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Quick New Mexican Winter Adventure – Rosy Finches


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There are very few places in the US to see all three rosy finches at the same time. One of them is Sandia Crest, towering over Albuquerque, New Mexico. I had three days off to burn before the end of the year, and I took them in New Mexico. I spent a total of four days in early December, visiting sites around Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Bosque del Apache, and Jemez.

I am from sea level. My lungs are accustomed to a certain level of oxygen in the air. They did not like hiking in New Mexico, especially on Sandia Crest, which is at nearly 11,000 ft above sea level. I did try to acclimate myself, taking it slowly, and I did not end up sick, only tired.

December was a great time to visit. It wasn't too cold, and there were very few people around. The colors of the winter desert were lovely.


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Day 1


I took the redeye in, so I was able to get up and go the next morning. There was not a lot of get up or go that morning. I met my Airbnb hosts, and they showed me their birdfeeder which had a canyon towhee and ladder-backed woodpecker patronizing it. I had meant to go to Bosque del Apache that morning but opted for Rio Grande Nature Center State Park instead. It was closer to where I was staying. I got there right as the gate opened at 8am. A roadrunner strutted across the drive and into the frosted brush. There were also a lot of juncos that scattered as I made my way to the parking lot.




After parking, I took in the ponds on the north end of the parking lot. There were shovelers and mallards dabbling along the edges. I took the path to the nature center, passing bird feeders. There were mostly white crowned sparrows hanging around but there was one spotted towhee. And one desert cottontail.




At the pond after the nature center, I found all the ducks. There were wood ducks, mallards, coots, and gadwalls in great numbers.


Then I crossed the channel and went down to the river. There were more white crowns as well as a mixed flock of finches including lesser goldfinches, house finches, and Cassin’s finches.


The birds became more active as the air warmed and the frost melted. Cottonwoods in winter are fascinating. I can see why Georgia O'Keefe loved to paint them. Of course, sitting up top of one watching the river was an adult bald eagle, warming in the sun.




It wasn't until I had nearly completed the loop that the birds came out in earnest. Western bluebirds, yellow-rumped warblers, more white-crowned sparrows, and a merlin, who drank from a stream on the wing then landed on a fence where I could take a good look at it.




The blackbirds then descended on the nature center bird feeders. They were mostly red-winged with a few brewer's blending in. There was also a northern flicker (red-shafted) hanging out.






I was nearly in my car when I spotted a mixed flock of bushtits, chickadees, and juncos. Then it was off to lunch at the Pueblo Center. I had a delicious Tewa (Navajo) taco (which became my addiction for the entire trip) and watched the Apache crown dancers do their sun dance. They asked the audience not to post pictures, so I will honor their wishes.


I had decided to drive up to the Sandia Crest House instead of taking the tramway. It was windy, and I didn't want to risk being stuck on top of the mountains, and this was the only day it was going to be clear at the top. I had to go then or not at all. Considering it was the (mostly) entire reason for my trip, and it did not disappoint.


The drive itself was lovely, proving amazing views of the surrounding area.


The parking lot was mostly full and mostly iced over. Walking on ice at nearly two miles up is an exhausting experience, and watching kids run around was even more exhausting.


I went directly to the house and found there are two bird feeders, one on the east side, one on the west side. There were about half a dozen birders crowding around the windows to see both. I met a couple from Texas, a couple from Florida, a woman from New York, and another person from Florida. They were all there for the rosy finches.


The feeders, however, were empty. Then suddenly! A Steller's jay.


Someone explained that the rosies came in waves every twenty minutes or so, so we had to be patient.


I walked back and forth between the two feeders, slowly, because I would become out of breath crossing the room, which was embarrassing but not as embarrassing if I passed out pushing myself. Maybe I should have done some training before…


Then one of the birders announced, "Rosies!"




A mixed flock of about thirty birds swarmed the feeder and surrounding spruce trees. Juncos and mountain chickadees joined in the feeding frenzy.




Only a few minutes later, the flock took off as a Chihuahuan raven flew over. We took the lull to go through the photos to see exactly which rosies were part of the flock. Between six of us, three field guides, and four more waves, we determined that all three rosy finches were part of the flock including two races of the gray-crowned.




I was torn between staying to watch the sunset and not wanting to drive back down in the dark. I did not drive back down in the dark. I had an early morning the next day. I was going to Bosque del Apache, two hours south of where I was staying, for predawn.

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Day 2


Driving down an interstate in the southwest is always an experience, and doing so in the small hours of the morning on a Sunday even more so. Liminal space indeed.


I made it to Bosque del Apache at predawn, already late to the party. The parking lot outside the park was nearly full and the nearby pond was already being emptied of sandhill cranes, snow geese, shovelers, and pintails. I only stayed for a few moments before going into the park proper.


I decided on the north loop first. So many ducks. And the landscape colors were sublime in the sunrise. Every now and then, an eagle pair would terrorize the ducks. The kestrels were unhappy with this as well.





There were hundreds of cranes and hundreds of snow geese, with an odd Ross's goose hiding in the numbers. Eagles also liked to hide as well.

