On April 15, 2011, I met my sister, Sharon, at the Albuquerque airport and we drove for about four hours from there to the High Plains of Eastern New Mexico for the Tenth Annual High Plains Prairie Chicken Festival in the tiny town of Milnesand, NM. We had dinner at the community center and then set up our tents across the street. We did not sleep well as there was a constant flow of noisy traffic on the road and the camping area. During the night I heard a Great Horned Owl calling and later a Long-eared Owl. We awoke at 4:00 AM to a 35 degree chill and joined a group in a 15 person van for some lek viewing. We arrived at our lek at 4:45 AM and immediately saw a Lesser Prairie-Chicken jump up in the darkness. Even before dawn the chickens began clucking. By dawn about ten male Lesser Prairie Chickens were strutting their stuff for the ladies. At this particular lek there were more females than males. The females seemed completely unimpressed with the males’ shenanigans even though there were pairs facing off and charging each other, stamping the ground, expanding their pinkish-purplish air sacks, and yelling loudly. The lek had a small pond next to a windmill that attracted some Scaled Quails once the sun came up and a small flock of Lark Buntings in various stages of molt. Promptly at 8:00 AM the last chicken flew off into the prairie and we headed back to the community center for breakfast which we had skipped in order to avoid urinary urgency while in the van. After breakfast we had a little break before our next tour so Sharon and I walked up one of the side roads. It was warming up but windy. Everything on the prairie was brown and dry due to lack of rain. We only saw some Vesper Sparrows and two Loggerhead Shrikes.
At 9:30 we took a tour with our bird guide Lowery. He suggested we first walk around the camping area which was really just the back yard of the New Mexico Game and Fish residence. We saw Western Kingbird, White-crowned Sparrow, Pine Siskins, Hermit Thrush, and Lark Sparrow. We drove another side road to an abandoned homesite where we saw a Vermillion Flycatcher. In a nearby field we saw a Black Prairie Dog, about ten Burrowing Owls, and a few Swainson’s Hawks. On the way back to the Community Center we saw flocks of hundreds of Lark Buntings plus one Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.
During lunch a falconer came with his Harris’s Hawk and Golden Eagle. After lunch we went on another tour on Ecology of the Playa. Playas are depressions in the prairie that develop a hard clay bottom that fills with water after a rain. Since they are the lowest point around the water flows into them bringing many seeds. The seeds lie dormant until the rain comes and then they quickly germinate and bloom and that in turn attracts wildlife. The playas play an important roll in the short grass prairie ecosystem. Our guide demonstrated how they work and took us to one that was dry since it had not rained for many weeks. This part of New Mexico only receives about ten inches of rain a year. After walking around the dry playa we drove to a windmill and small pond where some cows were congregating along with a flock of Yellow-headed Blackbirds and a Horned Lark. There was one small batch of daisies with a Duskywing butterfly of some sort and a white butterfly that may have been a Marble. When I got out to take a photo some old bat from Wisconsin decided to get out as well. Just as I was about to take a photo, to my horror she started to reach down and point at it with her finger! Everyone knows that butterflies are very skittish and will fly if approached. So naturally the butterfly flew away before I could get a photo. Back at the camping area waiting for dinner call I found a tailless and lost Wood Thrush. All the meals were home cooked by local people living on the prairie. They were all delicious and hardy meals. During dinner a lady read some of her poems about going to view the Prairie-Chickens and another guy played songs on his guitar.
April 17 was our day to spend the morning in the makeshift trailer blind to film the Prairie-Chickens. We left at 4:45 AM and drove to the blind. We set up our equipment inside the trailer in the dark and waited for lightness to come. It was very cold and I wished that they had thought to leave a couple of blankets. As soon as the moon set the chickens rushed out and started their mating rituals. There were only two females and about two dozen males strutting around. One chicken repeatedly flew to the top of the trailer and pranced up and down it making quite a racket. Many males faced off against each other and charged. One male finally got on top of a female but two others rushed over and knocked him off. Another male repeatedly flew to the top of a pole to make him appear larger. They stamped their feet, charged, blew up their air sacks, and clucked away. But suddenly every one of them froze in place and went silent for about two minutes. Then right on que they went back about their business as usual as if they had needed a moment of silence for a fallen comrade. Then just as suddenly as they had come promptly at 8:00 AM every one flew away and disappeared into the prairie.
