Category: Trip Reports (Page 2 of 19)

Road trip rosy-finches in New Mexico

A frantic flock of rosy-finches appears out of dense cloud cover

Rosy-finches and more in New Mexico

Travel in all its forms delights me. To my great fortune, I get to visit all sorts of wonderful places. At Christmas, while much of America was dealing with bomb cyclones and flight delays, we headed out for an end-of-year road trip. Our destination was Santa Fe, New Mexico.  I’d never been. For the first time on an extended trip, we were bringing our pandemic puppy with us. I was especially excited about this trip because my parents were meeting us in Santa Fe. I don’t get to see them as much as I wish. The chance to explore a new place with my wife, my boys, and my parents around was invigorating.

On the way to Santa Fe, we stopped first at the Grand Canyon. Our boys had never been there. They were underwhelmed. Our youngest said “it’s just a canyon, but bigger.” Regular trips to southern Utah, spiced with adolescence, can diminish the grandeur of nature’s amazing wonders. I enjoyed the relatively uncrowded scene. We stayed right at the southern rim in the Yavapai Lodge. We arrived at night. Noticing a clear sky, I headed out into the darkness to see the Milky Way. As usual, it was humbling. It was a new moon, so I couldn’t see anything else – just a black void over the rim. We all arose early the next morning to catch sunrise at snow-sprinkled Mather Point. After breakfast, we walked out to the Yavapai Geology Museum, which is super cool. As a bonus, a Juniper Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay, and Hairy Woodpecker all made an appearance while I tended the dog. I think she appreciated the view as much as anyone else.

Having pondered the impossibility of that colossal canyon, we loaded up for the ride to Santa Fe. Along the way, we stood on a corner in Winslow, Arizona (get a delicious hot dog and crepe at Sipp Shoppe if you stop). We stretched our legs at the Painted Desert rim of Petrified Forest National Park. And we debated provenance and counted the fingers at Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque.

Our home base in Santa Fe was a 2-bedroom casita at the Pecos Trail Inn. Not fancy, but just what we needed. This wasn’t a birding-focused trip. Rather, we were checking out the sights in and around Santa Fe. We took a historical architectural walking tour of downtown, we drove up to Los Alamos for nuclear bomb history and a science museum, spent an afternoon amongst the cliff dwelling ruins of Bandelier National Monument, had our minds blown at an art installation called Meow Wolf, ate some enchiladas, and enjoyed a good snowfall.

Of course, there was birding. While there wasn’t a ton of bird diversity in Santa Fe, my Dad and I managed some nice sightings as we wandered the neighborhood around the Pecos Trail Inn. We also visited the Randall Davey Audubon Center just outside town, which (if it weren’t for the falling snow and wind) seems like a great place to see birds.

While birding wasn’t the focus of this trip, I wasn’t going to visit northern New Mexico without making the pilgrimage to Sandia Crest. It’s a stunning mountain ridge a mile above above the already mile-high city of Albuquerque. The reason to go is the Rosy-finches. These are high elevation birds – they breed above the treeline in the mountains of the American West and Canada and Alaska. In the winter, they descend to lower elevations, giving us a chance to see them. Sandia Crest is (I believe) the single best spot in the world to see all three species of rosy-finches in one visit. That it’s easy to access via a paved road makes it all the better.  Good thing on the maintenance, because a snow storm a couple days before we arrived and dense cloud cover which reduced visibility at times to 20-30 feet on the drive up made the drive up a little more adventurous. As we neared the top, every branch of every tree and bush was covered in snow and ice. When we finally made it to the top, there were high winds and snow, and not much else going on. It took my son and I a few minutes of wandering before we found the all-important feeder that brought in the rosy-finches.

The Rosy-finch feeder at Sandia Crest

While the others wandered the crest, I stood and watched. An Abert’s Squirrel with its tufted ears was sitting on the feeder when I found it, which didn’t bode well for the rosy-finches to come visit. A few ladies with binoculars got excited about some birds perched near the feeder, but they turned out to be Cassin’s Finches. After about 30 minutes of waiting, a flock of birds appeared out of the mist. One second the feeder was empty, the next there were 30 rosy-finches taking their turns at the feeder or working the ground for seed. I spent a minute or two scanning through my binoculars. Most were Black Rosy-finches, but at least two birds were something else. They weren’t chestnut brown, but they were a faded shade of brown. While there was a hint of gray at the back of their head, they lacked a clear gray-crown.

The dense clouds softened my views, and I decided I wasn’t going to be able to confidently separate Brown-capped from Gray-crowned Rosy-finch with these views. Worried the flock would flush at any moment, I decided it was best to just snap a bunch of photos and see what I could pick out later (triggering the Manx Shearwater Conundrum). A report the day before of an American Three-toed Woodpecker in the trees along the nearby trail had me thinking about walking around to see if I could stumble into it. But I stayed near the feeder, hoping for a return of the Rosy-finches. A group of 5 Black Rosy-finches flew in 15 minutes later, and left just as quickly. Better weather would have allowed us to stay longer. All were cold, though, so we packed it in and headed back down the mountain.

