Monday, March 3, 2014

Sandia Crest and Sevilleta NWR Grasslands, December 20

I got up reasonably early on December 20.  The Sandia Crest House does not open until 10:00 am, but I hoped that I would be able to see the Rosy-Finches at the feeder at the lower parking lot before the Sandia Crest House opened.  This would save me time to search for Chestnut-collared Longspurs after Sandia Crest.  I picked up breakfast on the fly a little after 8:00 am, and sent an e-mail to Bill Pranty in Florida requesting an update on the White-cheeked Pintail that I saw in Florida at Pelican NWR.  I wanted to know if the Florica Bird Records Committee had accepted this White-cheeked Pintail as a wild bird.  Within about two minutes I got a positive response from Bill Pranty.  Yes, the White-cheeked Pintal had been accepted.  That adds a new bird for the year for me.  To all those who encouraged me that I should have counted it already, yes I am being conservative.  That makes 725 for the year!  I stopped to fill my gas tank.  The road up to Sandia Crest this time of year can be snow and ice covered.  It did not want to run out of gas trying to get unstuck, if indeed I did get stuck on the way up. 

The road to Sandia Crest was clear of snow and ice most of the way.  Near the top there was at least one curve that was partially covered with packed snow and ice but had sand on top of the snow and ice.  Negotiating this required care to steer clear of the icy spots.  When I arrived at the top, the parking lot was completely covered with packed snow and ice and required care.  There was one other car there, and the Sandia Crest House was not yet open. There was one woman birder there who was out walking about.   I asked if she had seen anything but she said no.  If I wanted, I could walk carefully up to the look-out and could just barely see a feeder on the deck behind the Sandia Crest House.  It was treacherous to walk up to the look-out, and I could barely see the feeders.   Consequently, I drove down to the lower parking lot and sat in my car watching the feeder.  Only Mountain Chickadees and maybe a White-breasted Nuthatch seemed to be coming in.  I met another birder, a graduate student, who had driven from Mississippi, and had been there for a while.  He had seen a flock of finches fly by earlier that may have been Rosy-Finches.  Soon it was 10:00, and I drove back up to the upper parking lot as did the birder from Mississippi.  The Sandia Crest House was open, and there were additional cars already in the parking lot.  When I got inside, the couple in front of me turned around.  To my pleasant surprise, it was Isaac Sanchez and his wife Patty from Austin, Texas.  Isaac and I were in graduate school together at the University of Delaware and were birding buddies then.  It was great to see them again.  Isaac was doing a Photographic Big Year in 2013.  See photo of Isaac and me at Sandia Crest.
Jay and Isaac Sanchez, Sandia Crest House
During my Big Year, I had meet Isaac and Patty one other time on a pelagic trip out of Bodega Bay with Deb Shearwater on September 20.  See photo of Isaac, Neil Hayward and me.
Neil Hayward, Isaac Sanchez and Jay, Bodega Bay, Shearwater Journey's Trip
While we waited for the Rosy-Finches to show up, I ordered a bowl of green chili stew to enjoy while I caught up with Isaac and Patty.  As a continuation of Isaac's photographic Big Year, he and Patty had driven with a non-birding friend to Albuquerque from Austin, TX to stay in Albuquerque at the friend’s casita for five days.  Isaac and Patty had been to Sandia Crest two prior days to see three Rosy-Finches.  Isaac had photographed Black and Brown-capped Rosy-Finch, but he still needed to photograph Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch.  Mountain Chickadees and White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatches came into the feeders while we chatted.  Isaac just returned from a trip to Phoenix, AZ where he added Rosy-faced Lovebird, Gray Vireo and Mountain Plover.  He flew there and spent one day.  I still needed Gray Vireo.  Isaac showed me his photos and gave me the directions to the location.  I gave Isaac my most recent update with White-cheeked Pintail now countable, giving me a total of 725.
Soon a flock of about eight Rosy-Finches flew in to the feeders and sat on the trees just below the deck.  I enjoyed seeing these birds again.  Black Rosy-Finch and Brown-capped Rosy-Finch raise my total to 726 and 727.  See photos below.
Black Rosy-Finch

