At the beginning of March, 2014, I set up a trip to Albuquerque to catch the Sandia Crest rosy-finches before the season ended. Two years earlier I had been in Albuquerque for a business trip and had spent my one morning free for birding driving up to see the rosy-finches, only to find I was two weeks too late, so I was looking to redeem the experience this year.
Life birds will be listed in all capitals in the following account. Generally I will mention a bird species only the first time it was found on the trip, unless a further sighting was notable in some way, thereby avoiding repetition of common birds such as house finch.
Saturday, March 1: My girlfriend dropped me off at the airport and I was able to show her (for the second time) a snowy owl there, one of the many that descended from the north in this massive invasion year. Chicago’s O’Hare airport delivered its usual round of senseless near-catastrophes and implausible complications.
I did not reach Albuquerque until nearly midnight. As a result, the car rental company with which I had reserved a vehicle was closed. Fortunately I had arranged for a hotel room very close by and would be able to collect the car in the morning.
Sunday, March 2: After a relatively painless stop at the car rental place, I headed directly for Sandia Crest House in the mountains on the southeast side of Albuquerque. In Albuquerque itself I had the first house finches, American crow, Eurasian starlings, house sparrows, and rock pigeon of the trip.
The road up to Sandia Crest House from NM 14 is about thirteen miles. During the first mile I stopped at a couple of points hoping to find a target bird, juniper titmouse. No titmice appeared, but I did find dark-eyed junco, Steller’s jay, Western scrub-jaw, pine siskins, American robins, an unseen but singing spotted towhee, pygmy nuthatches at a feeder that gave me the best views I had had in my life, hairy woodpecker (with the diminished white spotting characteristic of the race in this area), downy woodpecker, mountain chickadee, and common raven.
I wanted to get to Sandia Crest House in time for the opening hour of ten o’clock, so I continued on and encountered a growing obstacle. There had been a significant snowfall and about nine miles up I realized that my two-wheel-drive rental was not going to make it the rest of the way - the snow on the road was just getting too deep. Rather than hazard getting stuck, I reluctantly turned around and headed back down.
About a mile down I saw a woman in a four-wheel-drive going up. I flagged her down and explained the situation. She cheerfully agreed to take me up, and luck was with us as it turned out there was an accessible parking lot along the road just a quarter-mile further down. So I ditched the car and caught a ride with the woman, Linn, and her two dogs. We made it the rest of the way to the Sandia Crest House although even her rugged truck had to strain a bit in spots.
At the top it seemed luck had deserted us again, as the Sandia Crest House remained closed although the ten o’clock opening time was upon us. Linn had brought her dogs up just to see what was up there and to let the dogs run around a bit in the snow. By this point the snow was falling fast, and it was the kind of snow that comes in pellets. Had there been more wind it might have proved a very uncomfortable experience.
While Linn’s dogs played, I walked up the viewing path to see as much as I could of the side of the house where I knew the feeders were placed. I could not actually see the feeders - which would not have been filled anyway, since no staff had showed up - and the most I could do was study a bit of bare hillside leading up to the unseen deck. All that were present were a few dark-eyed juncos of the grey-headed race and the occasional Steller’s jay.
I did not know how long Linn wanted to stay with her dogs and I did not want to delay her, after she had been so generous as to lend me a ride to the top, so I looked back repeatedly so see if she and the dogs were wandering back to her truck. The dogs were loving the snow however, so I returned again to watching the juncos.
Then I caught a glimpse of a brownish bird that seemed slightly fuller-figured than the juncos, with a longer bill. It disappeared behind a small hump but I had, in that quick moment, the strong impression that it was one of my target birds. Presently it appeared again, and I saw the black face and chunky brown body of a BROWN-CAPPED ROSY-FINCH.
Suddenly the bare patch of hillside was covered with birds - at least one more brown-capped rosy-finch, and ten to fifteen BLACK ROSY-FINCHES, with mostly dark plumage and light arcs along the folded edge of the wing and across the lesser coverts. The falling snow made it hard to be sure, but one or two birds among them seemed to be candidates for gray-crowned rosy-finch.
I had explained to Linn that the rosy-finches were my quarry, so when she came up I pointed the birds out to her. As it happened, she had a serious camera in her truck with a telephoto lens, so she snapped several pictures. (She would later e-mail them to me, and I forwarded them to some experts on rosy-finch identification to investigate the possibility that one or more of the birds were of the gray-crowned species. The consensus was that the birds were all black or brown-capped types.)
After a while of studying the rosy-finches, we rejoined the dogs in the truck and drove back down to my car. I thanked Linn profusely and then drove the rest of the way to NM 14.
Nearly opposite the road to Sandia Crest, on the other side of NM 14, is the beginning of Frost Road (which eventually becomes NM 472). This road heads east across a flat plateau and is said to be good for raptors. I drove out about twenty-five miles, finding American kestrel, loggerhead shrike, Say’s phoebe, Western meadowlark, horned lark, red-tailed hawk, and white-winged dove, but no hoped-for prairie falcons or ferruginous hawks.
