Spring Birds of the American Southwest

March and April, 2022

The Goddard spent the fall and winter of 2021-2022 in New Mexico and then Arizona, and in the spring we headed back north to visit Colorado for a while. Spring is a great time to watch birds: they’re very active as they gather material for nests and later find food for their fledglings. Leaves on trees also begin to emerge as the weather warms up, which I was to discover makes photographing birds much more difficult than in the fall and winter.

Here are some birds we saw doing their spring thing in Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado.

Holbrook, Arizona

Our campground in Holbrook was next to a residential area, which doesn’t happen very often because usually campgrounds are on the outskirts of towns. It gave us a chance to walk by houses and see birds perched in the trees.

This female house finch was busy gathering materials for a nest at our campground in Hollbrook. Finches have really pretty songs, and they’re enjoyable to listen to in the morning. House finches are an interesting story: they’re native to the American southwest and Mexico, but profiteers captured some finches in the 1940s and attempted to sell them as “Hollywood finches” to bird enthusiasts in New York City. Rather than face prosecution for violating a federal law regarding migratory birds, the people released the finches into the wild and the birds established themselves on the U.S. east coast. In the ensuing years, they’ve moved both east (from the southwest) and west (from the east coast) to be found across nearly the entire country.
Here is the mate of the house finch, watching the sunrise the same morning. I’m sure he later helped build the nest, too. The reddish coloration of male house finches changes with the seasons and is dependent on the birds’ diets; as you’ll see, some male house finches are redder than others. For their size, finches have some powerful beaks.
This is a very common bird, the house sparrow, but it’s a very pretty one all the same. Mornings are a great time to take photographs of birds because the sun is low in the sky to provide dramatic lighting, and the birds themselves are fairly active.

Grants, New Mexico

The campground at which we stayed in Grants, New Mexico, at the end of March had an adjacent walking trail that wound through a lava field. A relatively recent volcanic eruption, perhaps only 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, produced the black basaltic rock that is everywhere around Grants. The campground’s trail attracted a lot of birds that perched on the trees and shrubs within the lava field, including this female white-crowned sparrow that was singing a pretty song one morning. It was the fifth species of sparrow I’d seen during our stays in New Mexico and Arizona. We really enjoyed this trail, which also provided great views of the surrounding mountains. A national monument, El Malpais (Spanish for “the badlands”) is very near Grants, and we look forward to visiting it in the future.
Here’s the other male house finch I alluded to earlier. Dunno what he’s eating to get all of that red coloration, but he’s definitely the reddest finch I’ve ever seen. This was in the campground at Grants; I have a bunch of photos of different birds perched on different types of water valves at campgrounds, for some reason.

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Our next stop on our return north was Albuquerque, which Nancy and I really enjoy visiting. There’s a lot to see and do there, and plenty of great Mexican restaurants and grocery stores to enjoy.

We returned to Albuquerque’s excellent Botanic Garden at the city’s BioPark, which also has a zoo and aquarium situated along the Rio Grande near downtown. In early April the garden had thousands of blooming bulbs, including daffodils, tulips, crocus, and others, as well as a lot of neat birds. This is a male white-crowned sparrow; compare him to the pretty female white-crowned sparrow from the Grants lava field, two photos above. This guy was hunting for bugs on one of the garden’s trails.
We watched this mountain bluebird bring a grub to its nest in a tree near the Botanic Garden’s farmstead exhibit. I really like the hue of blue, which contrasts nicely with their rusty chests, on these birds.
Gunther and I went for a walk on a trail along the Rio Grande bosque one afternoon and I heard this fellow singing in a cottonwood tree. I couldn’t tell what kind of bird it was at the time because it was so far away, but I got a couple of photos with my telephoto lens. I was a little surprised to see, after looking at it on my laptop, that it’s a spotted towhee. I’d never seen one in a tree before; I’ve only seen them on the ground, scratching through leaves while looking for bugs. (Of course, the next day we went to the city’s Botanic Garden and we saw another spotted towhee there, in a tree.) Spotted towhees are really pretty birds – they’ve got a lot of patterns and colors going on.
On that same walk we saw several wood ducks, including this very striking drake, swimming in a canal adjacent to the Rio Grande. I’d never seen wood ducks prior to our first stop in Albuquerque last November. They’re just incredibly beautiful birds (and the hens are quite pretty as well).

Las Vegas, New Mexico

In mid-April we made our way to Las Vegas, which we had also stayed at the previous fall. It was incredibly windy during our stay there in the spring (and the area would be subjected to several wildfires shortly after we left), so we didn’t venture out much. I did take a few photos at the campground, though.

