Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Playing the Lottery

I do not play the lottery. My mom buys instant lottery tickets for all of us every year at Christmas and we all giggle as we rub off the numbers. I've never won more than $5 on those.

We've seen what happens to relatively normal people who win a big lottery jackpot.

Besides, I really dislike gambling and the lottery feels like gambling to me. So I avoid it.

But there are times, like when we were in New Mexico in November, when it would be handy to write a check with a LOT of zeros to buy something really big, wonderful, and amazing.

Like 23,000 acres of high desert near Magdalena, New Mexico.

You would certainly have mountain bluebird, loggerhead shrike, and prairie falcon on your Ranch Bird List. Ted Turner would be your almost neighbor so there's an outside chance at aplomado falcon. And you'd have pronghorn antelope on your Ranch Mammal List.

But (and this is a Deep Thought) if you owned this spectacular New Mexico ranch would you still eat Ranch Dressing on your salads?

This is how Liam would look on your new New Mexico Ranch. He could be your Ranch Artist-in-Residence. Better get a satellite dish, though, because the Artist-in-Residence likes to watch SpongeBob when he gets home from school.

Here's how Phoebe would look on your ranch. She could be your Ranch Bloghand since, at age 11 she already has a blog and gets more comments on her posts than either of her parents get on theirs.

She should be blogging now, but I'm sending her up the road to the country store to get me some o' them lottery tickets.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

Chasing a Three-toed Lifer!

On our last full day in New Mexico, the weather forecast called for snow and cold. We planned to spend the day in our rented fauxdobe casa playing music with our friend Caroline Quine. But when the day dawned clear and warming and the weather forecasters recanted their earlier prognostications, our two families decided to pursue outdoor adventures.

Our modus in NM has been to take expeditions in search of life birds. As you can imagine, the possibilities get more limited each year. Last year our target bird was the Lewis' woodpecker--a lifer for Julie and a bird I'd only seen twice before (and one of those times was a vagrant bird in Virginia!). We went back to our lucky Lewis' spot again this year and rekindled our acquaintance with this fine species--but there was only one bird, not several as there had been last year. This worried us a bit.

The following day we drove south looking for a good hike and some petroglyphs near Embudo. We never did find the hike or the 'glyphs, but we did drive through several orchards that had trees full of huge red apples. The apples were being eaten by a large number of Lewis' woodpeckers. We needn't have worried.

But back to the life-bird quest.

This year we got ants in the pants to see a northern three-toed woodpecker. It would be a life bird for both of us. For me it would be the last (likely) North American woodpecker to add to my life list. [side note: If some lucky soul in Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, or elsewhere can remember to keep their camera ON and lens cap OFF, I might still have one more peckerwood to add, but until then....]

I spent the Wednesday morning before our Thanksgiving Day departure homeward scouring the Web for info on where to find the northern three-toed in New Mexico. I learned that they like burns--places where forest fires have swept through, leaving standing trees and open understory. The most regular spot for our quest bird seemed to be in the Jemez Mountains west of Los Alamos. The site was known as The Dome Burn. It was in the Carson National Forest--at least 2 hour's drive away from Arroyo Seco where we were staying. One bonus was that Bandelier National Monument was in the same area, so as long as we were making the trek...

Getting the four of us: BT3, Julie, Phoebe, and Liam outfitted, fed, loaded into the car took something like 11 hours. By 11 am we were ready to go. Oops it's time to feed the kids lunch. You know how it goes.

Finding the Dome Burn area took a full two hours. Along the way we had to go through a security checkpoint near Los Alamos, birthplace of nukes. The roads outside of Los Alamos are named for the highlights of the The Nuclear Age: Bikini Atoll Road, Dr. Robert Oppenheiner Road, etc. Thankfully I did not see roads named for Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

As we got into the Jemez Mountains west of Los Alamos, we could smell the smoke from forest fires. The Dome Burn happened in the 1990s, but intentional burning is still going on throughout this area. Burning the forest to keep it from burning...there is some logic and science in there somewhere. Soon we could see the smoke and even flames on the mountainsides below the road.

Smoke from the burning forest in the Jemez Mountains.

We climbed up and up the twisting mountain road, through the smoke-filled giant pines. It seemed a bit surreal to be driving calmly with other cars on this forest road with fires burning all around.