Returning to NM 14 and then Highway 40, I drove west back in the direction of Albuquerque but got off on old Route 66 (now renamed something in the 330s) and searched around until I found the Tres Pistolas Spring trailhead. The trail from here runs through a modest canyon and is said to be excellent for juniper titmouse. I walked it a good ways in and founded Townsend’s solitaire, a singing bird that was unseen but might have been a Bell’s vireo, a Cooper’s hawk that buzzed me when I imitated an owl, and Eastern bluebird.
My last birding stop in the late afternoon was the Manzano/Four Hills Open Space, where pinyon jays were supposedly found fairly regularly. I think the account I was relying on, from circa 2003, may have been obsolete, as I did not see a large number of pinyon pines here for the birds to utilize. The only new bird for the trip was a Northern flicker.
Monday, March 3: I returned to Tres Pistolas at first light hoping still to catch up with juniper titmouse. Bushtit, curve-billed thrasher, and canyon towhee were all present. A canyon wren sang somewhere from the canyon wall, and I heard something like a song sparrow that could instead have been rufous-crowned sparrow.
At one point I was following a squad of juncos on a side trail and heard something scolding like a wren. It eluded sight and then sang from a more distant hidden perch, sounding much like an orange-crowned warbler. I never got a look at it but review of the titmouse’s call and song indicated that I had detected, but not spotted, my quarry.
When activity in the canyon died down, I decided to hazard the road up to Sandia Crest again, since the weather had improved and it was time for lunch anyway. This time the road was fairly well plowed and I had basically no difficulty achieving the crest. I learned the same group of fifteen or so rosy-finches had been seen that morning, but during the hour plus that I waited they did not reappear. I did have white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatch as new trip birds, but otherwise it was more mountain chickadees, Steller’s jays, and of course juncos at the feeder.
In the early afternoon I took Crest Road - an offshoot of the road up to Sandia Crest House - and did a little birding in the residential area there. A spotted towhee showed well there, scratching on the ground, but otherwise it was pretty quiet except for the barking of overzealous dogs.
Later I returned to the southeastern suburbs of Albuquerque to try again for pinyon jay, this time a bit north on the trail that runs from the end of Indian School Road. No jays appeared, and the only new trip birds were mourning dove and white-crowned sparrow.
Tuesday, March 4: For my last day in New Mexico I decided to change tactics. I would try the area in Tres Pistolas in which I had heard the titmouse until I had a sighting, and then switch to a trail north of the city whose existence I had discovered through research the prior night.
So I was at Tres Pistolas before sunrise and headed right for the titmouse area. The particular spot can be reached by taking the main trail in to the opening in the wooden fence marking the start of the national forest area. (This is surprisingly far in on the trail.) Just on the other side of the fence, a trail leads to the right, and is signed as the trail to a hawkwatch spot. Take this trail to the first small gully it crosses. From the gully to the part where the trail starts to ascend in earnest - a matter of a couple dozen yards - is the area the titmice seem to frequent.
I walked the trail almost all the way to the hawkwatch and then returned to the titmouse area. Sure enough, my imitation of a saw-whet owl drew two birds to flit around. I never had a decent view of either and only had a split-second look at a perched bird, but its size, coloration, and calls all were right for the titmouse.
After that the birds disappeared and I headed out of the canyon and took to the road. It did not take that long to get from my hotel on Central Avenue near 40 to the trailhead for the Tunnel Springs Trailhead, east of Placitas - perhaps a half hour. I would later wish I had learned of this trail much earlier in my vacation as it made finding the titmouse dramatically easier. To reach this spot, take 25 north of Albuquerque to exit 242 and head east toward Placitas. Within five miles - in fact, in sight of the five-mile marker - a road called Tunnel Springs Road heads south. Take it all the way to its end, passing one trailhead on the way and ending up at a second. The trail is part of the Crest Trail.
I should note that for a mountain trail, it is one of the easiest I have encountered. It is mostly level and in the few places where it ascends or descends, the grade is very gentle.
During the first twenty minutes I had repeat views of JUNIPER TITMICE, one of which perched at the margin of a bush right at the trailside for marvelous views. They were very active in this period (which was between 10:15 and about 10:35 in the morning).
I walked on to an overlook a little over three miles in. Along the way I looked up to see a large raptor soaring in with a turkey vulture-like dihedral. As it passed over in leisurely fashion, I saw the long, narrow wings and pointed wingtips of a FERRUGINOUS HAWK! I was also able to make out the markings in the wing linings and otherwise generally white underparts, although the underside was too shaded to distinguish the rufous flecking on the thighs. This had been a huge “wish list” bird, so it was very nice to have it drop into my lap like that.
The rest of the hike was generally quiet and I did not see any pinyon jays. I did have a bird at one bend call that sounded like a rock wren, and near the three-mile mark I entered a treed plateau where several juniper titmice had territory near the trail and showed well.
Returning to the trailhead, I drove around some open areas north of Placitas without seeing much of note. I then headed into Albuquerque to stop at the Rio Grande Nature Center, which was by then an hour from closing. The wetland here featured Canada geese, mallards, Northern shoveler, green-winged teal, wood ducks, several sandhill cranes, and a great blue heron. As I was leaving the center, the last trip bird, a great-tailed grackle, flew across the road.
Wednesday, March 5: My return home was uneventful other than the usual delays and other fiascoes at O’Hare. At the airport, my girlfriend and I saw not one, not two, but three different snowy owls, a fitting bookend to the trip.