Black Rosy-Finch
Brown-capped Rosy-Finch,
no gray head band, brown back, nape, face and breast
Brown-capped Rosy-Finch,
no gray head band, dark on front of crown, brown, back, nape, face and breast
The above photos are not very sharp and bright, because they were taken through the window glass and the birds were mostly in the shade.  The grayish color on the crown and the yellowish bill of the Brown-capped Rosy-Finches are typical at this time of the year.  I checked many photographs linked to, the website for Sandia Crest and the Rosy-Finches.  The gray edges of the crown feathers get worn off yielding a darker crown on the males in breeding season and the bill becomes darker.  Females have a completely brown crown.  In comparison, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches have a sharply defined gray head band.
With both of my sought species accounted for, I decided to stay a little while longer to catch up with Isaac and Patty and wait with them to see if a Gray-crowned Rosy Finch would soon show up.  I had another bowl of green chili stew while we waited.  This was their third and last day at Sandia Crest House looking for Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch.  I also spent some time talking with the birder from Mississippi.  He was headed to Bill Williams NWR to look for the Nutting’s Flycatcher, which I had seen and photographed on December 12.  I shared my experience and knowledge with him.  He was continuing to California, his home state, and after Bill Williams NWR to northern California to try for the Little Bunting.  I asked him if he had any information about seeing Black Rail near San Francisco during the highest tides of the year in December.  I still needed Black Rail for the year.  His information was helpful, but it seemed that I had missed the optimum time at full moon.  Therefore, I would not chase to California for Black Rail.
Below are photos of the scenery at Sandia Crest.
Sandia Crest House and snow at over 10,600 feet
View to northeast from Sandia Crest
View North from Sandia Crest showing lower parking lot
Soon it was time for me to leave.  I had looked on eBird and found reports of Chesnut-collared Longspurs about 1.5 hour drive south of Albuquerque in and near Sevilleta NWR Grasslands.  I said goodbye to Isaac and Patty.  They were planning to drive back to Austin TX that night.  I set my GPS to the coordinates for a sighting in eBird of 90 Chestnut-collared Longspurs in Sevilleta NWR Grasslands on November 30, 2013.  There were also two additional reports from October 24 and 26 close to this location along US 60 east of I-25.  There was a more recent report of 120 Chestnut-collared Longspurs on Boothill close to Sicorro, but this location was further south and east and not near any road.  It was in public land colored green on Google Maps and would probably require a long hike.  I headed down I-25 toward the Sevilleta NWR Grasslands, because I believed that I could find that location easier and there were other reports nearby.

