New Mexico Shorebirds, and Birds of the Shore

It’s a long drive from Roswell to Tucson, but the excitement of having watched the chickens dance got us through. Besides that, there was much to see along the way, and we would probably still be in New Mexico had we taken every promising road and looked for every species that occurred to us as we drove along (“Hm, wonder if there are Boreal Owls in there….”).

My favorite of the brief stops we made on the drive west was the alkali flat at Holloman refuge, just east of Alamogordo. I’ll have to check my notes, but it seems to me that that was the very spot where Ted showed me my first Snowy Plovers years and years ago; and they were there yesterday, too, or at least their descendants, five pairs or more out on the shimmering expanse.

A dozen Western Sandpipers were out in the middle, looking hot and bothered, and a surprise Baird’s Sandpiper was a good find, too; this far west, Baird’s are much commoner in the fall (which, for Arctic-nesting shorebirds, starts in about 3 months).

Technically not a shorebird, this little guy was on the shore of a wetland near Roswell; Burrowing Owls don’t need the water, but the disturbance associated with steep banks is of obvious advantage to them.


Disco Potoo

February 22: It started to rain as we returned to Chimino for our lunch, but we were too full of the morning’s excitement to care. Fortunately, the weather cleared just as we were loading our things onto the boat for the return trip to Sayaxche, where our van once again awaited us, and the ride back on the Pasin was as birdful as the ride out had been.

Birding time knows only its own clocks, of course, and so darkness fell well before we were in Tikal that evening. But night time in the tropics has its own allures, and at one point two great saucers of yellow light flashed across the road in front of the van. A bird! We screeched to a stop and looked out the windows to find a Northern Potoo perched on a stump just feet away from our vehicle.

Our security escort, a few car lengths behind us, had obviously not seen the bird, and a second later they were pulled up beside us, frantically asking what was wrong, what had happened, what we were doing. Beside us, that is to say, blocking the bird. Our answers were even more frantic, and when we were finally able to make them understand what we were seeing, they generously offered to put a light on the potoo for us.

Regrettably, the only illumination they found to cast on the scene was the blue-and-reds on the roof of their SUV, so for precious seconds we saw the bird in the strobe flashes of police lights. At least the siren didn’t come on, though if it had, at least I wouldn’t have been able to hear someone, unnamed, humming an ABBA tune from the back seat.


Longspurs 3, Owls 2

It was a perfect prairie homecoming today. Gary, Chris, Mark, and Molly discovered a Lapland Longspur yesterday on the Sonoita grasslands near Elgin, and there was no way I couldn’t look for that bird, a species with fewer than 20 records ever for southeast Arizona.

So Darlene and I bumped across the pastures on a dramatically windy afternoon, finding the described site and, a pleasant surprise indeed, Erika and Marjorie hunkered down in the lee of a stock tank. A couple of hundred Horned Larks were feeding among the cowpies, and goodly numbers of Chestnut-collared Longspurs joined them, their musical little chirrups chiming each time the flock shifted position.

Most of the Chestnut-collareds were females or drab males, but a few were showing the black of breeding dress concealed beneath their pale feather edges.

I was particularly excited to find at least 4 McCown’s Longspurs in the flock, a bird I know well from its breeding grounds in northwest Nebraska but one I have rarely seen in winter; it was outstanding to see them with the Chestnut-collareds and to firm up my shaky impressions of their face pattern and bill shape.

Marjorie and Erika had been holding down the fort long enough to be cold in the biting wind, so they headed out. Darlene and I continued scoping the flock, and 45 minutes later a dazzlingly bright male Lapland Longspur appeared. He fed among the grasses and the cowpatties for a good 20 minutes, apparently unaware of how intensely he was being admired. Gary has posted beautiful photos of the bird at, but I was reduced to a miserably poor effort at digiscoping; still, the bird is identifiable as it peeks over the cowflop in the glare of a shakily held camera.

Well, maybe ‘identifiable’ was an exaggeration, but he’s in there!

So what to do after that wonderful experience? The clouds and the light over the mountains drew us over to the San Rafael grasslands for dusk. Northern Harriers were gathering to roost, and the last Mourning Doves and Lilian’s Meadowlarks were on the roadsides. It started to rain, then to snow, but like ornithological mailmen, we were undeterred. As we drove the dirt roads slowly in the gloaming, we flushed first one, then another, then a total of at least four Short-eared Owls. Our last bird of the day was a Burrowing Owl, standing on the road in front of the car, bobbing slightly on its stilt-like legs before it too lost itself in the tall grass.


Croseri, The Flight: In Memory of Homing Pigeons in Combat

Feathered rats, RoPi-dopes, pigs in space: How we birders love to hate ’em! Even those of us who confess to a grudging admiration for such aliens as European Starlings and House Sparrows have nothing but scorn for the Rock Pigeon, a filthy beast that, in its nearly worldwide introduced range, has never made the break with its utter dependence on man and his habitats.

But even the most cursory look reveals that like all creatures, Rock Pigeons have a fascinating natural history, as Cornell’s Project PigeonWatch continues to remind us. And the very commensalism that makes so many of us look down on the lowly pigeon means that the species has long enjoyed a special and privileged place in cultural history, too.

Alessandro Croseri’s moving Flight is a brief video homage to one aspect of that cultural history, the role that Rock Pigeons have played in war. Combining historic stills with beautiful images of pigeons flying free over New York City, The Flight reminds us that homing pigeons, by carrying messages and even taking photographs with cameras strapped to their iridescent-feathered necks, saved lives and won battles in the First and Second World Wars. The film does without narration, relying on a somber but appealing sound track and the juxtaposition of images to carry its message. Particularly memorable is the morphing of pigeon wingbeats into artillery fire, and the visual fade of a flock of birds into a squadron of bombers.

Such images might suggest that Rock Pigeons in combat were nothing more than another weapon. But Croseri includes other, equally remarkable images showing the birds and their relationship to their human handlers. Pigeons are cradled and caressed before being sent “into harm’s way,” and their sacrifices are commemorated both photographically and taxidermically. In one of the film’s more bizarre shots, captured ‘enemy’ pigeons are paraded through town in cages, simultaneously spoils of war and prisoners.

Al Croseri is to be congratulated on an effective and moving piece of film-making, and anyone interested in birds and their place in human history is encouraged to watch this film. It will change the way you think about pigeons.



The Santa Cruz Flats

My SaddleBrooke group had a great time out on the flats this morning. Most of the excitement was provided by raptors, of course, including Burrowing Owls and a spectacular Harlan’s Hawk. Crested Caracaras, one of our major targets, showed well on the ground and in the air, too.

Mountain Bluebird numbers are still increasing, and we can hope that this will turn out yet to be an invasion winter for that species. And even the Yellow-headed Blackbirds brought forth some well-deserved oohs and aahs.