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Cow-pie Birding

Long-billed Curlew photoshopped

Let me say at the outset: Costa Rica it’s not, but birding in a feedlot casts, well, if not charm, then at least, its own piquant “spell.”

To get to Feedlot Road (yes, there’s a road sign and everything), I drive two hundred miles across stunning, snow-capped mountains and veer south onto the nearly featureless western limit of the Great Plains.

Three hours later, at 8:30 a.m., I arrive at the feedlot—a small one, as far as feedlot operations in the West go. Through my binoculars, I watch a cowboy saddle his horse. Since I don’t want to be chased off what is probably private land, I plop on my goofy birding hat, a get-up calculated to ensure I’d be quickly dismissed by anybody who might wonder: Why is a Toyota highlander creeping along a dirt road at 5 mph in Ford pickup country?

Intent behind the steering wheel, I peer right and left for any possible bird movement. I listen, too, for soft cheeps and twips through an open window that also invites the uninterrupted breezes from across the plains. The dashboard gauge registers 28 degrees. Because of the cold, there is no manure smell, though cattle gather at the edge of a greenish-hued pond laced, no doubt, with nitrogen run-off. Recently, environmental scientists report “legacy nitrogen” has been contaminating lakes, rivers and ground water for 100 years. I scan the pond’s edge for migrating shorebirds. None, thankfully. Just dried-out cow pies.

I’m listening for longspurs. A chestnut-collared longspur is not totally out of the question, even in mid-March. They may not all have migrated yet for the Dakotas where they breed in summer. I could catch sight of one. I find myself making bargains, grasping for the straws of some amazing sighting. Whereas in reality, the only bargain a birder might make is this: pure gratitude in exchange for a glimpse of a wild bird or a snippet of its song. I open to the possibility of beauty. Frozen fog drapes the distant mesas. Then, the fluting melody of western meadow larks fills the highlander. In this big land are big, open-hearted sounds.

The road is rutted, but dry. I venture on. Ahead, a large holding tank is perched atop huge sawhorses. Stenciled across it in faded block letters is a single word: AMMONIA. It’s used to fertilize crops fed to cows. Past the tank, the highlander rocks one way, then the other, not unlike the weathered cedar fence posts that teeter along the roadside. Suddenly, a flock of starlings balloons above the lot and undulates in perfect synchronization, folding one way, then the other, finally settling back down onto a heap of …what? A heap of manure; a mound, really, a couple of stories high.

Fields are marked off in strict parallelograms. Miles of telephone wire meet at right angles. A driveway to a ranch house is straight as a compass needle. Two stunted, but symmetrical ponderosa pines mark the entrance. A “No Hunting Within ½ Mile” sign rusts in a tangle of downed barbed wire. No turkeys in sight. A meadowlark pops up on the roof of a dilapidated shed, its bright yellow chest the only spot of color.

Scarcely raising a whisper of dust, a pickup pulls up alongside the highlander. From inside the cab, a black cowboy hat nods and the side window slowly rolls down, “Everything okay, ma’m?” I point to the emblem of a sandhill crane on my birding cap: “Just birdwatching.” The cowboy nods again and the window slowly rolls up.

The highlander backs into last year’s dried sunflower stalks, jerks around. Up flutters a hundred horned larks. Like disturbed bees, they frantically climb air. Two killdeer dart out from a furrow of a newly plowed field, their strident didideeerr out of all proportion to any real bother they have suffered. Through the binocs, I spot a single canyon towhee, its usually rusty underside standing out as a miniature orange flag against the gray backdrop.

Dullness lulls and mesmerizes, and the highlander plods forward, heavy as a cow. I turn right and discover the road is petering out and descending onto the dark blackened ground of the feedlot itself. It’s getting mucky. I could get stuck in here. I glance around for someone to rescue me in the event I need rescuing. In fact, I’m looking for the cowboy I earlier shunned. No sign of him. I can only proceed forward, skirting the shitty muck as best I can.

The highlander leans into an embankment, and that’s when I sense a peculiar jabbing motion along the incline among last year’s broken stalks. Up and down, up and down, like a pump one sees out on the oil and gas fields. But this is no pump; this is a graceful bow of a bird’s beak, like a scythe but slicing vertically and smoothly through the stubble. I count one, two… eleven long-billed curlews, each probing for some delicious morsel hidden in the muck. The curlews are oblivious to my presence. But I note that they are searching for and finding something precious and praiseworthy. As am I.

Brutal Birding 101



Here we are, an hour into a slow, tough slog through three feet of cold stream water. I’m traipsing behind Jay Gatlin, who’s as sunny and cheerful as a Yellow Warbler. Ironically and right on cue, the warbler’s “sweet sweet so sweet” melody sails across the silent marsh. Jay, who makes a point of involving the public whenever possible in the work of the US Forest Service, invited me to participate in the annual survey for the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher. She’s the wildlife biologist out of the Camino Real office in Penasco and together with wildlife biology technician, Art Abeyta, heads up the surveying team. It’s already 8 a.m., and we haven’t seen nor heard a flycatcher. Three hours to go. Or more.

Okay, it’s incredibly beautiful, with beaver ponds glittering in morning sunlight and herons and red-wingeds flying overhead, but it’s quickly turning into Brutal Birding 101. I’m wearing my husband’s waders with heavy boots provided by the USFS. With each step, my boot sinks into rich marsh muck. Tangles of vegetation entrap my hiking poles and slash against my face. In contrast to me, Art and Jay appear to move through this environment as effortlessly as river otter. My respect for field biologists soars. I just try to keep up.