The Google Maps GPS location took me east on US 60 to a fence along the road and a gate beyond which there was golden grassland near Black Butte on the south side of US 60.  Black Butte is volcanic cone visible from great distances, because it rises from the flat grasslands that from a valley between the Los Pinos Mountains to the east and the more distant Bear Mountains to the west.
Black Butte from US 60
when the grass is green, internet photo
From Google Maps, the location of the eBird report of November 30 of 90 Chestnut-collared Longspurs was about two mile ahead on the dirt road leading south behind the gate.  From the Google Map, it looked like the border of Sevilleta NWR was some distance inside the fence.  The gate was unlocked and there were no signs.  However, I am reluctant to go beyond an unlocked gate and fence in a state where I do not know the laws.  In many western states, it is against the law to enter private property without permission.  I decided to drive back to I-25 and continue the short distance south to the Visitor Center of Sevilleta NWR to get information about this gate and location.  The volunteers at the visitor Center told me that there was no entry allowed at the location that I described.  They suggested that I try La Joya a small town near the grasslands.  I decided to drive the roads in the area to see if I could get close to the grasslands. 
First, I drove south on NM 304 just east of I-25 and off of US 60 to La Joya, a very small place with less than six hoses and a few out buildings, to see if the grasslands were close to the road.  No success there.  I drove back to the gate off of US 60 in hopes of seeing birds beyond the gate and fence.  There were two reports in eBird of several Chestnut-collared Longspurs on October 24 and 26 of 2013 within about a quarter of a mile of this gate along US 60.  At the gate, I spished and squeaked and briefly played the calls of Chestnut-collared Longspur but succeeded in only attracting a Meadowlark, possibly Eastern at this location, and an American Kestrel.  Then I noticed that the grassland habitat behind the fence continued on the north side of US 60.  There were public roads as named streets north of US 60 across from the gate.  The grasslands to the north extended as far as I could see and grasslands came right up to the edge of the streets.  It seemed like an ideal place to look for Chestnut-collared Longspur.  There were a few rather rundown houses and ranches with corrals and a few trailers near US 60.  But beyond these, it was open grasslands.  I drove north, turned east for about a half mile and then north again until I was about a mile from US 60.  It was open grasslands for as far as I could see north and a long distance east and west.  The sun was starting to get low in the west.  I spished and squeaked for a while, but saw only a few distant ravens and a few fly-by Mourning Doves.  I played Chestnut-collared Longspur calls.  Very soon I noticed about six small finch-like birds fly up out of the grass, fly toward me and land in the grass hidden from view.  I looked to the west and saw a swirling flock of longspur-like birds, flying around and landing in the grass.  I grabbed my camera, bundled up and walked out in the grass.  There was scattered grass less than knee high and much lower vegetation that looked like flowering plants that now had had seed heads.  Everything was golden tan.  There were two separate flocks that sometimes joined and then separated.  When the flock flew over me I heard the distinctive call of Chestnut-collared Longspurs, “killic”, two syllable or “kit-tal-kit tal, which is unlike the other potential longspurs to be found at this location.  I saw several birds fly up from the grass not too far ahead of me, showing the white on the outside of their tails and the cone shaped dark triangle in the center of the tail.  These were Chestnut-collared Longspurs mostly in a flock of about 60 to 70 birds with some Horned Lark mixed in.  I followed them around and tried to get some photographs for identification.  I did manage to get  three photos, but they were silhouettes against the sky and did not clearly show confirming details.  I also managed a zoomed in view of the golden grasslands with a few silhouettes against the sky.  See photos below.
Chestnut-collared Longspurs?
in flight, wings closed, hint of supercilium
streaked breast, short primary projection on lower right bird 
Chestnut-collared Longspurs?
difference in length due to positions in the air?
upper bird shows faint signs of barring
The above photos of the same two birds taken seconds apart are poor but they do faintly suggest some field marks of Chestnut-collared Longspur.  In comparison, McGowan's Longspur are clear breasted and have a larger bill.  McGowan's Longspur while found in New Mexico in the winter would be unlikely in this longer grass.  Chestnut-collared Longspurs have streaked breasts, and males show dark barring on the breast.  Chestnut-collared Longspurs have short primary projections beyond the tertials while McGowan's Longspurs have long primary projections.  

Grasslands and distant mountains, indistinct blobs are out of focus flying birds
The sun was getting low in the west close to the distant mountains.  Between 4:30 and 5:00 pm, I started driving back to US 60 and then west to I-25 and north.  One of the tires in my rental car had lost some air, and I needed to take care of that soon.  I stopped in Los Lunas, put air in my tires, filled my gas tank and bought some food and drink.  I planned to drive as far as I could to get back to at least Flagstaff, AZ that night.  Tomorrow, I wanted to be back in Phoenix, AZ to try for the Gray Vireo that Isaac Sanchez had seen and photographed.  Near or beyond Grant, it started to snow, but only briefly as snow showers.  When I got close to Gallup, the snow had become steady.  It can be dangerous driving at night when one is tired from after a day of birding but even more so in snow.  I stopped for the night in Gallup, NM and checked into a motel at about 8:15 pm.  With a good night of sleep, I could get up early tomorrow and drive to Phoenix, AZ, weather permitting.

White-cheeked Pintail (now accepted in Florida), Black Rosy-Finch, Brown-capped Rosy-Finch and Chestnut-collared Longspur raises the total to 728 plus two provisionals Common Redstart and Eurasian Sparrowhawk as of December 20.   (See the final total for the year, 733 + 2 provisionals, reported on January 3, 2014.)   








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