We drove back to the Community Center and had breakfast before heading off for another birding tour with Dave. Our driver, Kathleen, was daft and Dave was not much better. We drove back to the abandoned homesite. On the way a Northern Bobwhite flew across the road. I asked if it was OK if I filmed it. So Kathleen slowed down but she would not turn the engine off. I asked her three times to turn the engine off and she wouldn’t do it. I got a little bit of shaky video then we drove away. Somebody said there was a hawk perched on a telephone pole about 15 miles away. Incredibly Kathleen stopped the van and Dave got out with his spotting scope to look at it! Are you kidding me? The thing was miles away. I was livid. It was most likely a Swainson’s Hawk which are common in that area. No matter what it was, it was too far away to be of any interest to anyone except Dave who was in competition with some other birder named Christopher who had seen a Broad-winged Hawk fly over. Big deal. After Dave was satisfied that it was a Swainson’s Hawk, Kathleen re-started the van and drove away. We returned to the abandoned homestead where we found another Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, the Vermillion Flycatcher, a flock of Yellow-headed Blackbirds, and a Scott’s Oriole. Just as we got out of the car we saw a Swainson’s Hawk attacking a Golden Eagle. In the trees across the street there was a Wilson’s Warbler and some Lark Sparrows. A couple of Loggerhead Shrikes were in the field along with Vesper Sparrows and Eastern Meadowlark. After our tour we the moron Kathleen and Dave we gathered our camping gear and left Milnesand. We drove south and west a little bit to Carlsbad Caverns National Park to the Rattlesnake Springs section. Though surrounded by desert scrub the canyon is a riparian corridor with a constant water from a natural spring supporting many cottonwoods and a marsh. There were a dozen Vermillion Flycatchers, a few Say’s Phoebes, one Summer Tanager, one Ash-throated Flycatcher, White-winged Dove, Pine Siskins, and a Hooded Warbler. We walked around for a while and then had an outdoor shower before proceeding into West Texas to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. We found a nice spot in the campground and set up our tents. During the night gale force winds came that caused the tent fly to whip into the tent all night awaking me every time I dozed off. It was a dreadful night of no sleep.
In the morning we drove to McKittrick Canyon, a riparian corridor in Guadalupe National Park. It was still very windy but warm. Soon after passing through to the trailhead we came upon a Dusky Flycatcher. The beginning of the trial is desert scrub. I nearly stepped on a black-tailed Rattlesnake in this section. Soon we started to follow along the stream where there were mixed woodlands including conifers. In this section there were Plumbeous Vireos, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Spotted Towhees, and many Violet-green Swallows. After four miles the trail began to rise sharply. In those slopes were many Black-chinned Sparrows and Rufous-crowned Sparrows. Many Turkey Vultures soared overhead and a Black-chinned Hummingbird was displaying. The best bird though was a Virginia’s Warbler singing as we ascended the steep slope. We hiked almost to McKittrick Camp Site before stopping for lunch and heading back to the visitor center. We hiked almost 14 miles total. With two miles to go Sharon’s shoe split in two making hiking very arduous. I got sun poisoning on my shoulders and the back of my legs which would impede carrying my tripod the next day. We returned to the camp site and showered before gathering our gear and leaving. It was a nice campground but it was just too windy for restful sleep. So we left and began a long drive west. We stopped in El Paso to get Sharon some new shoes before proceeding 237 miles west into Portal, AZ. We found a nice camp site in the Cave Creek section of Coronado National Forest at Idlewyld Campground right next to the creek. As we fell asleep I heard a Great Horned Owl calling. This was rather disturbing since the last time I camped here I had heard some of the Southeast Arizona specialty owls such as Elf Owl, Whiskered Screech-owl, and Western Screech-owl. Also in three days of camping there we never heard a single Whip-poor-will which was rather disappointing since it is now a separate species from the Eastern Whip-poor-will.
