We just finished a four-day swing through the mountains and canyons of central and southwest NM and part of AZ with mixed results.
In the Rio Grande valley, near Michael’s old stomping grounds when he worked for the Bureau of Reclamation, we visited Percha Dam recreation area. Percha is known as a migration hotspot but we were disappointed by low numbers of migrants. After spending several days in fallout conditions on the Tortugas and Florida keys we have been spoiled! Although the numbers were down, there were still good birds to be seen. We added Lucy’s Warbler, Virginia’s Warbler, MacGillivray’s Warbler, and Western Wood-Pewee to our list.
From the Rio Grande we headed west into the Black Range near the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Area. Along the way we tried several locations for Gray Vireo but came up short. At Emory Pass we added Western Tanager to our list and then searched for migrants in the canyon below. We found little in the late afternoon temperatures and winds and decided to pitch an early camp at Iron Creek campground. Just after dark we heard Flammulated Owl calling in the canyon. He kept it up most of the night and was joined by Mexican Whip-poor-will later on…two more new species while birding from bed!
In the morning the canyon was alive with bird song and we were frustrated by hearing so many birds and not being able to see them in the thick and high tree canopies. We are not very good with birding by ear, especially with many of the western species. We have spent the last 19 years in South Texas and feel like we have a fair degree of competence with the bird songs there, but we are so, so rusty when it comes to our former state of New Mexico. Finally, we were able to start getting our binoculars on the birds and we added Red-faced Warbler, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Grace’s Warbler from Iron Creek and Gallinas campgrounds.
In the afternoon we drove over to Silver City to get gas and food and then headed to the Glenwood Fish Hatchery, where we had seen Common Black-Hawk earlier in the year. He was nowhere to be seen and there were very few other birds near the fish raceways and ponds so we headed up the narrow, twisting road to the tiny ghost town of Mogollon and on into the high country near the Gila Wilderness. On the way up we met Felipe. He was conducting a bird survey of the San Francisco River, Gila River, and the mountains nearby. It was his first day in the Mogollons, so he had little advice for finding our target birds there, but he did give us some tips for lowland birds along the rivers below.
Our stay in the high country was disappointing. Of the 10 target birds we had for the area, we only saw one! (Olive Warbler) Spring migration was weak and most of the summer resident birds had not really arrived yet. At the higher elevations, temperatures were near freezing at night and we had very slow birding. Given these conditions, we decided to cut the trip short and bird our way back down the mountain into the river valleys to follow up on Felipe’s tips. We checked a number of locations for Gray Vireo, flycatchers, and other targets on our way down but had little success; just one Willow Flycatcher at the Catwalk Recreation Area. We decided to stay in a nice mid-elevation pine forest for the night, hoping for Lewis’s Woodpecker, but were shut out once again.
In the morning we headed for the San Francisco and Gila Rivers in the lowlands. We had never birded these areas before and just picked a spot on the map that looked like it had road access and ended up at the Gila Box Riparian Conservation Area administered by the Bureau of Land Management near Clifton, AZ.
What a lucky find it turned out to be! We had one of the birdiest mornings so far this year. At the Gila Box the river was nothing more than a wide trickle and the riparian forest on its banks was no wider than 50 yards on each side, sometimes much, much less than that. But the birds were incredible. At nearly every turn there was something to see. We saw dozens of Wilson’s Warblers, Lucy’s Warblers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, including one Myrtle-race female, and MacGillivray’s Warblers. There were singles or twos and threes of Virginia’s Warbler, Yellow Warbler, and Yellow-breasted Chat. Warbling Vireos filled the air with their songs, sharing airtime with Bell’s Vireos and a single Plumbeous Vireo. Summer and Western Tanagers sang and chased each other through the trees. There were even one each of our target birds, Dusky Flycatcher and Olive-sided Flycatcher, both new to our list. (Felipe had suggested we try the confluence of the Gila and San Francisco Rivers for these birds and the Gila Box proved close enough.) A highlight of the morning was a fly-over by a Common Black-Hawk as we sat at a picnic table having an early lunch. All-in-all, we had 37 species in the riparian corridor in about three hours of birding.
Our list stands at 551 species and we only have a reasonable expectation of seeing about a dozen more in Southeast Arizona and about five more in Southern California, if we decide to extend our trip in that direction this time. We’ll wait a while before heading back up to the high country to let the area thaw itself out for the summer. Then we’ll have a half-dozen more species to seek up there.