Dispatches from New Mexico

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Time to hit the open road and find some western birds

The top line results of my birding trip: 42 new birds, bringing my 2018 total to 399 species . . . meaning that unless I saw a burrowing owl on my way to the ABQ “Sunport” (I did not), bird number 400 would be in Brooklyn.

Which was as it should be.

I’ll have more to say about New Mexico birding, but there’s more I need to say about New Mexico first. Why do I love that state so much? There are the birds, of course, but also the light – blinding at midday, painting the landscape with color and shadow morning and evening, dazzling always. There’s the painful, complicated history as New Mexico passed from one empire to another, a history that includes conquest, the Inquisition, hidden Jews, indigenous revolts, revolutions, invading Texans, shifting borders, mushroom clouds. There’s the fascinating, syncretic culture this history created. There are the chiles.

And there’s the general weirdness of the place, always a plus in my book.

I preceded Eric by several days, the better to accommodate some hardcore birding. An overnight in Albuquerque reacquainted me with carne adovada and bizcochitos, and netted me six year birds (just 37 to go!) before I pointed my underpowered rental car south.

My first stop was technically still in Albuquerque, thanks to the city’s long history of annexing adjacent suburban and rural communities – but it felt a world away. Valle de Oro wildlife refuge occupies a former dairy farm on the far south side of the city. I knew from my obsessive eBird stalking that Valle de Oro’s irrigation canals and flooded fields had been attracting hundreds of migrating shorebirds in recent weeks, and that its brushy edges harbor uncommon sparrows and buntings. So what if the only new bird I saw there on this particular hot, dry day in a succession of hot, dry days was a roadrunner in the parking lot? Parking lot roadrunners are pretty freaking awesome in and of themselves, and in lieu of birds, the refuge offered up tens of thousands of cabbage moths. They swarmed the car – they swarmed me when I stepped out of it – and turned the fields white and pale yellow and fluttery.

Nondescript individually, in the tens of thousands they made a breathtaking spectacle.

You wouldn’t think it would be possible to get lost in a flat expanse of intersecting irrigation ditches and dirt roads, laid out with the geometric rigor that comes easily to flat, expansive places – but I did. I blame the moths.

A bit delayed by many wrong turns, multiple stops to get my bearings, and some slow driving in reverse at Valle de Oro – and then, because I truly am hopeless, by a missed entrance ramp – I made it back to I-25 south, where posted signs offered me these thoughts:

“Gusty Winds May Exist”

and

“Dust Storms May Exist”

I’d never seen highway signs like these, and I respected their style.  They didn’t shout their warnings, nor did they demand that drivers do anything in particular (e.g., “Reduce Speed,” “Use Caution”). They simply pointed out the possibility of danger, leaving it to the individual driver to choose her response.

They were signs, in other words, that provoked thought. And indeed, I passed the next 20 miles thinking of signs in a similar vein that I would very much like to see:

”Attacks on the Right to Vote May Exist”

”Growing Economic Inequality May Exist”

”Incipient Fascism May Exist”

. . . 

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Welcome to San Antonio. Would you like green chile with that?

Seventy miles of desert and a dozen fantasy warning signs later, I reached the small town of San Antonio. San Antonio is where NM Route 380 intersects what was once the Camino Real and is now NM Route 1, with a handful of residential streets on either side of the intersection and, on route 380, three restaurants (“I hope you like hamburgers and Mexican,” said Eva, my sardonic, absentee Airbnb host, who I imagine beat a path out of San Antonio as soon as she could), a farm produce market/chile roaster, and a general store with a couple of gas pumps out front. San Antonio was never big, but it was once bigger – the birthplace of hotel magnate Conrad Hilton in the 1880s and a hangout for Manhattan Project scientists in the 1940s. Empty lots, boarded-up houses, and a fenced-off church testify to its depopulation.