On April 19, 2011 we got up and drove FR 42 up into the Chiricahuas to the Paradise Cemetery. I was hoping to find a Montezuma Quail but the only things there were one Vermillion Flycatcher and one Hammond’s Flycatcher. On the drive back down the mountain we saw a Bobcat, lots of Mexican Jays, Lazuli Bunting, and one Black-throated Gray Warbler. Next we drove back to Cave Creek and took the South Fork Trail to Maple Camp and back. We heard a Tanager near the parking area but never saw it. Along the trail we saw a Painted Redstart, Bridled Titmouse, lots of Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Hutton’s Vireo, Plumbeous Vireo, Bushtit, White-breasted Nuthatch, and White-throated Swift. I heard a woodpecker several times and finally tracked down an Arizona Woodpecker near the trail entrance. After lunch at our camp site we drove over to the Southwestern Research Station to watch the hummingbird feeders. There was a Hammond’s Flycatcher, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, Lesser Goldfinch, and Acorn Woodpeckers in the surrounding trees. At the feeders we saw Magnificent Hummingbird, Blue-throated Hummingbird, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, and Rufous Hummingbird.
After enjoying all the hummingbirds we drove up the dirt road to Barfoot Lookout. Just as we got out to start the trail, Sharon heard a hissing sound. I looked down and within seconds the rear tire was completely flat. Two men were just coming down the trail as I was flipping through the owner’s manual trying to figure out how to get the spare down on a Chevy Tahoe. They did not hesitate one second to complete the whole arduous job. I was so grateful because I did not want to get that dirty but also because it was incredibly complicated. I would never own that car. It was 5:00 PM by the time they finished and there was no time to take the trail or do anything else fun except drive out to the Interstate and try to get phone service as there is none in Portal, AZ. I called Avis and was put on hold for an hour. When I finally got through and explained that I did not feel comfortable driving with a flat spare she just told me there was nothing she could do because the nearest Avis in Wilcox, AZ was closed. While on hold again I gave up and just drove the three hours to Tucson to exchange the car. They had the audacity to try to charge me for not filling up the gas tank. I was adamant that they were in the wrong for stranding me in the boondocks and they backed off and didn’t charge for that. They gave us this gigantic Ford Expedition as a replacement. It was the size of two hearses but much nicer than that horrible Chevy Tahoe. We did not get back to Idlewyld Campground until midnight.
On April 20, 2011 we got up at 5:30 AM and after breakfast headed back to the Southwestern Research Station where there had been sightings of Montezuma Quails recently. A very large group of old birders were there on a paid birding trip. Their guide had already flushed all the birds up the grassy hillside and there was no chance at a quail with all those people. The only birds were a Western Tanager and Lincoln’s Sparrow. I was standing with my video camera not really looking at anything in particular, more disgusted more than anything, when the trip leader raced up to me saying, “what are you looking at?” I was so offended that I just walked away. I know my friend, Ken, would have cussed that rude man out. My sister was more generous and just said, “a Yellow-rumped Warbler” which I found hilarious. We left and went back to the cemetery. This time there was a Dusky Flycatcher but not much else. So we left and went to the George Walker House on FR42 in Paradise. Ken had emailed Jackie the owner to let her know I would be coming. We pulled up and Jackie came out to greet us. She gave us a yard list and sat on the porch with us chatting and pointing out the birds. She had some great birds in her yard including thousands of Pine Siskins, a dozen Lazuli Buntings, one Juniper Titmouse, Scott’s Oriole, Bullock’s Oriole, Black-headed Grosbeak, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Chipping Sparrow, Black-chinned Hummingbird, and Magnificent Hummingbird. She said that a Montezuma Quail had walked up into her yard the week before but she had not seen it since. He did not come while we were there. After a while we left and drove over the pass to the western side of the Chiricahuas. We stopped at Pinery Campground halfway there and saw a Grace’s Warbler way up in the highest conifer. We drove back down the pass to Chiricahua National Monument and went for a nine mile hike into the beautiful spires there. We didn’t see too many birds, just a Brown-crested Flycatcher, Hutton’s Vireo, Orange-crowned Warbler, and Western Wood Peewee, but the scenery was spectacular.