After following the very precise directions, we found the appropriate dirt road and took it the proscribed distance to the pull-off where our birds should be. The habitat was perfect--a wide open grassy bald with charred snags of fire-killed trees. Stumps from "harvested" timber were everywhere.

While waiting for the birds to appear, I sat on this stump and pondered.

The larger pines survive the fires, the smaller ones succumb. Still, there was ample evidence of life here. Fresh woodpecker drillings, scattered cowpies, horse and ATV tracks, a hiker's lean-to, as well as bits and pieces of trash.

Hiker's lean-to at The Dome Burn area.

Overhead a pod of common ravens croaked their annoyance at our presence. We fanned out and began looking for the woodpecker. It was very quiet and cold here, the sun not strong enough to make much difference. When the wind rose, it cut right through my down jacket.

I thought to try playing the bird's call but my iPod was dead. And I'd forgotten my speakers anyway. So we listened and heard only silence. The only sounds other than the ravens were sounds of Phoebe and Liam and their restless horseplay.

For nearly two hours we walked the burn. I thought I head the bird a couple of times but could never locate it. A feeding flock of pygmy nuthatches and mountain chickadees passed through, the nutties sounding a bit like the three-toed, which got my heart racing.

Pygmy nuthatch.

My feeling that it was only a matter of time before we found the bird (and joy!) now gave way to a rising ache of disappointment, then a taste of desperation. It was time to go. We had only a couple of hours of daylight left and quite a long road ahead of us to get to the ancient cliff dwellings at Bandelier. I told myself that it was just not meant to be. And, as I've counseled myself (and others) before, once you've seen all the birds, what do you have to look forward to? This would give me a reason to come back to this hauntingly beautiful and lonely place.

The view from The Dome Burn.

We climbed back in the car for the long drive back down the mountains. Along the way we passed newer burns in younger woods. The trees were still charred black with some stumps still smoking. I got a hunch and asked Julie to stop. I heard something. We got out.

There! What's that call?

I mimicked the loud, sweet call note I'd heard--much like a hairy woodpecker's call note. We heard a staccato drum, a woodpecker's territorial business card. A bird flew toward us and over our head, landing, hidden in a roadside ponderosa pine. My heart sank. It looked like a hairy woodpecker--I was expecting something bigger. I trotted up the road to a better vantage point and when I got my bins back on the bird I noticed something right away. Its sides and flanks were barred with charcoal stripes. THAT'S NOT A HAIRY WOODPECKER!

It was our bird--the northern three-toed woodpecker--a female. She called again, hopped up the trunk a few feet, then flew off from whence she came. We had all of 20 seconds to watch her. Julie (with the largest brain in our family) thought quickly and snapped off a few frames of the distant bird. This locked in the ID.

It was a life bird for both of us! Hugs and high-fives all around! Even the kids were happy about it. Sweet!

Northern three-toed woodpecker, female. Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

We did make it to Bandelier on time, but only just. I had a close call there. More on that part of the adventure in days to come.

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Thursday, December 06, 2007


Red-shafted flicker at Bosque.

One of the great pleasures of this year's trip to New Mexico was that it was Woodpeckerpalooza. We scored more good looks at the members of the Piciformes than any other family.

It started out normally enough with the expected red-shafted flickers at Bosque del Apache NWR.
The flickers were going ape for the fruits on this tree in Socorro.

On Saturday, on the first trip we lead to Water Canyon (about 20 miles northwest of Socorro), our van was at the end of the caravan of vehicles heading up to start birding at the campground. We stopped along the entrance road, about half a mile below the campground, to look at some acorn woodpeckers and it was so birdy, we spent the next 30 minutes enjoying the birds.

The sunlight had hit this part of Water Canyon, so the birds and insects were active. The air was warming, too, so even the little birds--the bushtits and mountain chickadees--were moving about and calling. Farther up the canyon, the campground was still in the shade of the canyon walls, and the cold air prevailed making it far less active for birds.

While following the flight of the flock of acorn woodpeckers to a hackberry tree, I spied a long, dark sapsucker. Then another and another. They were not all the same species, either! The darkest one flew. No white in the wings. Striped overall. Yellow belly patch. A female Williamson's sapsucker! I shouted as the bird disappeared over the trees, headed down the canyon. Few others got on it. And this was a target bird.
Acorn woodpecker with its distinctive "clown make-up" face and head pattern.