I don’t Airbnb much, but when I do, I Airbnb hard. Home for the next two days was a vintage Kenskill camper. Was I a little nervous as I pulled up to the rocky, scrubby lot where it was parked, and fumbled with the lockbox?

Of course I was.

But the inside was shipshape, the swamp cooler worked just fine, and most important of all – Eva had provided a supply of coffee and filters, without which I would have been in dire straits. Also provided (but, unlike the coffee, unused by me): a set of Brittanica Great Books through Volume 54, Freud, and a copy of The American Philatelist magazine from December 2017.

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My San Antonio home, where the yard birds included summer & western tanagers, Gambel’s quail, and phainopeplas.

My stay was just long enough to sample the food at all three of San Antonio’s restaurants: the Owl Bar and Cafe,  the Buckhorn, and the San Antonio Crane. The first two are dark taverns with near-identical menus of burgers with or without cheese with or without green chile (though why on earth would anyone choose “without”?). As far as those burgers go, I’d give a slight edge to the Owl – even though it was the Buckhorn’s version that won the green chile cheeseburger championship at the 2009 New Mexico state fair. As far as decor goes, I’d give a slight edge to the Buckhorn for its above-the-bar display of patches from first responders all over the country – even though the Owl boasts the bar from Conrad Hilton’s parents’ rooming house.

Need a break from burgers? The San Antonio Crane has you covered, with cheesy New Mexico-style enchiladas . . . though if you want, you can get a green chile cheeseburger there, too.

Breakfast each day was locally-grown melon from the farm produce stand, along with bizcochito crumbs (note to self: blue corn bizcochitos do not travel well) and Eva’s coffee, consumed in the early morning darkness in the trailer’s tiny kitchen/library.

But I hadn’t come to San Antonio for the food: I’d come for the birds, and the Bosque del Apache provided them. I was too early for the thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese that overwinter at the refuge, but it was lingering summer birds, fall migrants and resident species unique to that corner of New Mexico that I was hoping for, and it was lingering summer birds, fall migrants and southwestern residents that I got.

Rarest was a flock of eleven greater white-fronted geese that didn’t know they weren’t supposed to be there, flying in to the lagoon one evening and disappearing by the next morning (I know because I was there at both dusk and dawn). Most beautiful was a bright red and black vermilion flycatcher. Cutest were the Gambel’s quail, with their dangling topknots. Sneakiest was the MacGillivray’s warbler, which took me forever to find. Most frustrating were the sparrows, which were either chipping, vesper or unidentifiable by me.

Most spectacular were the blackbird flocks. Masses of birds flew into the refuge in the evening, and out again in the morning – flock after flock, containing anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred birds, some too far and fast to make out, others whooshing directly overhead. I saw well-named great-tailed grackles, waving their pendulous tails behind them. I saw familiar red-winged blackbirds in unfamiliar numbers. I saw Brewer’s blackbirds, which I think of as the “well, it’s not anything else” bird of the west. And I saw a lifetime’s worth of yellow-headed blackbirds in every conceivable plumage, some bronzey-brown, some shiny black, some with heads of a dark mustard color, some with heads of brilliant yellow, some flashing white wing patches. They were extravagant and excessive and made me feel like the luckiest birder in the Bosque.

Much of the time, truth be told, I felt like the only birder in the Bosque. Aside from an odd traffic jam on my arrival day, when several large groups converged at the visitors’ center all at once, the refuge was quiet. If I saw a flutter of wings, I could stop in the road, step out to investigate, and not worry about blocking other cars.

I did that a lot.

One full day of birding sandwiched between two partial days (and including birds seen on the way to and from the refuge) yielded a total of 77 species, 18 year birds, and 6 life birds.

Just as I was starting to feel slightly more confident about western birds (if not western sparrows), it was time to head back to Albuquerque to pick up Eric and begin the (slightly) less birding-intensive portion of our trip.

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Sunset over the Bosque

. . . 

