Birding is a very versatile hobby. There are days you want to sit back, beer in hand and just watch what comes to the feeder and there are days where you want to go full speed ahead and see as many species as humanly possible. Luckily I made a new birding friend (Wyatt E) who enjoys the latter, and we were able to put in some really respectable days of twitching out of Las Cruces. It had been a while since I had someone to go out and go full throttle with, so I really appreciated both his willingness to turn it up to 11 and his encyclopedic knowledge of the flora and fauna of the area. As I have written in my Ebird bio please feel free to contact me if you ever see me reporting in your area. I got to see some really amazing species in this post and it was all due to the fact that I reached out to someone and he was kind and social enough to take me around.
One of the sad things about moving as much as I do is that its hard to hone my expertise in any one area as much as I would like. Whereas a lot of people get to very organically develop a deep understanding for the birds in their area, I am piecing together a patchwork quilt of different experiences. Some of these experiences are old, some newer. In addition to that sometimes when I see a bird the last time I saw it was not only in a different county, in a different season, but on a different continent. So I will be the first person to admit that I am not fully responsible for a lot of the new birds I get to see. I am forever grateful to the people who are willing to take me under their wing (a bird pun!) and share their expertise in addition to showing me around their local areas. Part of what makes bird watching a wonderful hobby is that it does have this oral and physical tradition, where the truly best way to learn is to have someone willing to take you out and explain things to you.
A good example of the phenomenon of seeing different birds in different places would be the Red Crossbill I encountered at the Deming Cemetary. The last time I saw a Crossbill was in three years ago in Bulgaria. Yes. Bulgaria.
When I initially contacted Wyatt he mentioned the first thing he wanted to do when he was back in town was head over to the Gila Bird Area to search for the Red Breasted Sapsucker. It had been seen previously in December but it was still up in the air about whether the bird was still there, or even if it could be a hybrid. You see Red Breasted Sapsucker is actually a really exciting bird for these parts because.. well… as you can see below we are fairly far off from its normal range. It had been quite a while since I had actually gone and twitched a bird, so I was really excited for the chase as well. Besides the fact that I was about to see new and exciting birds, I was also really exciting for the company of other bird watchers. I know this sounds odd but I really miss birding and being able to discuss bird related things with others. No matter your passion hobby its always great to find people you can nerd out with and discuss the minutiae of your respected hobbies with.
We started off at 4:30 and began the several hour, caffeine-fueled drive over to the Gila Bird Area. Once we arrived we did a short scout along the river while we waited for the sun to peek out over the ridges and start warming the area. Wyatt explained that the best chance of seeing the bird was when the sun started hitting the valley and the sap started running. We did a short scout of the area near where the bird had been sighted, and in my non-scientific parlance a lot of the trees in the area looked like ‘Woodpecker trees’. As we were approaching there was one beautiful long branch sticking conspicuously up into the sky and I remarked jokingly “I want the Sapsucker to land right there! Right on that branch”! We posted up in the area it had been seen and had in one of the easiest twitches in history, after about 10 minutes of leisurely chatting, Wyatt spotted it out of the corner of his eye on a nearby tree.
The bird was even obliging enough fly closer and land on the tree I had pointed out in our walk! It landed and hung out in full view, allowing us to take some pictures. It really is a striking woodpecker. The red is such a vibrant and eye-catching shade!
That day in addition to seeing the Sapsucker I was able to tick off several other lifers such as Phainopepla, Green Tailed Towhee, Western Bluebird and Mexican Jay. It was a really top-notch outing. In the US and Canada, I haven’t really been having days where I could see more than 5 lifers at a time. To be able to tally 12 was a real rush. One of the real stunners of the day was seen at the Demming Cemetary where we were lucky enough to get great views of Harris’s Hawk. We heard it calling from a tree dead smack in front of us and it allowed me to have some great views.
But even after that marathon, excellent day with 50+ species, there were still more goodies to be seen! As everyone knows birders are weird with their lists. There is a separate list I keep inside my head though, a very important and very emotionally charged list. Its called the ‘List of Birds I Am Annoyed I Have Not Seen’ and a second trip with Wyatt proved to be just the thing to tick a couple of these birds off. You see in order to qualify for the List of Birds I am Annoyed I Have Not Seen you have to be truly special. I have to have searched for you all over the damn place, I have to have gone to places where you had been seen that day only to come up empty, you have to be a bird that everyone else sees but then you magically disappear whenever I come into the vicinity.
One of the birds that have haunted this list for a very long time has been the Horned Lark. Much like the Green Woodpecker of Europe, wherever I have searched for this bird I have come up empty. I have looked in Michigan, Ontario, and Quebec only to have that gaping hole on each and every one of my lists. Our first (shorter) trip to the Grasslands yielded no Horked Larks. But I was in for a treat this time!
You see the other rule about being on the List of Birds I Am Annoyed I Have Not Seen is that once I actually find the bird I see them everywhere. Once I put all that time into trying to seeing them and coming up empty, I start seeing them in droves. That day I saw Horned Lark after Horned Lark after Horned Lark. The other bird I was able to tick off that day was Vesper Sparrow. For quite a while (and in several parts of the US and Canada) I have been double checking every Sparrow within eyesight in hopes of seeing the Vesper Sparrow. Part of me believed that my experience with the Vesper would be similar to when I saw the Lincoln’s Sparrow for the first time. Much like the Vesper, I had been double-checking every Sparrow for quite some time looking for Lincoln’s, but whew! The first time I saw a Lincoln’s Sparrow (my 1000th life bird) I was confused how they could ever be confused for anything else! They are very distinct to the naked eye. For whatever reason Vesper Sparrows and I do not share that kind of relationship though. For whatever reason, I have a real tough time identifying this bird. Luckily though my friend was able to help me out and get me a long sought-after bird.
Besides allowing me to see some birds I had been pining over, the Mason Draw Grasslands ended up being a really special place for birding in general. Grassland birding is much different for me than anything else I have ever done before. First off, it’s super tough and unique. But it’s also super enthralling because anything you manage to see and identify is very hard won. It mandates you take your time, which also really intrigues me. Sifting through the different Sparrow species is def. tough but its something I would love to take another crack at. One of the really special highlights (besides the birds I was annoyed I had not seen before) was Sprague’s Pipit. An added bonus was being able to get so close. It was a very happy and pleasant bird who worked the ground near us without giving us a second thought.
Overall my time in Las Cruces has been really fulfilling and wonderful. Its a really enjoyable town I am hoping to be able to make my way back to sometime. I’ll be headed to El Paso, Texas in the next few days to continue my Southwestern Winter! As mentioned don’t be a stranger and drop me a line if you are around those parts!