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It's for the Birds

Adventures in bird identification.

 

I don't know why, but for some strange reason, we've had a plethora of different bird species attending our little valley this year.

Our valley is small by most standards; in fact, it's shallow as far as good valleys go. The hills on either side are somewhat gentle in slope, rising a couple of hundred feet from the dry sand wash and no more.

Scrub oak, juniper and piñon dominate the surfaces, with the oaks far outnumbering the rest.

So we expect to see bird varieties that reflect this vegetation; then something out-of-the-ordinary shows up. These unexpected birds are usually making quick stopovers before moving north or south, depending on the time of the year.

It's our water dishes that more than likely attract these visitors, although our feeder did the trick one or two times. Once, about a year ago, we had a brilliant blue bird come to stay for a long while. I couldn't identify it in the Sibley's, and so I called all of the really good "birders" I knew, and they couldn't give me an answer, either.

I would daily check it out up-close-and-personal with a pair of Alpen 8X30 binnos, and the mystery remained. Until one day I got the brainstorm to look at my "truck copy" of Peterson's Bird Guide and eureka! It was in there. The bird was a blue grosbeak! (Sometimes the Sibley's is just not definitive enough with its pictures.)

Another rare visitor is a white collared dove that comes to the feeder every year during the late spring. It stays for a week or so, then is gone for another year. It has been visiting us for three or four years now. Of course, it isn't a Eurasion or African collarrd, but a turtle dove, the variety that is released at weddings. Why that dove doesn't hang with the Eurasians all year around is a mystery.

Right now, I'm looking out the window at the feeder and a pair of whitewing doves is there. They usually stay for the summer and then are gone.

Now, let me qualify that none of these aforementioned bird species are rare in Southwest New Mexico, nor are the others that I will mention here. But they are rare for my little real estate.

 

It's the "water birds" (as in those attracted by our water dishes) that really draw our attention. For instance, take the robins: We usually have a resident pair that stays all year round, but this year, we had a bunch of them over-winter here. Some of them are real bullies; they chase away every other species that dares to drink when the robins are at the water.

This went on all winter, until on a recent day I looked out the kitchen window and a large curve-billed thrasher sent the bullies into full retreat! That gave me a good chuckle. Strangely, he was willing to share the water dish with all manner of finches and sparrows, unlike the bully robins.

Then there are the Western bluebirds. This year we had two pairs come and stay for three months, from January to April. In years past, one pair would come through and stay for a week or two, but not this winter. They are a treat to watch, especially since they sit on the fence some 10 feet from the window; I will fetch the Alpens (I can focus these 8X30s down to seven feet) and really get a good eyeful. Why, I can almost see the lice jumping on their feathers!

My wife Jeri spotted one fellow that initially defied identification. I found it in the Sibley; it was a red-naped sapsucker, and we had never had such a visitor before in the seven years we've lived in this valley. That was in February and after two days it was gone.

We have a pair of warblers here. I'm not sure which sub-species they belong to because there are so many as to boggle my mind, and they all seem alike in appearance to these old eyes. I do know that I've identified a pair of golden warblers that visit the water, but they don't come every year.

One bird took a coupla days to identify — not because she wasn't in the book, but because she didn't stay around long enough for me to get a good look at her. I say "her," because when she did stick around long enough, she turned out to be a female red cardinal! I used the Alpens on her to make sure.

Strangely she was always alone and no brilliant male was ever with her. She has hung around the water for over a week now.

 

In mid-March we had a real mystery bird show up; Jeri saw them arrive in a small flock one morning. They only visited once and were gone.

She examined every page of the guide and couldn't identify them. Four characteristics seemed to stand out to her: a broad yellow band on the tip of the tail; white bars on the back at the base of the tail; light brown in body color; and maybe they had crests on the top of their heads, she thought, but she wasn't positive.

I looked through not one but two copies of Sibley's and couldn't come up with an answer. They sorta looked like rock wrens, what with the yellow tail tips, but no, I wasn't convinced; remember, I hadn't personally seen them.

So a trip to the truck and out came the Peterson's and there they were: She'd seen a ramblin' flock of cedar waxwings! I showed the pictures to Jeri and she positively identified "her birds." Mystery solved!

I then did find them in the Sibley's but the picture definitely didn't do justice to the species. I have now put the smaller Sibley's in the truck and the Peterson's now resides on the bookshelf.

I've learned that a person needs at least two guides if you want to be serious about bird watching. So far, between the two of my guides we've been able to identify all species that have come to water or dine.

 

While not all that rare to us, I will mention the two pair of phainopeplas that are year-round residents. Both couples hang together and come on a regular schedule to the water dish.

I only mention them because the males are so strikingly stunning and beautiful among all bird species in their bright blue-black coats and those piercing red eyes that give them the appearance of a "don't mess with me" look. Besides, I am partial to that unruly top-knot of a crest!

One bird species came neither to the water nor the feeder, yet it showed up yearly for the first four years we lived in the valley. It was always in the late spring to early summer and each time they raised a covey of youngsters.

However, they were neither Gambel's nor scaled quail. For the first three years I thought that they were Mearn's quail. But during the last year of their appearance I was in for a surprise: They showed up one morning with their brood and fed across the arroyo in the field opposite our kitchen window. I got out my pair of 10-power Alpen Raniers and focused in and was shocked to see that they were indeed bobwhite quail!

It was if they had to identify themselves to me once and for all before they disappeared from our valley for good. I've never seen them again, although I've looked in vain. Where did they come from and where did they go?

Keep the sun forever at your back, the wind forever in your face, and may The Forever God bless you too!

 

 

When not ramblin' outdoors, Larry Lightner lives in Silver City.




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