Birders aren’t the only flavor of obsessive nerd. In fact, I’d say that among obsessives, we’re not the nerdiest, and among nerds, we’re not the most obsessive.

That was my conclusion when Eric and I toured the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array (or, simply, VLA), spanning 22 miles in the vast flatness of the Plains of San Agustin. By pure happenstance, our itinerary took us through Socorro County on Highway 60 on the third Saturday of the month, when the VLA hosts guided tours of its facilities. Which meant: a small auditorium packed full of science geeks who weren’t, like us, just passing through, but had driven miles to be there on that particular day. Many wore t-shirts, baseball caps, pins and patches that spoke to their visits to other observatories.

They were into stars and pulsars and celestial phenomena I don’t pretend to understand, not shorebirds and sparrows – but they were my people nonetheless.

I loved them, and I loved almost everything about the place. I loved the way the giant dish antennas that comprise the VLA emerge from the desert like a futuristic mirage. I loved the fact that the movie Contact was filmed there, and that Jodie Foster narrates its welcome video (which you can watch here). I loved the term “birdbath position” to describe upright antennas. I loved that anyone from a high school science student to a Nobel laureate can submit a proposal for data collection and have it considered on its merits. I loved learning that the 230-ton antennas are wheeled into their various configurations by special transport vehicles along a network of double railroad tracks. I loved the collective intake of breath that followed mention of last year’s observation of a binary neutron star merger. I loved the retro font used on offices and directional signs throughout the campus – I don’t know its name, but I think of it as “1960s university engineering department” for the memories it evokes of my dad’s old workplace. I loved the even more retro “nap sacks,” decorated with a drawing of blue flowers in an urn, that were thoughtfully provided in the women’s room for disposal of menstrual products.

About the only thing I didn’t love was the guy on the tour who repeatedly demanded to know “where are we in the universe?” with increasing urgency and belligerence, muttering darkly about the lack of a satisfactory response.

There’s one in every crowd, I suppose, whether it’s a bird walk or an observatory tour.

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It is, indeed, a VERY large array

. . . 

About the only thing the VLA is on the way to is the Gila National Forest, which happened to be our destination for the next two days. I’d splurged on the Casitas de Gila, up a long, steep, winding and bumpy dirt road from the tiny town of Gila (note to self: rent an SUV next time), which is just up the road from the tiny town of Cliff, which is pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Silver City, the largest town in the vicinity, is another 40 minutes or so down the road.

It’s the kind of place where, once you get there, you want to do nothing more than throw a couple of steaks (available for purchase) on the grill, blister some shishito peppers (gifted to us from the hosts’ garden), soak the road dirt out of your pores in the hot tub, take in the view, and not leave.

Which is exactly what we did that first night.

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View from our casita

The Casitas sit on property that’s roughly half the size of Prospect Park, and by my  proprietary calculation (factoring in acreage, number of years birded, and birding intensity), at least twice as birdy. Four species of hummingbirds mobbed the feeders, a great horned owl and I disturbed one another’s rest (its hooting woke me up, and I accidentally flushed it or its mate a few hours later), and sparrows, of course, continued to stump me.  To get a clear look at rufous-crowned sparrows that first evening felt like a favorable omen; finally seeing a pair of black-throated sparrows on our last morning felt like a gift. In between, were they really all chipping sparrows, or do I just suck at sparrow identification?

Eric very sweetly accompanied me on a morning hike down along the creek, where we startled the aforementioned owl, I got my year yellow-breasted chat and my first ever north-of-the-border zone-tailed hawks, and we both feasted our eyes on a painted redstart. Like the geese in the Bosque, this was an unexpected sighting, a life bird that wasn’t even on my list of New Mexico targets. If you’ve ever seen one, you know how beautiful they are. If you haven’t, well, all I can say is that they are unnecessarily beautiful – and that they seem to know it. Why else would they fan their black and white tails to such an excessive degree and position themselves so that their blood red breast is directly above you?