Last year, we counted possibly three birds. So far this morning, nada. Up ahead of me, Art halts, switches on a recording of the flycatcher’s distinctive “fitz-bew.” We freeze and listen, hoping to hear the return call of a real bird. Nada. Jay scribbles some notes. We trudge on. Up and down embankments, across dry patches, then back into the dense riparian habitat these birds require for nesting. Again, nada. About two hours later, Jay lifts an arm, points south. She’s heard the buzzy call of the flycatcher, but we’re umbrella-ed beneath willows and can’t visually sight the bird. We bushwhack forward and come to a clearing. And there it is: a non-descript little gray bird perched atop a dead snag, checking out his domain. We’re all ecstatic. “Maybe he’s got a lady,” Jay says in a burst of optimism. But this guy is the only one of its kind we will find today.


Field Notes from the Big Lonesome

Ute Mountain-NE flank            It’s all about scale. Start here. Ute Mountain. High desert steppe. Get out of car, set up tripod and camera. Walk around. Repeat. Five miles, four hours later, trip on basalt stone. Land one step short of a bunch of sticks.

HOLA next among basalt

          Startled bird shoots up. What is that! A horned lark. What is in there? Bend over, peer closer.

HOLA upclose egg in nest

          Two eggs, size of marbles. Shooters, that is, not peewees. It’s all about scale. Here’s my report from the field:

          I left the lower canyon at 5:30 a.m., March 29, and drove to Colorado, then turned back toward the state line and Ute Mountain. Call it a personal quest, to flush out the “Prairie Ghost,”  one of the common names given to Mountain Plover because it blends in so well with its bleak (but beautiful) habitat.  Outside BLM contracted surveys, there are only two sightings posted on eBird in the past ten years on what is now Rio Grande del Norte National Monument.

            Yes, a needle-in-a-haystack bird. (But wouldn’t it be cool to see a shorebird in the Monument?)

Mountain Plover migrates in late-March/mid-April from California and Northern Mexico to sites on the high plains. So I’d have a better chance of spotting one out toward Lamar, Colorado. (But wouldn’t it be cool to see a shorebird in the monument, or did I already mention that?)

Mountain Plover prefers the same xeric landscape as bison, prairie dogs, and pronghorns. In fact, I spotted eleven pronghorns on the northside of the mountain. But sadly, no plovers.

The big, lonesome landscape belonged to Horned Lark, flitting up from one clump of grass only to dive down in another. I have to say, Horned Lark has an uncanny resemblance to the antelope—strong  facial markings, “horns,” which are actually feather tufts. I could make out three distinct vocalizations, each a soft tinkling.

Among the seventeen species I recorded were Sage Thrasher, its melodious song reminiscent of a Northern Mockingbird; Mountain Bluebird; a Kestrel kiting in the slight breeze above the sagebrush plain.

Later, I drove State Line Road to its dead end at the rim of the Gorge. There I heard a plaintive Say’s Phoebe , a burbling Rock Wren and, like a siren call, the high, echoing tones of a Red-tail. Then came my First of Spring (FOS) sighting of—amazingly enough—eight Violet Green Swallow. I won’t see them near my home for another three weeks.

Out there along the rim, I turned around in slow-mo, like a movie camera taking a panoramic: moving counter-clockwise from San Antonio Mountain to the Bread Loaf Hills (as I call the Pinon Hills on the west side of Lobatos Bridge); and from there to Blanco Peak and the northern tier of the Sangres and down the length of the Sangres to the Questa peaks and on around to a distant Chiflo Mountain in the south.

I entered my list on eBird. First ever bird list posted for Ute Mountain. I guess that makes me a virgin birder.

Notes From A Snowy Field

Photo by Stephen Knox Barrow's Goldeneye takes flight over Rio Grande

Photo by Stephen Knox
Barrow’s Goldeneye takes flight over Rio Grande

A day-long slog December 17 through the snowy drainage areas of Rio Pueblo, Rio Grande, Pot Creek, and Rio Grande del Rancho yielded 62 different species of birds during the eleventh annual Orilla Verde Christmas Bird Count (CBC). Next month, that information will be folded into count data from more than 2,400 count circles from across the U.S., Canada, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Pacific Islands.
Bald Eagles were spotted, powerfully winging their way a mere fifty feet above the Rio Grande, scattering dabbling and diving ducks as they muscled overhead. One rare Arctic visitor—Barrow’s Goldeneye—and a group of unusual Hooded Mergansers lifted the spirits of cold birders. In Ranchitos, Red-tailed Hawks braved the weather, as did a handful of Eastern Bluebirds, who flitted on and off fences, apparently right at home though far off their geographical track.
Contributing to a CBC is one way ordinary people can make a difference to wildlife. And this year, participation was way up: twenty birders from Los Alamos, Rio Rancho, Santa Fe, and the Taos area compared to just twelve in 2013. Public lands staff also lent their expertise, including Mary Orr, Wildlife Biologist, USFS (Espanola and Coyote); Jennifer Gatlin, Wildlife Biologist, USFS (Penasco); Cat Luna, Social and Economics Specialist, USFS (Taos); and Valerie Williams, Wildlife Biologist, BLM (Taos).
The CBC is the world’s longest running citizen science project. Smithsonian Magazine reports that Audubon receives three to five requests each week from scientists wanting to use CBC data for their research. Audubon and U.S. Geological Survey scientists have developed statistical methods of analyzing CBC data. Such mega-analyses can allow scientists to spot declines in bird populations before they reach a critical level.
But participating in the CBC is also a fun and rewarding way to spend a day. Wildlife Biologist Gatlin captured the essence of a bird count: “One of the greatest aspects of a CBC is that an entire community of people interested in birds comes together to count birds on a single day. At the beginning of the day you may start as strangers, but end up sharing identification tips, stories, and experiences. You end the day as friends.”