Written by Tracy Patrick Photography by Cheryl Fallstead and C.J. Goin
We may be social distancing, but the birds are not. As fall creeps in, migratory birds take flight on annual journeys to their winter homes, and for birders, it’s an ideal time to spot species in New Mexico that you can’t see yearround. One such bird is the sandhill crane, which breeds in northern areas of the United States and across Canada in summer, then migrates to southern states in late October. Thousands of sandhill cranes, which mate for life and travel in large groups, descend upon Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in San Antonio, New Mexico, to feed, socialize, and choreograph elaborate dances.
“They’re five and a half feet tall with an enormous wingspan,” said Mark Pendleton, vice president for Mesilla Valley Audubon Society (MVAS). “You’re out in the morning and you hear a ruckus of a clangorous clamor and you look up and see the flight of the cranes, and it just sends goosebumps down your spine.”
The cranes’ arrival is not the only treat for birders in the fall months. You may also catch a glimpse of multiple types of warblers, vireos, sparrows, and flycatcher species. You might see some summer stragglers like grosbeaks, chats, hummingbirds, Swainson’s hawks, turkey vultures, or orioles as they leave for their wintering grounds. “Essentially we have birds that are year-round residents, like roadrunners, red-tailed hawks, kestrels, thrashers,” said Amy Erickson, avian biologist with Audubon Southwest, whose work focuses on helping landowners improve habitats. “We have resident summer birds that are here for breeding, then leave in the fall. We have winter residents that breed up north and come here for the winter months. Migration is different for all the different species. Some birds you are just seeing for a short time, because they’re continuing down south toward their ultimate destination, which is Central and South America. In New Mexico, especially around the Rio Grande area, the big deal during the fall migration is the return of the sandhill cranes and other migratory waterfowl.”
While birdwatching is a great way to get outdoors — and still keep distanced from others — it can also be done from the comfort of your yard, or simply looking out a window. Even with coronavirus restrictions, there are plenty of places to find birds. Pro tip: find the water. Bosque del Apache. Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park. Dripping Springs. The Rio Grande before the irrigation season dries up. Even farmland in and around Las Cruces or near water treatment plants. Amy said migratory waterfowl and shorebirds use agricultural fields to dig for roots and leftover grain, as well as to feed on insects. “Don’t feel like you have to get out into the woods to see a lot of these species,” Amy says. “Las Cruces is a great place to see birds. When you’re living in the desert, the thing that’s going to attract the most birds is the water. If you can go to where there’s water, you increase the likelihood of seeing some really cool stuff.”
Another convenient aspect of birdwatching is that you don’t need much to get started. A good pair of lightweight binoculars is essential, but Amy says, with some research, a $50 to $70 pair can work just as well as the higher-end models — especially for a beginner. Other than your typical hiking garb, the only other things you’ll need are a field guide and maybe a notebook. If you’ve got a smartphone, you’ve got a field guide and a notebook in your pocket. “For people that are just getting into birding, start with learning the common birds in your area,” Amy recommends. “There are a bunch of free apps. [The Cornell Lab] has a free one called Merlin ID that’s really good. You can put in your location and the date and it will show you likely birds in your area at that time of year. If you can get a really good handle on the top 10 birds — what they look like and they sound like — you have a good baseline to then identify the rarer species.”
Merlin ID was created by Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, which offers another app, eBird, designed to allow users to log their sightings, in turn providing information for scientific research, education, and conservation efforts. “I like to keep track of what I see every time. A good day is getting 30 species — that’s not too bad,” Mark said. “Some places, like Bosque del Apache, on a good day, you’d see 60 plus.” He adds, “You get outdoors, get some fresh air and sunlight.” Mark has been birding for more than 50 years. His days during the COVID-19 pandemic have been more often spent watching his grandchildren than birds, but under normal circumstances, he tries to go birding at least once a week. “You get out with others who enjoy the same thing,” he said. “You focus on something other than yourself. Rather than sitting home thinking about yourself, you get focused on nature. It puts things in perspective. You get a sense of where you are in the scheme of things. We’re a part of nature. We’re not humans by ourselves and what we do matters. It’s just cool to see the different birds and how they interact.”