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Article by Amy Erickson, Conservation Specialist with the Rio Grande Agricultural Land Trust.

I had the good fortune to join expert bird guide, Holly Merker on a tour of Bosque del Apache on May 3rd to look for birds around the refuge as part of Spring Migration Celebration. A small group met Holly at the visitor’s center at 6:30 am, where she discussed her approach to birding – a form of mindfulness that has proven health benefits. I agree that getting out in nature just makes you feel good, especially when you’re birding in a place as beautiful as Bosque del Apache, with the stunning mountain backdrops and New Mexico blue sky. She began by telling us about the website, BirdCast (birdcast.info) which uses weather surveillance radar to collect real-time data on bird migration. I was familiar with the website but I had no idea that it gave county-level bird data – for example, BirdCast told us that 1.1 million migrating birds flew over Socorro County the night before! BirdCast even provides information on the most likely nocturnal migrants in every county – in our case, Black-headed Grosbeak, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Western Tanager were the top three. It’s fascinating to think that over 1 million birds were flying over my head in total darkness at an average altitude of 1,700 feet the night before. After a brief round of introductions, we were off to the refuge.

Our first stop was the Dabbler Deck. As I got out of the car, hundreds of swallows were circling overhead and some were even perched in a nearby Goodding’s Willow tree. They were mostly Bank Swallows, but there were a few Barn Swallows and Cliff Swallows mixed in. The Goodding’s Willow proved to be popular with a number of other species – Holly pointed out Orange-crowned Warblers, Virginia’s Warblers, Wilson’s Warblers, and Yellow-rumped Warblers. I was impressed with her ability to identify these small, fast-moving birds, including females which are much harder to identify as they lack the bright distinctive colors of the males. She gave us tips on identifying birds, and also taught us some interesting facts about the biology, life history, and nomenclature of the species we saw.

In the adjacent wetlands were dozens of Wilson’s Phalaropes. These colorful shorebirds swam like ducks in the water, spinning in circles to draw up insects from below the surface. Some lingering winter waterfowl were still present, including Northern Pintail, American Wigeon, Cinnamon Teal, and a couple Snow Geese. One lone Black-crowned Night Heron was standing out in the open water. Usually they forage in the evening or at night and spend the days hidden in trees along the shoreline, so I was surprised that it stayed in the same spot the whole time we were on the deck.

The star of the show, however, was a pair of Vermillion Flycatchers. The bright red male perched out in the open and we were all able to get a good look. The nearby female was more secretive, and we suspected that there was a nest nearby, although we weren’t able to find it. The pair sallied in and out of the brush catching insects. Holly was able to get the male in the spotting scope a few times before it dipped back down into the foliage. As we prepared to depart to the next location, a Swainson’s Hawk landed on a snag on the far side of the water, and a Northern Harrier floated low over the foliage and quickly out of sight.

We then headed over to the Boardwalk Lagoon. By this time, the sun was getting hot so there were fewer birds out and about, but we did see a female Bufflehead and a Spotted Sandpiper. I was surprised to learn that the Bufflehead was one of the most abundant nocturnal migrants over Socorro County the night before. The Red-winged Blackbirds were very active here – there were a lot of cattails around the lagoon which the birds like to nest in. One territorial male even perched on the railing just a few feet from us, showing off his bright red shoulder patches and giving his distinctive “konk-a-ree” call to ward off potential rival males (and perhaps to ward off us humans as well!). Here we also saw both of the western phoebes – Say’s Phoebe and Black Phoebe. The Say’s Phoebe was perched on one of the informational signs, so we were all able to get a good look, and the two Black Phoebes were darting around the vegetation near the water’s edge.

Because we spent so much time at the Dabbler Deck, we didn’t have time to go to another location. I was surprised how quickly two-and-a-half hours flew by! I did my best to keep track of my sightings on e-Bird but I’m sure I missed a few – in total I recorded forty species. Many thanks to Holly, the refuge staff, and the Friends staff for putting on this fun and informative event. I hope more people will consider visiting Bosque del Apache during spring migration. Although the refuge is most well known for the Sandhill Cranes and other winter waterfowl, it’s a fantastic birding destination any time of year. Happy birding!

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