Killdeer | Still from video by Steve Siegel
Article by Steve Siegel
The fall and winter bird spectacular at Bosque del Apache is world famous. But what about the summer? The birds you will see then are completely different. They have colors! The Refuge offers a unique array of birds in the warmer months. There are not many places in New Mexico where you can find wetland birds, bosque birds, desert birds, garden-type birds and hummingbirds at feeders all within minutes of each other. For the photographer or videographer, many of these birds are colorful, active and often approachable on good roads. Summer starts in May and is a working time for refuge staff. Don’t be surprised to find the Flight Deck dry, or full of green plants. Other fields are temporarily flooded as water is pumped from place to place to prepare for the arrival of geese and cranes in the fall. Wet fields attract water birds. You will certainly see Killdeer, energetic, with rusty-red tails. As soon as they see you they start screaming “Kill-dee, Kill-dee”, warning their babies to stay hidden in the grass. If you are really lucky, you might see one do it’s “broken wing” act to entice you away from a nest or a young bird’s hiding place.
There are egrets here, too – a surprise in the Desert. The three types are easy to distinguish. Great Egrets are the largest. They have yellow bills and black legs. Snowy Egrets have black bills, black legs and bright yellow feet. Cattle Egrets are the smallest. They are squat with shorter, yellowish bills, light-ish colored legs, and most importantly, will probably not be in water.
I will never forget one summer morning on the refuge when out of nowhere, high in the sky came the mournful call of a Long-billed Curlew. The drawn-out “Cur-LEW, Cur-LEW” is one of those natural sounds that just says “wild”, another of the wonders of Bosque del Apache. As you roam the refuge, watch for roadrunners, and those big birds lounging under a shade tree, yes, they are turkeys. OK, so where are all the colorful birds? You are not going to find them out in the open like egrets. Here is where bird-watching (and photography) gets serious. A good place to start looking is the Marsh Boardwalk on the South Loop. Male Red-winged Blackbird take prominent perches as they rotate their bodies and spread their wings, showing off their brilliant red shoulders.
Nearby, but well hidden in the tall pond weeds are tiny Common Yellowthroats. These little warblers sing their “witchity-witchity-witchity” songs all day long. Listen for it. Stop. Wait. If you are patient, one will pop up to give a look at its yellow throat and black burglar’s mask.
One of North America’s prettiest little birds is the Yellow Warbler. The cottonwoods along the North Loop are a good place to find them. Listen for their song, as you will hear it before you see the bird. It helps to find the song in a recording before you go looking. Once again, get out of the car, enjoy the sunshine and listen. This yellow jewel will be flitting among the cottonwood leaves.
The Yellow-breasted Chat is another bird sought out by many. They are here in numbers. You will hear them in the woods. Their song is best described as “crazy”. “Kook!” “Chat!” followed by what sounds like a machine gun, and then some whistles. You will find them mostly in flight out of the woods and back in again. Seeing a chat is an accomplishment to be proud of. Cobalt blue. That’s one way to describe the male Blue Grosbeak. They are much easier to spot than the yellow birds, as they sit on an exposed perch and sing. Look in the scrubby, partly burned areas on the North Loop. There are no bluebirds here in summer, so anything you see that’s solid, dark blue will be this one.
Solid red. That’s the Summer Tanager. It’s amazing how well a red bird can hide among the green leaves of a cottonwood tree, but they do.
Once again seeing this jewel takes getting out of the car and looking. And when you do, you will be shocked at how often and how quickly you see stuff you weren’t even thinking about. A roadrunner in a dry field. A family of javelinas under those far trees. A pair of ravens fighting over something only they know about. Overhead, Turkey Vultures, Swainson’s Hawks, maybe a Golden Eagle. Keep your camera ready. There are still other birds to find in this part of the Refuge. Phoebes, kingbirds, orioles, swallows. The list is long, but let’s head over to the Desert Arboretum, near the Visitor Center for some easy birds. The hummingbird feeders in the arboretum are always crowded with hummingbirds. Mostly it’s the Black-chinned, but during the height of summer, Broad-tailed and Rufous are here, too. If you want close-up shots of Gambel’s Quail, this is the place to get them.
If they flush when you approach, have a seat. They will be back. Watch for the Easter chick-sized babies. The singing you hear probably comes from a Curve-billed Thrasher or a Mockingbird.
Some of the bosque birds come in for a little dietary variety, too. Like everywhere in the world, early morning is the best time to see birds here. As the day heats up, things quiet down. The least visited parts of the Refuge are true desert, but there are some very special birds to find, and some very special scenery, as you walk between the banded sandstone walls of the canyons. Caution is needed here, because there ARE rattlesnakes. They may be right on the sandy trails, but don’t bother them and they won’t bother you. A great introduction to bird photography here is the Black-throated Sparrow. They have a high-pitched, tinkling song, delivered from the top of a cactus. Singing males on their territories, striking, with their black and white striped heads, and jet black bibs are among the tamest of birds, letting you get close enough for really good photos or video.
Take advantage of the magic of desert lighting which, at the right angles, makes the cactus spines glow. If you are really lucky, or really attuned to the environment, you may find a Peregrine Falcon out here. More likely, it will find you first, and start screaming at you. They value their privacy, here in what truly is the Refuge’s wilderness, so give them their space.
As summer draws to a close on this Rio Grande Oasis, there is a surprise: Sunflowers! They are everywhere and serve as an important food source for goldfinches. The insects the sunflowers attract draw in migrating flycatchers of various kinds, too. The flowers themselves briefly turn the Refuge into a Van Gogh landscape and you may want to bring your camera or easel just for that, before the weather turns cold and the honking of geese fills the air yet again.