Off the aptly named Coyote Deck, I found a small pack of coyotes. This time when I announced coyotes, they actually were. J  The coyotes were watched carefully by the cranes, but they were mostly interested in the dead ducks. One found a dead snow goose, one a dead mallard, and one a dead Canada goose. Not a bad breakfast.







The north loop had the sheer numbers, but the south loop had the more interesting birds. Pipits, meadowlarks, and dowitchers. There were also javelinas with a piglet.





After, I stopped by the nature center to see what was hanging around the feeders, which is where I saw the only quail of the trip. I also asked for help on the identification of one of the hawks I saw. It turned out to be an immature dark-morph red-tailed hawk. But I felt better about my identification skills when it stumped the three rangers who had to pull out two different field guides.


The rest of the day was spend wandering around Old Town Albuquerque, wondering why I wasn't independently wealthy so I could buy all the art.

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Day 3


Tent Rocks NM opens at 8am. I was there at 7:45 and the second in line at the gate. However, I was the first to the parking lot and the ranger there told me to go to the top as quickly as I could and take my photos on the way down. I mostly took his advice, because there were birds everywhere.




It was about a mile and a half to the top with a 1,000 ft elevation change, 600 ft of which was in the last quarter mile. It took me two hours to get to the top, but it was worth it to have the view to myself… and no one could hear my sea level lungs dying except the birds and mule deer. There were mountain and western bluebirds as well as Townsend's solitaires, which was a lifer.




It took me less than an hour on the return trip, even stopping to take pictures of everything from the hoodoos to the slot canyon to the angry squirrels.




I went off for lunch in Santa Fe, stopping at the Bug Museum and O'Keefe museum before heading back to Albuquerque. The Bug museum was neat, live and mounted bugs with history of collecting and how to mount. The O'Keefe museum was a bit of letdown. If I had more time, I would have gone up to her home and studio in Abiquiu.


I still had a bit of daylight to use, so I went to Petroglyph NM at Piedras Marcadas Canyon. It was amazing to see the glyphs, but it was also disheartening to see there was also vandalism of the glyphs.



That last one is the vandalism, and while amusing to see dinosaurs, it's not the appropriate time or place. Not only does it degrade history and culture, but somewhere there are some people ignorant enough to believe it's actually historical.

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Day 4


Bandelier NM was very empty when I arrived. There were a handful of cars in the parking lot, and most belonged to the rangers. I had the trails to myself, which was great, because I could climb the ladders without the added anxiety of people waiting their turn. Yes, you're encouraged to climb the ladders. They're not the originals. ;)






There was a reverent feeling throughout the park. It was just me and the birds, except for one angry Abert's squirrel.





Yes, I climbed all the way up. Then back down again.


I stopped at Los Alamos for lunch, not expecting the level of security I ran into. I just wanted lunch.


I then took the long way back to Albuquerque through the Jemez Mountains. The roads were still pretty bad from a snow storm the week before, so I took it slowly, which is how I spotted a golden eagle. She was sitting in a snag overlooking the valley.




On the way down, I startled a massive flock of ravens along the side of the road. They had found a dead elk. It must have been struck by a car.

I wound through the mountains for miles, taking in the frosted landscape, and it was a great way to wind myself down to return to the east coast.





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What an interesting country you live in, @roseclaw! I have seen photos from Bosque del Apache on another forum, those cranes are really photogenic. There is still a month or so to post your birds from 2019; if not then repeat this trip also in 2020. 

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@xelas I honestly don't have the time to post over 400 birds in the next month, sorry. I'm going to focus on this year. While I'm not going back to New Mexico this year, I will be going all sorts of interesting places to see many of the same birds and many different birds. The USA is massive, and I've barely seen half of it.

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Great little report! I love seeing this fascinating spots that I would otherwise never hear of if it wasn’t for Safaritalk. 

Good luck for BY 2020! 

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Thanks, @ImSA84. I've noticed there are very few US posts that don't focus on megafauna (Alaska and Yellowstone). Since I travel for birds, I might as well contribute. :)

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Wow you packed a lot into a few days, what a great area to visit


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@shazdwn it was a great area to visit! I'm one of those travelers who likes to pack in as much as I can, because I don't know if I'll ever be back. I need to get my money's worth.

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"There are very few places in the US to see all three rosy finches at the same time. One of them is Sandia Crest..."

Now that is a fascinating mission for a trip.  You got more than finches, actually more than birds, though it was great to see them in such abundance.  Love the ears on the Abert's Squirrel.  And you even found time to climb the ladders.  A very rewarding couple of days!


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@Atravelynn it was a great little trip, reminding me why I travel, why I do All The Things when I visit a new place. Gotta get the biggest bang for my buck. The best part was that it didn't seem rushed.

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On 1/9/2020 at 5:36 AM, roseclaw said:

@Atravelynn it was a great little trip, reminding me why I travel, why I do All The Things when I visit a new place. Gotta get the biggest bang for my buck. The best part was that it didn't seem rushed.  No hurrying up and down those ladders, then!  ;)


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