Sunday, July 27, 2014

New Birds in New Mexico

Spring is always a hot birding season, and this past spring I finally got to take advantage of some minor spring birding with a trip to New Mexico. While the trip was not primarily for birding, there was still time for a few minor birding stops in Albuquerque and slightly south of the city. A good many southwestern birds - Gambel's quail, greater roadrunners, and others - were part of the scene, but while it was a shade too early for most migrants to make an appearance, much to my dismay, one local resident did make my life list.

Of course, it happened as it has all too frequently - too much time straining for unsatisfying views that finally result in a disappointing lifer, for while I'd seen all the requisite field marks, I didn't feel I'd really enjoyed a good view of the bird. Then, naturally, the next day in a far easier place, the bird reappeared with tantalizingly good views and a far more cooperative nature. Either way, though, I was able to add the black-throated sparrow as a lifer. It's an attractive sparrow and one I've been eager to see for years, and I'm glad for the opportunity.

In addition to a wide range of birds, particularly at a grand city park that was far more enjoyable than I'd anticipated, I also saw an amazing coyote, a variety of turtles, and great New Mexico culture and nuclear history. From hot air balloons to arroyos to distinguished architecture to nuclear test sites to radio telescopes, this is an area of the country I hope to visit again, for longer, and in more detail.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014


My family and I travel to Las Vegas frequently, and while Sin City is well known for lost wages and loose morals, it's always a jackpot for birding, as it was earlier this summer. While I'm long past the stage of hoping for any lifers in the city (I've traveled there multiple times and often bird in the same regular hotspots), it's always a treat to see the southwestern birds that don't make it as far north as my Utah backyard.

On the way south, we typically enjoy a leg-stretching stop at Tonaquint Nature Park in St. George, a small but thriving property with beautiful habitat for a wide variety of birds. While the pond was surprisingly overrun with algae this time, the ducks and mute swans didn't mind, and the Indian peafowl roaming the park were a loud surprise. The adjacent cemetery is a relatively reliable spot to see Say's phoebes, and fledgling American robins were abundant near the playgrounds and picnic areas. I enjoyed renewing my acquaintance with Abert's towhees, and the blue grosbeak was a rare surprise just before getting back in the truck to continue the drive - after a brief stop for gas and watching a family of rock wrens near the station.

Once in Vegas, there was good opportunity to study a greater roadrunner that was hanging out at Sunset Park, and a flurry of active verdins were scattered all over the park as well. A crissal thrasher was another great sighting, and I enjoyed the black-tailed gnatcatchers and the Gambel's quail, so similar to my backyard California quail. And Vegas wouldn't be Vegas without great-tailed grackles making a racket. While the waterfowl weren't as numerous as I'd hoped at the pond section of Sunset Park, the double-crested cormorants, American coots, and Canada geese were still pleasant to see, and the western grebe out in the center of the pond was a treat.

Birding in Las Vegas changes from season to season, and while one's luck may change with what species are seen, if you visit the right places in the city, you'll be sure to come away a birding winner.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

(Sage) Grousing

Spot the greater-sage grouse.
Despite the inner darkness, there have been moments of lucid light in the past few months when the birds fly into my consciousness. One of the briefest was in April, when I finally managed to add the greater sage-grouse to my life list.

Getting these wary gamebirds as lifers isn't so much birding as it is a quest. For me, it began at four in the morning (so not my idea of a good birding time), with a nerve-wracking drive through pitch black canyons and with somewhat vague directions. Admittedly, the directions were fairly spot-on, but to me, being unfamiliar with the area they led me to, they were vague enough for apprehension. Yet I did manage to arrive at the Henefer lek as dawn was breaking over the eastern horizon, and as I crept closer to the marked fence - windows rolled down - I could hear the distinctive "popping" of the air sacs as males vied for the admiration of the all-too-uninterested females.

The one-way drive took roughly 75 minutes, but within two minutes of arrival, I had the lifer I sought. Good thing, too, because less than five minutes later, an asshole of a golden eagle overflew the field, and the grouse scattered to the southeast, not to return. I'm glad I arrived when I did, and I'm glad I got at least a minor view and heard the birds as well, giving me the lifer to count. And for the record, I don't really think golden eagles are assholes, but he couldn't have waited a few more minutes?

I did stay in the area for a bit after the grouse had flown their figurative coop, and was rewarded with a few other good birds - some beautiful morning songs from western meadowlarks, and the early morning foraging of a variety of sparrows. It was disappointing to make the long drive home after such a brief birding, but still, the birds and I did manage to cross paths at least for a moment.

I'll be back on this quest next spring, I think. While I have the lifer, it's what is known as a BVD - better view desired. I'd love to see the birds more closely, and for more than a few moments. The drive might be harrowing, but in the end worthwhile.

Henefer lek at sunrise, through a dirty windshield (don't get out of the truck, it might disturb these sensitive birds).

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Very Dark Place Without Birds

I miss birds, and I miss blogging about them. But there are very few nocturnal birds in my area, and I've been in a very dark place for many months now - my own, personal nighttime where birds don't fly. There have been a lot of issues and both major and minor crises recently with work, family, and health that have sapped energy and drained enthusiasm, yet along the way the memory of birds does still make me smile, and I hope to fly again. It won't be today, and it likely won't be for a few weeks yet.

That isn't to say that there haven't been birds in the interim; there have been lucid moments when my backyard birds make me laugh - the oblivious house sparrow interrupting the amorous advances of a Eurasian collared-dove, the brief appearance of this year's spring hatch of California quail, the incessant demands of western scrub-jays when there are never enough peanuts - and I treasure those moments. I've been privileged to enjoy a rare press trip to a new destination and add lifers to my ongoing list, and I've also seen how birds help others, with pet bird aviaries in nursing homes and feeders that brighten elderlies' days. It makes me consider how helpful birds can be to all of us.

My wings are broken, the sky is out of reach, the wind not strong enough to lift my bruised and battered body. But I will heal, and I will stretch my wings again.