Thursday, January 12, 2006

Kansas and Oklahoma CBC trip Day 3

I got up the next morning around 5, needing time to drive back to the refuge and get breakfast along the way. Also tried to log the Screech Owl into the computer, but it wasn't on the New Mexico list. Bells went off. I found a motel with wifi and harvested my email, and found the NM Bird Records Committee site. Got a phone number to call. Later in the day, when I got through, found that there was one previous record, but that bird had the good manners to show up at a birder meeting so that lots of NM birders had managed to check it off. Nevertheless the woman was excited about the report and urged me to get a written version submitted. She even knew the exact brushy area in the rest stop that I was referring to.

Also the evening before I had a call from Sebastian Patti, who is an elected Judge in Chicago, a master birder with more records in Kansas than anybody else, and an engaging character in person. He was checking in with my plans, he being the CBC organizer, and gave me info on where to meet up. I said I was on course and would be there.

Somewhere in reading the descriptions of possible birding sites there was a mention of Rosy-finches, the Colorado bird I had had to abandon. Sometimes seen in New Mexico. I looked at the detailed species accounts, and it said they were sometimes seen at Taos Ski Valley. I looked at that description, and they were actually seen there fairly often, and gave some details. It was only about a hundred miles, in the more or less right direction, to Taos, a place that's both quaint, for it's core look, and repulsive, for the culture that's crystallized around it's attractiveness. I wouldn't go there without a really good reason. Two lifers was a great reason.

But first the NWR where I already was. I got there at first light, watching a thin blood red line at the edge between the clouds and the horizon, parked in the refuge entryway. I wanted to start there since they had a fence area that could be walked with some little wet ditches, brush and small trees. Good for wintering sparrows. I waited impatiently for enough light to see movement, reading and playing on the computer. When it was barely possible I walked the perimeter of the office area, but it was still so cold that I didn't see much. Figured I might as well go look at ducks, I was still missing some obvious ones. What I got was a raptor bonanza. They were sitting in tree-tops waiting more patiently than I for the rising sun to warm them and the ground. Get some thermals going so they could soar. In the next hour I found a Golden Eagle, a Rough-legged Hawk, a Feruginous Hawk, and a Sharp-shinned, as well as more of species I'd seen the previous day.

I was starting to feel lucky, in fact it was one of the most satisfying mornings I'd had in ages, the clouds were breaking, the sun was shining like bugles across the yellow and orange nearly treeless landscape and on the mountains to the west. The whirtlings of Sandhill Cranes (play the sound) drifted on the wind. It was seeing great birds in perfect light. I found some more ducks I'd been hoping for, Cackling geese and a Common Merganser amongst others, and at the nearly last stop, hoping for a Goldeneye, after stopping and setting up the scope and just loosely pointing it at a likely raft, I looked through the lens and instantly saw a perfect Goldeneye. I'm not a gambler, I have no sense that I'm lucky in that way, I won't put a nickel in a slot machine driving across Nevada. But that morning I had the conviction that it was a lucky day. Drove back to the office, explained to the woman of the previous day that I would pass on hiking the trail, but thanks for the help, serviced my head (brush teeth and shave) in their restroom, and headed for the traffic of Taos. It was about 10am.

I got to the Ski Valley about 1:30. An absolute circus and emporium of SUVs, plastic, and conspicuous consumption, decorated with lots of beautiful women, not one of whom seemed comfortably happy. Yet again I digress. The parking lot was so big that I couldn't even figure out where anything was, so I just stopped randomly when it looked like I was near some buildings and lifts. The book said to check out the bases of the buildings for finches foraging on the ground, so I walked around feeling acutely out of place in the ski crowd, glassing the creek bottoms and firewood piles, places where sand had accumulated, and anything else that might attract a bird. No luck, nothing feathered. The book mentioned a condo, Kandahar, that had feeders. I asked questions, and finally got usable answers from people who were obviously unused to being addressed by strangers.

It was a fair walk to the road leading to the condo, then up a steep snowy single track with my sea-level lungs at 11000 feet. That called for some heavy breathing. When I got close there were some birds flying around, which proved to be Mountain Chickadees, a great bird that I'd only rarely seen. They were using a couple of feeders, and perching in brush on the ground. I watched the feeders for twenty minutes, no Rosies, and was feeling defeated. Noticed that I was standing by some steps leading to the condo office, and figured - What the Hell? So I stuck my head in and asked if anybody knew what a Rosy-finch was.

Yes she says, they were here just a few minutes ago, a few on the roof next door. I looked across the counter out big windows at the empty roof. She says do you want to come over here where you can see better? Sure. A wall of floor to ceiling windows. Then a few birds landed on the roof, and they were Rosies. I don't carry the field guides with me any more, I've lost too many birds by looking at the book when I should have been studying the critter. So I had to puzzle out their differences by just looking. I knew about black, gray, and brown, which was a start. I'd seen one Gray-crowned once before at Crater Lake, not real well since it showed up while I was trying not to slide down the mountain standing in the brush answering a call. Can't guide the binocs well with one hand, and balance fades quickly with your eyes covered.

But this was a perfect situation. Picked out the Blacks quickly, that's one lifer. Then they flew to a pine tree far enough to be a problem. Heart sink. Then they flew back, more of them, up to maybe twenty. Another flock came in, back to the pines, more incoming and back to the roof. After about fifteen minutes there were over a hundred birds, and I'd puzzled out the differences, and was sure I had all three species. Two lifers, the Brown-capped being the other never-seen-before. I was floating and grinning, and the office folk found my bliss quite entertaining. After about a half hour, as it was getting a little darker, I left with many thanks.

Driving back down the mountain, I tried some back roads to avoid going back into Taos. Even with the computer GPS setup I managed to get lost twice, but found a Juniper Titmouse in the process, so I wasn't so upset. Finally got on the main road north, and then headed east through Eagle Pass for Oklahoma. By dark I'd made it to Springer NM, gas low, no station but found a hotel restaurant open and had a decent burger. Started driving for Clayton in the dark and after awhile started worrying about fuel. It looked dicey. It would have been very dicey, but I was saved by the flatness and straightness of the road. Had there been much curving and even mild hilliness I probably would have run dry. But it was my lucky day, and one station was open late in Clayton. Bingo. From there it was fairly easy to get into the Eastern Panhandle of Texas, and Rita Blanca National Grassland which just happens to have a sweet free campground with good birding. I'd do that in the morning. First I had to run off the drunken Christmas vacation no-school-tomorrow teenagers who showed up a half hour after I bedded down, and they just had to shine their flashlights into the camper to see, well, whatever.


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