The most range-limited Rosy-finch, the Brown-capped (banded)

I wasn’t able to pick out a Gray-crowned (the most widespread of the rosy-finches) in any of my pictures, which meant I only added 2 lifers to my list instead of getting the trifecta. But that’s no lament. The whole thing was a great, memorable experience. I’d go back to New Mexico in a hot minute, especially for some spring or fall adventures. There looked to be a ton of good hiking around, and much more to explore.



Along the road to Sandia Crest

I almost struck out in Rochester

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Abraham Lincoln Park

Last Day Lifers in Rochester

We spent Thanksgiving week this year in Rochester, New York. It’s was a great trip – good weather and good family times. Birding-wise, there isn’t a lot to see in Rochester in late November, unless it’s an irruption year for boreal species like Snowy Owl and Common Redpoll. It either wasn’t one of those years, or it was too early. Still, birders had been reporting a Bohemian Waxwing and a trio of Pine Grosbeaks at a place called Webster Park, both of which would’ve been lifers. I dutifully headed there the first morning I was in town. As often often happens when you’re birding out of town, I wasn’t exactly sure where to go. The eBird hotspot was “Webster Park–campground area.” There was a quarter-mile long road that turned left into a campground area, so I basically walked around the area. I saw a few birds, but no Pine Grosbeaks or any waxwings. It wasn’t until the end of my stay that I ran into some local birders, who told me which loop trail with the crabapple trees the Pine Grosbeaks had been favoring.

I came back the next morning and, despite the additional presence of a half-dozen other birders, didn’t find any Pine Grosbeaks and couldn’t pick a Bohemian Waxwing out of a flock of two dozen Cedar Waxwings. Each day, the Pine Grosbeaks were reported either before I arrived or in the afternoon after I left. I stayed home on Thanksgiving, but was out again on Friday morning. The wind was gusty. There was occasional light drizzle. And I didn’t see any grosbeaks or waxwings. Saturday was the last day of our trip, and thus my last chance. I showed up at 8am, apparently 15 minutes after the Pine Grosbeaks had made a brief stop at the crabapple trees. After an hour of half of stalking the same quarter-mile of trail, my patience was finally rewarded. I heard the Pine Grosbeaks before I saw them.  Conveniently, they then flew atop a pine tree for clear views. They’re big finches with some delicate plumage. 

Another lifer target for the trip was Eastern Screech-Owl. There were scattered reports of these tiny creatures across town. But given their excellent camouflage, I either needed to get incredibly luck or some local intel. I ended up scoring the intel. Thanks to my multiple trips to Webster Park failing to find the Pine Grosbeaks, I crossed paths with local birders who gave me suggestions. One woman directed me to two specific trees where I might find an Eastern Screech-Owl. I checked them both one day, and struck out. But on the morning of our last day in Rochester, before I went to Webster Park for my 4th try at Pine Grosbeak, I found the little dude pictured below in a tree cavity in Abraham Lincoln Park. These little owls aren’t much bigger than your hand. And despite their name, they don’t screech.

Eastern Screech Owl

While I was failing to find lifers, I did manage to see some good birds that don’t call Los Angeles home. During my travels, I saw Long-tailed Ducks lounging and feeding just off shore on Lake Ontario. A lone Tundra Swan was calling in flight during a hike, and then stood on a frozen pond bellowing for companionship. A crow mob at Webster Park distracted us from the lack of Pine Grosbeaks and led me to a Barred Owl. Among the many woodpeckers I saw, I found a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker working a leafless tree at Mendon Ponds. And I finally got a (distant) photo of an American Black Duck.

Long-tailed Duck, Lake Ontario

You fully appreciate the species diversity of Los Angeles when you travel to somewhere like Rochester in late fall. For the month of November, birders have reported seeing 142 species in eBird in Monroe County, New York, compared to 299 species in Los Angeles County. Granted, LA County is much bigger than Monroe County. but consider this: for the entire state of New York, eBirders have only reported 263 species in November. I didn’t have a single checklist in Rochester with more than 18 species, whereas counts in the 20s and 30s are common when birding Los Angeles. In Rochester, if you’re walking parks or forest, it’s Black-capped Chickadees, American Robins, Northern Cardinals, Downy Woodpeckers, and Blue Jays on every list. After that, it’s a scattering of a few others species. I was surprised by the almost total absence of sparrows and other ground birds.

Our last adventure during the trip was to a place called Wild Wings Birds of Prey Facility. It’s located at Mendon Ponds, and is a non-profit educational organization. They care for injured birds of prey that cannot be re-released into the wild. You can walk around the cages where they keep many of the birds, and get point blank views at all kinds of hawks and owls. Visiting on Thanksgiving weekend is a treat, because they’ve got many of the animals out of the cages with handlers. While we were there, we got to see Peregrine Falcon, Eastern Screech-Owl, Short-eared Owl, Gyrfalcon, Swainson’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk all on a handler’s arm. Inside the cages they had a Northern Saw-whet Owl, two Snowy Owls, Long-eared Owl, Great-Horned Owl, Bald Eagles, Barn Owls, Barred Owls, and a Pileated Woodpecker. I can’t describe how much of a treat it was to get arms-length views of all of these birds. 

On top of that, another amazing thing about visiting the Wild Wings Nature Center is the chance to hand-feed some wild birds. They sell birdseed at the nature center, and over the years enough humans have walked the trails in the area with their hands full of birdseed that the Tufted Titmice and Black-capped Chickadees have grown accustomed to feeding out of your hand.



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