This is a western bluebird, perched on a power line and watching me as I watched it. This is the same species from the cottonwood tree in the Albuquerque Botanic Garden. I’m writing this post while camping in central Arkansas, and I kind of miss those clear blue skies of New Mexico and Arizona. We sure don’t miss the wind, though.
Writing about blue skies: this mountain bluebird nearly disappears into them. We’ve seen this species in Colorado several times, including at the cabin near Eleven Mile Reservoir. You can see that the wind was blowing: look at the feathers on his chest.

Lathrop State Park, near Walsenburg, Colorado

We returned to Colorado around the end of April, choosing to camp once again at one of our favorite state parks. Located west of Walsenburg in the southern part of the state, Lathrop State Park has two large lakes, good hiking trails, and incredible views of the Spanish Peaks and Blanca Peak, each of which still had snow. The park attracts an enormous number of permanent and migratory birds each year.

We’d seen a couple of American robins, our first of the spring, at the Albuquerque Botanic Garden, but I couldn’t get any good photos. There were plenty of robins at Lathrop. I’ve learned to recognize their calls, which are really distinctive once you’ve heard them enough.
I hiked through the cactus and brush (you’ll notice that most of these songbirds at Lathrop are perched on juniper) north of our campsite one morning and took this photo. I had no idea what kind of bird it was until I looked it up: it’s a tufted titmouse, at the very northern edge of its range in southern Colorado. I’d never heard of them, let alone seen one before. Neat-looking bird, although you don’t see many species, outside of bluebirds and blackbirds, that are all one color.
Here’s another new bird to me, from the same morning hike: it’s a Bewick’s wren. I couldn’t get on the other side of it to take advantage of the morning sun, but I kind of like this backlit effect anyway. I’d never seen too many species of wrens before we started full-timing in the Goddard; I’ve since seen several, and they’re very attractive little birds.
This is a cropped photo taken with a telephoto lens from a long, long way from this bird, but I’d never seen one before. This is a pied-billed grebe swimming on one of the park’s lakes, and it spent more time submerged than swimming on the surface. I saw eight bird species at Lathrop State Park that I hadn’t yet seen in 2022, and three of them (the last three pictured) were species I’d never seen at all.
There were lots and lots of chipping sparrows at Lathrop. I’m not sure if there were more of these or if there were more American robins at the park (and there were a lot of blackbilled magpies, too). Very pretty calls from these little birds.

By the time we left Lathrop State Park on April 24, I’d seen 51 different species of birds in three different states in 2022. It had become obvious that being around water, whether it’s a river or a lake, greatly increases both the chance of seeing birds and the opportunity to see different species of birds. That would become even more clear at the next Colorado state park at which we’d camp.

Roadrunner, revisited

November 14, 2021

The opportunity to photograph another roadrunner presented itself while we were at the Albuquerque Botanic Garden on Sunday, Nov. 14. The garden has a display of vintage farm equipment next to its exhibit on old-timey farmsteads, and this greater roadrunner (as we now know, the state bird of New Mexico) was hanging out among the implements. He/she spent a couple of minutes in full view. I really like the coloration on that snappy head crest.

Many, many species of birds serve as powerful reminders that dinosaurs still walk among us in a way, but roadrunners must be near the top of that list.
I think Rico (what could his/her name be, other than “Rico”?) was looking up at a wooden fence here, perhaps looking for grasshoppers. Although they can fly, roadrunners greatly prefer to run. And run they do, at speeds of up to 20 mph.
I am greatly amused by photos of birds looking directly at the camera, and I hope that you are too. Thanks for entertaining us for a couple of minutes, Rico!

Albuquerque Botanic Garden

November 14, 2021

The ABQ BioPark includes the city’s Botanic Garden, Aquarium, and Zoo. The first two attractions are next to each other, just a short distance from the Old Town Plaza of Albuquerque. We visited the Botanic Garden on Nov. 14 and had a lovely time. We’ve been to a couple of other botanic gardens in the American Southwest (Tucson and Phoenix), and Albuquerque’s is definitely a jewel – even though our visit was during the offseason when there were very few flowering plants.

A number of structures, representing plants, animals, and holiday decorations, for the garden’s holiday light display were already out, although the nightly display didn’t start for another week or two. Still, it was pretty neat to see the structures close up and ready to go.