Sapsucker wells and acorn woodpecker cache holes. The acorn woodpeckers store acorns in the holes for future consumption.

We enjoyed the acorn woodpeckers who seemed oblivious to our presence. They had been working over this hackberry tree for some time, it was clear.

I relocated the other sapsuckers--they were red-naped sapsuckers. They hung in the tree for the entire time we were there, tap-drilling new holes, and hitching from well to well. These were my best looks ever at this species, so I tried to soak up the experience as I got the spotting scope on a superb male for the trip participants.

Canyon towhee, western bluebird, Townsend's solitaire, western scrub jay and Steller's jay were among the other species highlights. Overhead common ravens kept up a constant stream of growls and croaks. We'd come from the desert below, where the ravens were all Chihuahuan (formerly called white-necked raven).

Soon guilt set in and we realized we'd better rejoin the main group at the campground. Up the road we went, intent on hiking up the mountain trail to where we'd heard a pair of Williamson's sapsuckers had been seen.

From the parking lot, we hiked up the logging/access road. The altitude was enough for us flatlanders to get short of breath. Scars six feet up the trunks of the ponderosa pines showed us where the snow plow had passed the previous winter.

The birding here was very quiet. Nothing much moving or calling. Then someone spotted a swooping woodpecker, flying to a the largest tree trunk in view. It was the Williamson's sapsucker! A male this time. He was very shy and scooted to the back side of the tree each time we tried to maneuver for a better view.

Leading a birding trip and bird photography do not mix, I found. It just didn't feel right to be concentrating on taking photos while several folks still needed to get on the bird. So I got the scope on the bird...and it flew.

Our first look at a male Wiliamson's sapsucker.

Most of our group decided to head on up the trail to meet the rest of our trip's participants. I radioed Julie, leading a group farther up the mountain. "Nothing much up here." Came the answer. I decided to sit tight to wait for the sapsucker to come back.

Until the late 19th century, the male and female Williamson's sapsucker were thought to be separate species. And it's understandable--they look completely different from one another. The male is boldly marked with black, white, red, and yellow. The female's coloration is more muted overall. She lacks his obvious white wing patch, as well as the boldly striped black head.

Back at Water Canyon, we were soon rewarded for being patient. A female came in. After she left a male came in too. Clearly this ponderosa pine--the largest in sight in these woods--was they favored foraging tree. I radioed up the mountain and Julie's group hoofed it back down to see the bird.

After everyone had gotten an eyeful, I snapped of a few frames with my Canon 30D. Shooting into the light I knew they'd be horrible, but I wanted a documentary record. The Wiliamson's sapsucker is named for a Lieutenant Robert Stockton Williamson, an early western surveyor.

The male Williamson's flashy plumage is obvious even from a great distance in poor light.

I think this might be a young male Williamsons. The face and head pattern seem to bold for a brownish female.

We returned to Water Canyon the next day, and had equally good luck with the woodpeckers. I still had no time or luck with photographing the woodpeckers, but Julie and I (and our fellow leaders Mary and Rob) got a lot of people their life looks at several birds.

The following day we were in Arroyo Seco in the northern part of NM. It was here, the previous year, that we'd found a colony of Lewis' woodpeckers. After several attempts to see the birds--their grove of cottonwoods seemed to have been taken over by American crows--we finally gt a single individual. The Lewis' woodpecker is named for Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame. I didn't realize it when it happened, but a few hours later I would sweep the "Corps of Discovery" species by seeing a Clark's nutcracker!
Meriwether Lewis' woodpecker preening in a cottonwood.

The Lewis' woodpecker is a fine bird. It's got loads of color, it perches for long periods allowing good looks. And it flies like a crow--not in the undulating flight style of most woodpeckers. It was clear to us that the Lewis' woodpeckers used this cottonwood grove only from late morning until early afternoon. They preened and foraged in the sun. But when the day got on toward dusk, the crowns and ravens took over and the woodpeckers departed quietly for their roosts.

We also saw hairy woodpeckers and ladder-backed woodpeckers on this trip. However, the most special woodpecker was one we found on our last full day in the Land of Enchantment.

More on that soon....

