to be one of the most boring drives I’ve possibly ever undertaken. If you like looking at nothing, then I would highly recommend it.
Our first morning there, I awoke early and hopped in the car at 6am and headed to Santa Ana NWR located half an hour away. In a little less than 2 hours we found 30 species. Admittedly, this isn’t a huge number but considering we were sharing 2 pairs of binoculars among 3 people and we weren’t hustling I think we did pretty well. Here is the list:

Great-tailed Grackle
*Green Jay
Northern Cardinal
White Ibis
*Couch’s Kingbird
Eurasian Collared dove
*Yellow-billed Cuckoo
*Long-billed Thrasher
*Plain Chachalaca
*Black-bellied Whistling Duck
*Great Kiskadee
*Golden-fronted Woodpecker
*Clay-colored robin?? ---According the SANWRefuge bird list they are encountered every 2-5 yrs. I thought I was just adding another S TX specialty so I didn’t think much of it at the time.
Northern Mockingbird
Great Egret
Black-necked Stilt
*Least Grebe
*Neotropical Cormorant
Ladder-backed Woodpecker
Little Blue Heron
Tricolored Heron
*Olive Sparrow
Bronzed Cowbird
*Gray Hawk
Snowy Egret
*(Black-crested Mexican) Tufted Titmouse
*Buff-bellied Hummingbird
*Groove-billed Ani??
Red-winged Blackbird

Yup, 17 life birds (*) for me. On the way home, we encountered a dozen or so Roseate Spoonbills in an irrigation ditch. This was a nice treat and a fitting way to end the trip as I last saw this species 5 years ago in Southern Louisiana. Someday I will return to the area with the intent of birding more seriously.

A few days later, we headed over to South Padre for a picnic. While there, I suggested we head to the jetties on the southern part of the island as I remember reading on the internet that is was possible to find sea turtles there. Sure enough, after a nice frolic in the water, we spotted one after a few minutes of sitting on the jetties. This prompted me to take a quick walk and I found another six in a matter of 10 minutes. I believe they were Green Sea Turtles (Chelonia mydas). I have a feeling if you walked to the end of each of the jetties you could encounter quite a few. I was really excited as I had not previously seen this species in the Continental US and it was a first for Aubrey. On the way back we stopped at a local brewery and sampled a few of their brews. The seasonal Cinco de Mai Bock was unanimously voted the winner.
After a few days of intense heat, (99ยบ, HI 115 degrees), short-course golf (the longest hole was 91 yds) and Rummikube (similar to rummy but instead of cards, players use tiles and the rules are slightly different), we headed back to New Mexico. The first 2 hours of the drive yielded 15 Northern Caracara (another life bird for me) and several dozen scissor-tailed flycatchers.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park
After a long day of driving, we took in the Brasilian Free-tailed Bat (Tadarida brasiliensis) mass exodus at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. I wasn’t sure what to expect and although it was pretty neat it somehow didn’t captivate me the way I expected. Perhaps it was the several screaming children and the young kid who asked if you could eat bats. One child was so bad that I chastised the mother to quiet the runt and quit irritating the people around her. I guess I prefer to not experience wildlife with the masses. Should I return, I would take in the spectacle from the parking lot where there are less people and where photography is not prohibited.
The next morning we returned to the Park and took in the giant hole beneath the earth. WOW!! We did the self-guided walk for the first mile and then took a guided tour of the King’s Palace. The walk down was great because the foot traffic was very minimal. Of course, when we made it to the main room, we watched as hordes of people excited from the elevators. The whole experience was great and I would highly recommend it to folks if you are ever within a day’s drive of Carlsbad.
After leaving the Cavern’s I planned to search for Grey Vireos within the park, but someone decided to close the Walnut Canyon Wildlife Drive at noon instead of 6 pm for a private tour. So, I decided to visit nearby Rattlesnake Springs to see if we could find a few brightly colored neotropical migrants to show Aubrey’s parents. Within 5 minutes we had several painted buntings, vermillion flycatchers, summer tanagers, black-head grosbeaks and, another life bird, a hooded oriole. Happy with my tour-guide hat, we departed to head home. On the drive back to Bosque Farms, we found 3 prairie rattlesnakes, 1 gopher snake, and a few unidentifiable snakes (heavy traffic behind us). Overall, not a bad little vacation.


Friday, June 19, 2009

May Birding Adventures

Well, I’ve developed a nasty birding habit and I’m told if I don’t knock it off that I will soon be single. We’ll see, I suspect I can convert Aubrey.

Mescalero Sands
Well it’s early May and its migration time here in the West. The reports I’ve read on BirdMail suggest northern Florida and southern Alabama are having a good year.

While working down in the Oil Fields I decided to see what I could find at Rattlesnake Springs in southern Eddy County. So after 8 long days in the field digging trenches by hand we finished trap installation and opened the traps. We then decided to drive the hour down to Carlsbad to get a shower and plate of food sans a side of dust. The next morning we awoke before dark, drove the half hour to the site, arriving at daybreak to a cacophony of birdcalls and a visual feast.