Although it was mid-November, there were still a few plants in bloom like this Chocolate Flower (Berlandiera lyrata) hosting a bee that, judging from the amount of pollen on its legs, had already been very busy that morning.
This fan aloe (Kumara plicatilis) is a native of South Africa. It’s one of many eye-catching succulent plants that were on display in a couple of different buildings at the garden.
The fruit of the Texas prickly pear (Opuntia engelmannii) makes for good eating by animals and humans alike. When we were on a guided tour of Old Town Albuquerque the previous weekend, one of our fellow tourists (who was apparently not from the United States) picked one of these off the host cactus with his bare hand. He regretted that decision.
This was another outside plant that was in full bloom and attracting bees – it’s Autumn Sage (Salvia greggii).
This distinctive cactus was potted inside a building. It’s Opuntia microdasys, or bunny ears, and it’s native to Mexico.
The thing I love most about going to botanic gardens is seeing all of the different wildlife that enjoy the plants as well. This is a common checkered-skipper (Pyrgus communis) pollinating a woodland sage (Salvia nemorosa) plant. These butterflies are found from Canada all the way into Mexico. The photo’s blurry, but the butterfly wasn’t being very cooperative in holding still.
In the very pretty Japanese garden area, the Nanking cherry trees (Prunus tomentosa) were full of fruit. These are enjoyed by birds and humans too; they’re more closely related to plums than to true cherries.
By the time you hear the wingflaps, it’s already too late. Much as we did the day before at Rio Grande Visitor Center State Park, we heard a lot of sandhill cranes flying overhead. These were low enough to photograph.
I saw my first-ever wood duck at the state park on Saturday but didn’t get a decent photo. There were plenty of wood ducks in one of the Botanic Garden’s ponds. They’re remarkably beautiful birds. This is a hen and drake pair.
As incredibly gaudy as the drakes are, the wood duck hens are very attractive as well. This little lady seems to have a contented smile.
Wood duck drakes are just amazingly beautiful, but they look like they were put together by several different committees of very talented artists who didn’t communicate very well in the design process.
Here’s another bird that was new to me: the American wigeon. They are found throughout North America except the furthest reaches of northern Canada. This is a drake …

… and here’s a hen. The very pretty light blue bill of the wigeon shows up better in this photo. She’s on the move to someplace that must be very important to be.
Here’s another new-to-me bird: the black phoebe (Sayornis nigricans). They’re about six inches tall and the males and females have the same coloration. Black phoebes are found in the southwestern United States, and central New Mexico is about as far north as they go. This one was hanging out on a sculpture in the pond, keeping an eye out for flying bugs.
I’ll close this posting with yet another photo of a wood duck. The lighting’s no good on it (although the mahogany color at the base of the tail is very pretty), but I really like that the duck is looking up – I don’t see ducks doing that very often. You may well wonder what this one was looking up at, so I may as well tell you: the duck was looking up at a little boy named Owen. How did we know the duck was looking up at Owen? Because Owen was standing behind a fence over the pond, tossing dried leaves to the ducks. How did we know the boy’s name was Owen? Because we heard his name being called about 300 times by his little friends. We hope that Owen and his friends slept well that night, because we know they had a very active day at the ABQ BioPark Botanic Garden.


November 8, 2021

One of the things I’ve most looked forward to doing in New Mexico, in addition to eating every kind of Mexican food there is and plenty of it, is seeing a roadrunner. I’ve gotten into birdwatching quite a lot in the last several years, and it’s exciting to see a species I haven’t seen before. It’s why I was thrilled to see the western grebe and snow goose at Lathrop State Park last month.

I think there are roadrunners in far southeastern Colorado, and we’ve been in New Mexico and Arizona plenty of times, but I’d never seen a roadrunner until earlier this week. Nancy was working at our dining table in our fifth wheel a couple of mornings ago and said, just out of the blue, “There’s a roadrunner.” There was indeed a roadrunner at an adjacent campsite. I luckily had my camera handy and stepped outside the trailer to take a few photos. They didn’t turn out great (the roadrunner didn’t have the best lighting), but I was still really happy to finally see one. Hopefully we’ll get plenty of more chances to see, and photograph, the New Mexico state bird.

It’s a very pretty bird with great coloration. I was not expecting those savage-looking talons, but I suppose if you’re going to hunt rattlesnakes you want to come ready.
A terrible photo, but I like it nonetheless because it depicts a roadrunner running on a road.

Did You Know / Did You Care #2

Most U.S. states have official state mammals (Colorado’s is the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, for instance, and New Mexico’s is the black bear) and official state birds (the lark bunting and greater roadrunner for Colorado and New Mexico, respectively), as well as other official state designations (fish, butterflies, fossils, etc.) Did you know/care that New Mexico is the only state with an official question: “Red or green?” It refers to the what kind of chile you prefer to accompany a meal, red chile or green chile. Red chile, which is commonly made from green chiles that ripen to red and are then dried, is usually hotter than green but that’s not always the case.

Nancy and I went to the Downtown Growers’ Market in Albuquerque on Saturday, Nov. 6. She got a bag of dried pinto beans (Nancy’s big on beans) and a small bag of chicos, which are dried and lightly smoked kernels of corn that can be added to stews along with the aforementioned frijoles. And when we sit down to a bowl of it, we can also ask each other: red or green?

This ristra, which is basically a bouquet of dried red chiles, and many more like it were on display at the Downtown Growers’ Market in Albuquerque. When southwestern cooks need to add a bit of heat to what they’re making, they break a chile or two off of the ristra and grind it into la comida.

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