Tag Archives: #nature

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.

Chasing Eagles

Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, location of today's eagle drama.

Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, location of today’s eagle drama.

The Bald Eagle's plumage allows it to blend in with the brown desert varnish of  basalt boulders and dabs of snow.

The Bald Eagle’s plumage allows it to blend in with the brown desert varnish of basalt boulders and dabs of snow.

     Today’s sunny interim (between yesterday’s storm and tonight’s) beckoned, and so my neighbor and I decided to drive through Orilla Verde and along the Rio Grande to see what was up. In a word, plenty.
     Past Petaca Canyon, a commotion barely 100 feet up the canyon wall caught our attention, so I pulled the car to an abrupt stop in the middle of the road. Is that a…..yes, it is! A Golden Eagle was giving chase to a madly flapping raven. What’s he doing down here along the Rio? We watched for nearly five seconds before the tides turned, and the raven, joined by another raven began chasing the eagle. They had just flown across one of those avalanche trails from last summer’s rains when, seeming out of nowhere, a Bald Eagle swept into the midst of the fray and the three-some split off, only to resume their back-and-forth chase.
     Finally, the GOEA landed atop a basalt boulder, giving my friend and me, both of us in a state of shock, a chance to back the car up, turn around, and pull off the road. We located the GOEA on a boulder across the river, who soon was in flight again, gaining altitude in the canyon, pursued now and again by the ravens. The GOEA flew nearly overhead, swooping across the entrance to Petaca Canyon, then back, then up to rim opposite us. Five crows continued the harassment along the rim. Whew!
     In our drive down to the Junction Bridge and back, we were able to confirm five Bald Eagles along that 5-mile stretch of river.
      Perhaps the best Bald Eagle display came on our way back, along the fisher path that leads northward from Rio Bravo campground. We’d noticed the pair of BAEA on our earlier drive through. They were still apparently motionless, still atop their hang-out boulders across from Rio Bravo campground.
     We were walking along the path when they both suddenly took off (we thought we’d disturbed them), but they both began circling over a flock of Goldeneyes, a couple dozen in all. They circled again, swooping closer to the ducks and the river. We dared not move any closer, though we tried for the best view we could from among the willows. I thought, they’ll never circle over the Goldeneyes again because we are right here!
     But they did, at least twice more, both of the eagles, getting very low. The ducks, meanwhile, did not take flight. This was amazing to us, as we all know how skittish Goldeneyes are. They began to move in unison, first to the left about ten feet, then to the right, then left again, sometimes bunching up close together.
     I thought, will an eagle actually pluck a duck out of the water?
     Right then one of the eagles descended into the middle of the flock and plucked from the water a…….fish! I’m watching the eagle carry the fish in its talons overhead, thinking, that’s not a duck!
     The moral of the story….get out and bird!

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.”