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Saturday, December 01, 2007

Amazing Rocks of NM

New Mexico has lots of interesting rock formations. Some of them, like Camel Rock (above) near EspaƱola, are named for what they look like.

We found a really interesting formation south of Bosque del Apache NWR. It's called Bouton Rock because it looks just like Jeff Bouton, Leica's sports optics/pro-birder dude.

It's a sort of Mt Rushmore of Digiscoping.

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Thursday, November 29, 2007

White Geese Galore

Why do thousands of bird photographers go to Bosque del Apache every November? Well the light is amazing. The vistas are wide open. And there are hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes, snow geese, Ross's geese, and just about every kind of duck you can find in your field guide.

Furthermore, the birds are somewhat acclimated to humans along the refuge's causeways and the birds tend to have routines that they follow. This allows nature photographers, with their lenses as long as a Cooper Mini, to get in position to take some really, really, really nice bird pictures.

For bird photography pikers like me, Bosque is a paradise, too. I can take some shots of a cooperative bird, change my settings wildly, take some more pix, change again, check them out on the camera's screen, take some more. You get the scoop.

We had an afternoon off late in our week at Bosque and just when the light was perfect, we turned a corner on the Marsh Route and found a newly flooded field chock full of resting, foraging snow and Ross's geese. So we joined the skirmish line of bird photographers already in place, snapping away.

Soon the geese took off in a sudden fright. Then they returned. They kept coming and going for the next hour and I thanked the gods that I was not shooting film because I took more than 500 frames.

Here are some of the more acceptable results.
The flooded field with resting geese. Mostly snows with a few blue geese and a good number of Ross's mixed in.

Spooking into flight.

A great chance to compare Ross's goose (L) with snow goose (R).

Coming back around to land in the flooded field again. This looks to me like the shots of the imprinted birds in Winged Migration.

Coming in for a landing. White birds with black primaries! How beautiful.

Splashing down.

Each bird created its own wave as it splashed to a landing.

And then they were up again. A coyote scared them into flight. Cottonwoods providing the backdrop.

As the flock passes overhead, you do NOT want to look up with your mouth open.

Droplets of water still clinging to the belly.

A beautiful blue morph snow goose.

Same species, different color morph.

While leading a trip on the first full day of the Festival of the Cranes, our groups spent some time scanning a flock of snow geese. I wanted to point our some Ross's geese to our vanful of birders.

While scanning with my spotting scope, I noticed a blue morph bird that looked quite small by comparison...

It was a blue morph Ross's goose--a very rare bird. I'd seen this morph before here at Bosque, but not for a while. Everybody was really excited to see this bird. We radioed the other van and got them over to see it.

A closer look at the rare creature. Check out the tiny head. Note, too, the head of the snow goose in the foremost foreground, showing the black grin line on the bill. Most of the other white birds in profile in this shot are normal Ross's geese (sans black grin lines on their much smaller pink bills).

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Avocado Falcons

One of the very special birds that was hanging around Bosque del Apache NWR last week and for several week prior was an aplomado falcon. Aplomado is a Spanish word meaning lead-colored--referring to the bird's gray coloration. What you really notice about the bird is not the gray back, but the orange chest and boldly marked head.

Actually there were at least TWO of these rare, endangered birds on the refuge and I got to see both of them just an hour apart on the same day. Radio contact with birders still watching the other falcon confirmed the presence of two birds.

My son (and namesake) Liam, who was along for one of the field trips, asked why we were so excited. I pointed out the bird and said, "THAT'S a rare bird called an aplomado falcon!" Liam replied: "Oh. . . . What's an avocado falcon?" By the glint in his eye I could tell he was pulling his old man's leg.

These aplomados are from a captive breeding program that is trying to re-establish the population in the desert Southwest. Everyone was all abuzz about seeing these lanky falcons and a few of the harder-core birders were wondering if they were "countable" or not since they or their parents were once held in captivity. The birds had bands on the legs but seemed otherwise wild and well adjusted. We watched them eat dragonflies and the occasional small mammal or bird.

It was great to show the birds to a variety of people in our various birding trips. I'd seen the species twice before--both times at Laguna Atascosa NWR in South Texas where another aplomado hacking program has had great success over the years. But these looks at Bosque were better, with more cooperative birds.

I've got a lot more posts from NM to share. The only problema is that I still have to write them! In the meantime, here are a few of my aplomado images--all of these are digiscoped from a great distance.

