Lake Estes Winter Birding

Barrow's Goldeneye (female)
On January 27, while driving across the Lake Estes causeway, we noticed a small flock of birds with splashes of white on the largely unfrozen lake. We pulled in to have a look and joined two other birders who happened to be Scott & Julie Roederer! They were quick to point out the find of the day, a female Barrow's Goldeneye. Also swimming about were Common Goldeneyes and a pair of Buffleheads at closer range than we had seen at Bosque del Apache.

Common Goldeneye (female and male)
On the 29th of January we took advantage of our "balmy" 40 degree weather and walked around the lake. In addition to watching the waterfowl, we decided to stroll along the Big Thompson in Wapiti Meadows where we'd briefly seen an American Dipper a couple years ago. We got lucky and Mike spotted one almost immediately as we approached the river. The Ouzel allowed us to get quite close and entertained us for a good amount of time as he kept busy diving. Later on the portion of the lake trail near the treatment facility we watched a cute little Pygmy Nuthatch darting about eating insects. He was only one of many we heard up in the pines.

Bufflehead (male)

Bufflehead (female)

American Dipper (aka water ouzel)

American Dipper (aka water ouzel)

Pygmy Nuthatch

Bosque del Apache & New Mexico - January 20-25

Sandhill Cranes before sunrise "fly-out"
We first learned of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico at the 2009 Monte Vista Crane Festival. The flock of Greater Sandhill Cranes that fly through southern Colorado start their spring migration at "Bosky" and end up in Gray's Lake, Idaho. We decided to visit the birds at both ends of their migration, and with cold weather in Colorado, southern New Mexico seemed like a good January destination.

We did the 9-10 hour drive in one day, and stayed at the very nice Holiday Inn Express in Socorro - their pool and spa did not go unused! Birdwatchers' favorite Casa Blanca B&B was booked up for the weekend, but we'll try to stay there another time with the hope of meeting the assistant innkeeper, Phil Norton, a former manager of Bosque del Apache NWR.

Sandhill Cranes
Friday morning we checked out the visitor center and signed up for a tour in order to learn more about water and farming management techniques utilized to maximize the environment for the migratory birds and other wildlife. We spent most of the next three days on the auto tour route which consists of two routes in roughly a figure 8 shape, the Farm Loop on one end and the Marsh Loop on the other. Various lookout points along the route and a viewing blind (named after Phil Norton) facilitated viewing and we spent most of the next 3 days behind our camera and binoculars. While the Sandhills are most famous, massive flocks of Snow Geese were also spectacular, particularly when they fly. First you'd hear the sound of thousands of wings flapping, then their voices rising in a honking chorus as the flock lifts from the pond or field. Within a few seconds a sea of white crosses overhead if you are lucky enough to be in the right place, which we were one morning at sunrise. There were also a few hiking trails, but with signs posted all around warning of aggressive mountain lions, we opted to stay closer to the car.

Snow Geese taking off

Antennas at the NRAO Very Large Array
Saturday afternoon we took a break from birding and headed out to the Very Large Array (VLA) about an hour west of Socorro where we found a nice little visitor center and self guided tour out to view one of the antennas up close. It was quite interesting to learn about the 27 radio antennas, configured in a Y-shape with 11-13 mile long arms. No small feat, the 10-story 236 ton antennas can be moved along the axis by a special rail system. The first Saturday of April and October the facility offers guided tours. This is in conjunction with the two weekends the Trinity Site is open to the public. We plan to go back. After the VLA we went back to Bosque to watch the sunset fly-in.

Crissal Thrasher
On Sunday we came back early to catch the sunrise fly-out and then joined a free 2+ hour tour with Bosque volunteers Dwayne and Marj. They were very knowledgeable and pointed out birds we hadn't seen in places we didn't know to look and explained in greater detail how biologists manage the Refuge. After the tour we went back out on the Farm and Marsh Loops, ending our last day watching the sunset from the Flight Deck.

Back at the visitor center, we enjoyed the Quail Habitat, which includes feeders, a tiny pond sourced by water flowing over a big rock. At this mini refuge we saw two birds which were new to us. The Pyrrhuloxia was a little shy about being photographed, but the uncommon Crissal Thrasher ate and drank heartily without much concern for us.

On the way home Monday we took our time and explored a few new places. First, we tried to visit the Ladd S. Gordon Waterfowl Complex area in Bernardo but it was closed for hunting that morning! Our next stop was Petroglyphs National Monument near Albuquerque, where we met yet another Park Service volunteer (and fellow birder) who had enjoyed living in her RV full time in order to volunteer. We checked out all the little petroglyph packed trails around Boca Negra Canyon then headed down to do the 2+ mile walk along Rinconada Canyon. Afterward we visited the nearby Rio Grande Nature Center, which we agreed would make a great stop for anybody passing through the area. In addition to interesting displays, an indoor viewing area of the pond included comfy couches and a fine library of nature books.

It was nearing dusk and we'd only managed to cover 80 miles so we decided to save Santa Fe for another time and push on to Las Vegas. A surprise snowstorm just past Santa Fe slowed us down, but fortunately only lasted for 20 miles. I've been through the original Las Vegas a number of times, but never got past the interstate stops to appreciate the town. After noticing Las Vegas in our 1000 Places to See book, we decided to look a little closer. The town square is very quaint, although it still has room to "be discovered." Most Saturdays a tour of Montezuma Castle is available. And for us the best part was dinner at El Fidel, a "seasonal gourmet restaurant," that considerably exceeded our expectations.

Tuesday morning, our last stop at the Las Vegas NWR didn't offer many birds, but the visitor center was first rate. At the administrator's suggestion, we hiked the 3/4 mile Gallinas Nature Trail Walk. This is a sweet little hike into a box canyon with seeps at the base. If you decide to try it, be sure to check into the visitor center and get a permit and code to unlock the gate.

This was a very successful birding trip for us -- we saw 54 unique species, 22 of which were new to us (marked with a *). Species list: American Coot, American Crow, American Kestrel, American Wigeon*, Bewick's Wren, Black Phoebe*, Black-throated Sparrow, Bufflehead*, Canada Goose, Canyon Wren, Cassin's Finch, Chihuahuan Raven*, Chipping Sparrow, Common Merganser, Crissal Thrasher*, Dark-eyed Junco - Gray-headed, Dark-eyed Junco - Oregon, Downy Woodpecker, Gadwall*, Gambel's Quail*, Gray Jay, Great Blue Heron, Greater Roadrunner, Greater Sandhill Crane, Green-winged Teal, House Finch, Lesser Sandhill Crane, Lesser Scaup, Long-billed Dowitcher*, Mallard, Mourning Dove, North American Bald Eagle, Northern Flicker, Northern Harrier, Northern Pintail*, Northern Shoveler*, Pied-billed Grebe*, Pyrrhuloxia*, Raven, Red-Tailed Hawk, Red-winged Blackbird, Ring-necked Duck, Rock Wren, Ruby-crowned Kinglet*, Say's Phoebe*, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Snow Goose*, Song Sparrow, Spotted Towhee*, Western Meadowlark, Western Scrub-jay*, White Breasted Nuthatch*, White-crowned Sparrow*, Wood Duck*

Click here for more images from this trip.

Here's a map of the places we visited in New Mexico on this trip.
View Bosque del Apache area in a larger map