For the moment, my bird lust was sated. Well, kind of sated: I did suggest a couple of birdy detours on the way to Eric’s destination of choice, but they were just suggestions, and not all that far out of the way, and really, the afternoon was his to determine. (Hold on a minute, could you slow down – stop the car – just for a minute, I want to get a look over there . . . ) We had already decided to skip the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument – too far, and we had long drives behind us and ahead of us – but our host at the Casitas had told Eric about some interesting petroglyphs close to Silver City that could be reached via an easy, pleasant hike through open country, and that’s what he wanted to do.

So that’s what we did, and it was in fact an easy, pleasant hike. The only snag was a storm that rolled in just as we reached the point at which turning back would have taken us almost as long as continuing on to the damn petroglyphs. We soldiered on through soaking rain, listening to distant thunder and debating the safest course of action for a pair of hikers in an electrical storm in open country dotted with brush and small trees. Should we continue walking and count on the trees to serve as lightning rods? If sheltering beneath a tree was out of the question, what about squeezing into some not-so-high brush? Google advised crouching in a low-lying area, but wasn’t that dangerous in a flash flood zone?

By the time we reached the famous dragonfly petroglyph – which is, as you can see from the photo below, detailed and lovely – we were soaked through.

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Like many birders I know, the Mimbres people were fascinated by dragonflies

But lightning didn’t strike, the rain eventually stopped, and I got multiple juniper titmice (bird number 391 for the year) out of the deal.

One last al fresco dinner by our casita (white-throated swift = bird #392), one last morning walk around the property (black-throated sparrow = #393), then the long drive back to Albuquerque. This time, we headed east, past Silver City, to Route 152, which eventually connected us to I-25 south of Truth or Consequences (the only U.S. city, as far as I know, that’s named after a game show), First, though we had to traverse miles of 10-mph switchbacks through New Mexico’s Black Range. When I wasn’t looking for birds, I was taking note of the “this section of road is maintained by . . .” signs. One stretch was tended to by the friends and family of Manuel Zapata, identified on the sign as “A Good Cowboy,” which struck me as a very good way to be remembered. Another was the responsibility of the Kingston Spit and Whittle Club, which struck me as, well, I’m still not sure.

A picnic lunch at the Upper Gallinas campground yielded Steller’s jays, a pygmy nuthatch and a Hammond’s flycatcher (#394-396). We stopped at Emery Pass to take in the view, and thank goodness for Eric’s need to read every word of every historical marker and explanatory sign, because I might otherwise have missed the Townsend’s warbler (#397) foraging in the conifers, or the western bluebird (#398) that flew in and perched by the entrance just as we were leaving.

Eric – who is clearly a candidate for sainthood – indulged my request for one last birding stop before we hit the interstate. Caballo Lake State Park, right at the junction of Highway 152, Highway 187 and I-25, is supposed to be great for water birds and waders, and sure enough, there were scores of them – on the other side, visible from where we stood, scopeless, as small black and white specks. The only exception was a large grebe in the middle of the lake, the afternoon sun glinting off its orange-yellow beak.

Clark’s grebe = #399.

And that was that. We drove through Truth or Consequences. We got on the interstate. We got to Albuquerque. We drank cocktails and ate ridiculously cheesy enchiladas. And the next day – or actually, because of flight cancellations and delays, the wee hours of the morning of the day after the next day – we were back in NYC.

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See you again soon, New Mexico

. . . 

A postscript: Bird #400 came quickly – my first day back – and easily. Virginia rails are uncommon in Brooklyn and NYC generally, but something about the city makes this normally stealthy denizen of dense reeds want to step out a bit. Past individuals have turned up on the hoods of cars in Midtown Manhattan; in South Brooklyn flower pots; even in a Park Slope laundromat. This one chose the side of the Prospect Park Tennis House, where it sat at the top of the access ramp before a parade of gaping birders that included yours truly.

 

 

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