On April 21 we got up early and returned to Southwestern Research Station. This time the birding group was not there and I got over to the grassy hillside before anybody could flush any would be Montezuma Quails but I had no such luck. So we tried John Hand Campground and found just a Willow Flycatcher. Next we gave the Cemetery one more try but not Montezuma Quail there either, just a Hammond’s Flycatcher, Lark Sparrow, and Lazuli Bunting. We drove back down from the mountains to Barfoot Lookout driving very carefully so as not to get another flat. We hiked the 1.5 mile trail and found one Mexican Chickadee, Yellow-eyed Junco, more Hammond’s Flycatchers, and some Pygmy Nuthatches. Then we drove down to Rustler Park and the birding group was already there– two vans full of them. We saw a Cooper’s Hawk flying overhead and a bunch of Hammond’s Flycatchers and Grace’s Warblers plus one Townsend’s Warbler and one Hermit Warbler. When the birding group started stalking us we decided to leave and drive into the town of Portal. We bought some ice at the tiny store and then walked from there up the town road. There were many birds along the road including Western Kingbird, Lazuli Bunting, Bewick’s Wren, a group of Cedar Waxwings, White-winged Dove. We went into someone’s yard that had a cruel replica of a Montezuma Quail. They had a lot of birds in their yard including Bendire’s Thrasher, Magnificent Hummingbird, Black-chinned Hummingbird, White-winged Dove, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Black-headed Grosbeak. There was a Northern Cardinal in a bush. We walked South Fork trail again but there was precious little activity– just a Hermit Thrush, House Wren, and American Robin. The lighting from the fast fading sun was bright orange on the towering cliffs.
April 22, 2011 was our last day in Portal. We made one last stop at the Southwestern Research Station hoping for the quail which we did not find. However, the bird activity in general was good with a whole flock of Cedar Waxwings, another flock of Red Crossbills that came very close to us, Painted Redstart, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Cassin’s kingbird, Green-tailed Towhee, Townsend’s Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, and Plumbeous Vireo. Sharon refused to try the cemetery again. I bet the quail was there this time. We stopped in the town of Portal before leaving and saw a covery of Gambel’s Quail and one Hooded Oriole. One our way out of town we saw a Phainopepla.
We made the mistake of taking a 40 mile detour to Redrock, NM to the Gila River to look for Common Black-hawk. The Redrock WMA does not actually go to the river so we were relegated to looking at it from a small bridge where some Mexicans were swimming. All we saw were some Cliff Swallows and Barn Swallows. We found a small watering hole with Summer Tanager, Cardinal, Vermillion Flycatcher, and Chipping Sparrow. Then we left and drove like mad to get to Bosque del Apache before dark. We arrived at 5:00 PM and first hiked the Canyon Trail which only had one Dusky Flycatcher. We walked the boardwalk and saw some Double-crested Cormorants. Then on the auto tour we saw Cinnamon Teal, Redhead, Snowy Egret, Scaup, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, American Wigeon, Tree Swallow, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Ring-necked Pheasant, Red-winged Blackbird, one Northern Harrier, one Merlin, and about 400 White-faced Ibises. When it became too dark to see any more birds and hungry was nawing at our stomachs we stopped and had dinner before heading back to Albuquerque for our early morning flight home the next day.
I only added one new bird to my life list, the Lesser Prairie-Chicken but we saw 137 species in all and seeing the Chickens alone made it all worth while.
Here is the entire trip list:
Great Horned Owl
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Black-throated Gray Warbler