February in New Mexico

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Petroglyphs National Monument. A bird of a different kind.

Yet another of Alaska Airlines’ great fare sales and since I’d not yet been to NM, I bought a ticket, convinced a Utah friend to meet me there, and headed off for an extended weekend (Saturday-Wednesday) in mid-February. We flew into Albuquerque and picked up our rental SUV, but other than a visit to Acoma Pueblo (on a festival day! So cool) and a half-day spent in the Albuquerque area, we spent most of our time in Santa Fe and surrounding national parks and monuments.

Here’s the thing about having spent most of my life in northern climates. Even despite having lived in Utah for 5 years, I still tend to assume the desert southwest is supposed to be warm. Year-round. Yes, I’m a bit of a ditz on occasions. We had to clean snow off the rental car on several occasions and got rained on quite a bit. Thankfully since Anchorage had been so cold and I needed to be able to not freeze to and from the Anchorage airport, I had a nice selection of warm winter clothing with me.

I also have to confess to another thing. Living at near sea-level for the past 14 years has done a number on my stamina at high altitudes. I can normally walk for ages but I just wasn’t up to what NM meant for my hiking ability–especially when the trails had some significant elevation gains.

So between the less-than-clement weather and altitude, we didn’t really do as much birding as could have been done and there really weren’t that many birds about and active. But that’s not so bad since my travel companion wasn’t really a birder so at least I didn’t irritate her too badly with my stopping every five feet to stare at some little flitty thing in the bushes. We did visit quite a few amazing cultural sites and oh, the food. The amazing Mexican restaurants. Oh, yum. This is one cuisine which Anchorage doesn’t have in excellent abundance, so I completely indulged. (Which may also have been responsible for some of my lack of stamina.)

But back to the birding. I added 21 species to the year list, 3 of which were life-list birds for me. Cooper’s Hawk (Petroglyphs National Monument), white-breasted nuthatch (the blind at the Rio Grande Nature Center in Albuquerque), and canyon towhee (Bandelier National Park).

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Canyon towhee at Bandelier National Park. What a beautiful place. And so not what I was expecting from New Mexico terrain.

The other additions to this year’s list were: western bluebird, canvasback, sandhill crane, Eurasian collared dove, wood duck, northern flicker, northern harrier, red-tailed hawk, Steller’s jay, dark-eyed junco (Oregon and grey-headed varieties), common merganser, pygmy nuthatch, roadrunner, lesser scaup, Townsend’s solitaire, curve-billed thrasher, downy woodpecker, and canyon wren. These were scattered across our various visits to Bandelier and Pecos National Parks, Petroglyphs National Monument, the Audubon sites in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and at various points on the roads in between.

One of the funnier moments occurred when we stopped at the Audubon center in Albuquerque (Rio Grande Nature Center) and I asked the very nice desk attendant for birding location suggestions for the Albuquerque area. She immediately gave me very detailed directions to several sites on the south side of town. At some point she said something about farmers’ fields and the light bulb went off for me. I carefully asked what we would see there, and the response came: “Well, sandhill cranes, of course!” I think I disappointed her by being far more interested in the wood ducks

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Wood ducks really are so amazingly colored.

and towhees in the immediate vicinity which I can’t see at home than I was in the sandhill cranes which nest in Anchorage annually. That’s probably when she figured out I was a real tourist: capital T Tourist. We decided not to head south to see sandhill cranes and as we were wandering north-ish, looking for backroads back to Santa Fe, we saw some anyhow. And yes, I was far more excited by the roadrunner that wandered by as we were looking at the cranes. Though I’ll admit, by the time our sandhills get to AK, they’re not the pretty all-over silver that they are in New Mexico: they tend to show a lot of the rust-colored tannin staining in their feathers here.

Even though I didn’t spend a huge amount of time birding, I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to go and with a navigator who knew the area pretty well. I’m definitely looking forward to a visit back–maybe at a slightly different time of year–so I can explore some of these areas more thoroughly. And maybe get a better look at some of the other fauna that inhabit the region, too. Well, except for spiders and scorpions. Come to think of it, I may have gone at the perfect time of year. Not a lot of spiders in evidence and I’m just fine with that.


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