Wetland sunset at Bosque del Apache | Photo by Shayla March | Article written by Shayla March
Five years ago, I went on a road trip exploring the Southwest with a friend and my faithful furry companion, Koda. We packed up my Jeep and began our trek from Idaho going south through Utah and Arizona, then ending in New Mexico. A friend of ours virtually linked us up with her friend, who also enjoyed bird watching, and happened to live in Socorro, New Mexico. We met Amy for the first time at Bosque del Apache NWR to go birding. Fast forward three years, and I had the good fortune to find myself working at Bosque del Apache. After work and on weekends, Koda and I would hop in my car and head out onto the refuge, hiking the trails, driving the tour loops and looking out off the observation decks. Shortly after I arrived, I learned that my co-worker Amanda Walker, Refuge Ranger at Bosque del Apache, also enjoyed spending some of her free time birding on the refuge, so we began birding together. She taught me how to use eBird (and continues to teach me) and gently inspired me to have birding goals of my own throughout the year.
When our schedules aligned, Amanda and I ventured out onto the refuge, often with our dogs, Griffin and Koda, tagging along. They patiently basked in the sun while occasionally getting excited over turkeys, javelina, and mule deer. Koda’s favorite bird to see was the wild turkeys and Griffin said she is not a fan of ravens.
One January morning, while Amanda and I were birding, our conversation led to the idea of seeing how many birds we could observe on the refuge in 2022. So, we started a very friendly competition of a “Big Year,” although we weren’t using that term to identify our goal until a couple months in.
Birding together usually generated interesting conversations. One of my favorite conversations early on lead to the realization that we both wanted to eat dessert, and very soon! This, in turn, somehow led to us starting up another competition, decorating bird-themed cakes every month. At the end of the month we would decide on a favorite bird we observed at the refuge, which held a special place in our memory that month, and then we would eat it! Sometimes the memories were life birds, sometimes it was Amanda’s nephews mimicking red-winged blackbirds or pretending to sound like another bird so she could log it, or it was the way in which we found the bird.
We always had an idea of what the other hadn’t observed yet, so we would text each other, “Have you found the (insert epic bird) yet?” and send a location and/or description of a location. One afternoon, I was out birding with my Dad, who was visiting from Idaho, and we saw a handful of mountain bluebirds in a field. Now, Amanda and I had been searching for them for a few weeks without success, so I immediately texted her. Realizing a text wouldn’t properly convey my intended severity, I called her…”code five bird alert.” She met us out there within five minutes and we both logged mountain bluebirds that day.
As the year went on, our efforts continued and our friends and colleagues started asking us, “have you seen this bird yet?” Some of my colleagues even created their own fun out of it, often saying, “Hey Shayla, I saw a Crested caracara!” Now, the caracara has only been observed at Bosque del Apache once (in 2021), so while this was not impossible, the childish grins on their faces every time they told me about the caracara always led me to believe this sighting was unlikely.
We are very lucky to have the resources we have here at the refuge. There are amazing birders out there who are happy to share their passion and excitement of birding. Some of my fondest memories come from helpful friends, birders, family and colleagues. As a colleague was in a kayak conducting surveys, she pointed and yelled, “Cinnamon teal! Cinnamon teal! Cinnamon teal!” As I ran down the ditch in my waders, waiting for her to tell me to stop once I reached the cinnamon teal, it flushed. Thirty minutes later, I saw it on the edge of the flight deck (without having to run this time. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of running in waders, it’s exhausting – but that bird was worth it!) I’ve also had fellow birders “code five alert” me about rare birds at the refuge. Like our dear friends Jonathan and Tess, calling us about a buff-breasted sandpiper along the South loop, and waiting for me to arrive so they could point it out to us.
We’ve all gotten those blurry pictures of a little brown bird that someone sent to us, asking for identification help. In April, I saw a bird along the North seasonal loop, above the wetland. I wasn’t sure where to begin, or narrow down the search, so I messaged a description of the bird and its behavior to one of our resident experts, Joel. Since I didn’t have a photo, I sent a very poor phone-created finger-painting of the bird. Joel was able to narrow it down to a Black tern. Luckily, the finger-painting matched the bird (kind of), and I made a cake out of it.
Throughout the year, Amanda and I were neck and neck with our numbers, frequently switching off the lead. We helped each other find birds to reach our goal all year long. This year’s “Bosque Big Year” was such a big part of our year and helped me connect to the refuge and this passion of mine in a much more meaningful way. It was a special experience to see the birds come and go, changing with the seasons of the refuge. As 2022 came to an end, we both added many birds to our life lists, participated in our first Christmas bird count, submitted many eBird checklists and summarized our numbers. I observed 217 species, 51 of those being life birds! Amanda observed a whopping 224 species, winning the challenge, and we celebrated by eating cake!