Here is what we found in a few hours:

Say’s Phoebe
Barn Swallow
Eurasian Collared Dove
Wild Turkey
Blue Grosbeak
Cassin’s Kingbird
Green Heron
Vermillion Flycatcher
Wilson’s Warbler
Yellow-breasted Chat
*Plumbeous Vireo
Rose-Breasted Grosbeak
Western Tanager
Swainson’s Hawk
*Townsend’s Warbler
*MacGillivray’s Warbler
Prairie Falcon
Northern Cardinal
Turkey Vulture
*Black-headed Grosbeak
House Finch
White-winged Dove
Yellow-rumped warbler
Orchard Oriole
Summer Tanager
Hummingbird sp.
Western Kingbird
Northern Mockingbird
Amercian Goldfinch
*Mexican Cave Swallow
Bronzed Cowbird?
Great Egret
Belted Kingfisher
*Painted Bunting
Swamp Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow
Great Horned Owl

We went back a few days later to RS and nearby Camp Washington Ranch and here is what we added to the list:

Blue-winged teal
Indigo Bunting
Hermit Thrush
Blue Grosbeak
Northern Waterthrush
Common Nighthawk
Ladder-backed woodpecker
*Cassin’s Vireo
Black and White Warbler
*Virginia’s Warbler
Black Phoebe
White-crowned sparrow
Red-winged blackbird
*Zone-tailed hawk- atop a Mulberry tree as we were exiting.

A total of 52 species in a few hours at one locality. While not a record breaker, I was pretty damn happy having seen quite a few eastern species at the edge of their range and a number of life birds (*). If I could bird by ear and we had taken time to explore some the desert areas adjacent to the springs we probably could have pumped up the list, but a rookie has to start somewhere.

SW New Mexico, Gila NF, and surrounding areas
In late May, Aubrey and I participated in a 2-day workshop pertaining to the Endangered Chiricahua Leopard Frog (Rana chiricahuensis) in Silver City, NM. During the workshop, we found a few of the CLF along with a dead Bald Eagle face down in a large debris pile. It looked to me as if someone shot and tried to hide the bird. USFWS personnel were present but didn’t seem to be upset or bothered by it.

On Friday, after the workshop ended, we decided to head ~ 20 miles north to camp in McMillan Campground along Cherry Creek in the Gila NF, north of the ghost mining town, Pinos Altos. My immediate impression was favorable as we entered a beautiful forest of pine trees and ascended in elevation. The campground was beautiful and limited to 3 spots. We set up camp and immediately took off to explore the woods and boulders. We spent a few days in the area alternating between bumming, birding, and scampering around.

Here is the bird list we generated:

Hermit Thrush (their beautiful melodious call echoes throughout the mountains and we were serenaded by them our entire time there)
Violet-winged Swallow
*Mexican Spotted Owl (call only)
*Cordillerean Flycatcher
*Grace’s Warbler
*Red faced Warbler (Probably the most abundant bird present)
*Broad-tailed Hummingbird
Spotted Towhee
Mountain Chickadee
*Painted Redstart
Chihuahuan Raven
Turkey Vulture
Hairy Woodpecker
Stellar’s Jay
House Wren
Pygmy Nuthatch
American Robin
*Dark-eyed Junco (Grey head form)

On Sunday, we decided to check out the Catwalk, a National Recreation Trail along Whitewater Creek, where it is possible to find American Dippers.

The birding highlights included:

*Yellow Warbler
*Acorn Woodpecker
*Willow Flycatcher
*Bridled Titmouse
*American Dipper
Canyon wren

We also found a few Clark’s Spiny Lizards, ornate tree lizards, golden columbines on a rock face above the creek, and a narrow-headed garter snake.

Before turning onto the main highway, we ducked into the Glenwood Fish Hatchery to see if I could find a nesting Common Black Hawk. I inquired at the office, and a gentlemen pointed me in the right direction. However, a nasty storm was rapidly approaching and I didn’t want to get caught out in the mess, so I waited in the car for a few minutes to see if would pass. It wasn’t looking promising, but about this time a large darkly colored bird took flight out of the trees. I stepped out of the car and sure enough, a beautiful Common Black Hawk. Shortly after lowering my binos, a raptor came swooping in front of me after a bird and quickly disappeared out of sight. My initial guess was either a Merlin or Peregrine Falcon but the bird did not reappear so we started the car and got back on the main road when the sky opened up and the hail began to rain down.

Throughout the day we stopped to bird a little here and there. We turned up the following species throughout the day, giving us a total of nearly 40 species for the day including a few species at Cherry Creek.

Scrub Jay
Vermillion Flycatcher
Gambel’s Quail
Red-tailed Hawk
Violet Green Swallow
Great Blue Heron
Mourning Dove
Turkey Vulture
House Finch
American Goldfinch
American Robin
Northern Cardinal
Stellar’s Jay
European Starling
Black-headed Grosbeak
American Kestrel
Red-winged Blackbird
Cinnamon Teal
American Coot
Loggerhead Shrike
White-breated nuthatch
Western Bluebird
Pinyon Jay
Vesper Sparrow

After thinking several times throughout the day about kingsnakes, I found a nice desert kingsnake in our yard in Bosque Farms underneath a coverboard. Overall a great trip.