The falcon stretching in the late-afternoon sun.

Despite my photography skills you can actually see the falcon's head pattern in this image.

A harrier decided to harass the aplomado.

To see how a pro digiscoper does it, visit Jeff Bouton's Leica Birding Blog and check out his pix of the aplomado falcon. I still have to fetch some of my digital camera images and if I have anything aplomadoish worth sharing, Ill certainly do so.

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Saturday, November 24, 2007

Eating in NM

During our New Mexico birding adventure we had a lot of wonderful meals. After a day or so, you get used to it when the servers ask you "green or red?" as you order your entree. They want to know if you want green chiles or red chiles with your meal. I have to say, I ate plenty of both and liked them equally well. If pressed to chose, I lean a little green...

Among our favorite places for NM mastication this year were The Socorro Springs Brewery in Socorro (good food, great beer, and WiFi!) and Sabroso in Arroyo Seco (where we had a nice meal with our friends Caroline and Douglas and fabulous service from the staff).

Here is one NM eating establishment we did not patronize. Perhaps it was the name.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

New Mexico in Low Light

New Mexico is called The Land of Enchantment but it could just as easily be called The Land of Amazing Light. I can see now why photographers and artists come here to pursue their creative muses--the light goes from pale lemony to deep tangerine to milky blue and then back again in the course of a day. The air is clear and the vistas are vast. And then there are the places where the desert meets the mountains. It's one giant inspiration of light.

Here are just a tiny few of the digital images I've shot this week in New Mexico's low light--early and late in the day.

Pintails at dawn over Bosque del Apache NWR.

At dawn the birders and photographers gather on the Flight Deck for the morning fly out of the cranes and waterfowl.

A pre-dawn blizzard of snow geese.

Cranes and waterfowl darken the dawn sky at Bosque.

Phragmites is an invasive scourge, but its heads look feathery in the afternoon sunlight.

Sunset uses the same pink paintbrush on the desert and the mountains.

A drake pintail in the predawn glow.

Cranes are still flying well after sunset.

A Chihuahuan raven croaks at its flockmates.

Coots a half hour before first light.

The morning sun peeks through a notch in the rim of Water Canyon.

Pintails over pink clouds at Bosque.

Gleaming wires near El Salto del Rey.

A tangerine sunset from Arroyo Seco.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Running into a Roadrunner

On the way down I-25 southbound to Socorro from Albuquerque, there are some large impoundments off to the east that give a visiting birder his/her first taste of what's to come farther south, at Bosque del Apache NWR. At these impoundments, there are usually several dozen sandhill cranes there as well as a nice mix of waterfowl--northern shovelers, northern pintails, gadwall, mallards, and a few coots. Harriers course low over the cornfields. Chihuahuan raven and American crows are black spots on the always blue sky.

We usually pull over and glass the ponds from the highway which is neither safe nor satisfying. But this year, with a little extra time on our hands, we decided to head off the highway to try to get closer to the action. Once of I-25, we immediately missed the hard left turn onto the frontage road, so we continued east to see what we could see. While turning around in a dusty patch of gravel we saw a roadrunner, largest of our North American cuckoos, moving through the brush.

I LOVE roadrunners. They seem to be part bird, part dinosaur, and part snake. Like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland roadrunners always seem to have somewhere else they've gotta be, right now. They rarely linger for a bird watchers to get a binocular full of them.

Roadrunners can also be fairly shy. But unlike most other roadrunners I've ever encountered, this one came toward us.

We grabbed our cameras and here's what happened.

Running out of the brush. Not sure it sees us yet.

The roadrunner stops to survey the scene. It clearly sees the humans in the funny hats with large, shiny tubes making clicking noises. And oohing and ahhing.

It decides it's OK and starts to walk methodically past the front of our car.

Stopping again to ensure we blow maximum megapixels on its back-lit beauty.

Time to scoot. And no, it did not go BEEPBEEP!

And then it was gone. Off to snag, smash, and gobble some poor, too-slow lizard.

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Owl Cave Owl

On the field trip we led to Water Canyon, near the entrance to the canyon, we espied this roosting great horned owl. It was a few minutes before I realized that the shape of the cave's outline was owl-like itself.

An owl perching in an owl-shaped cave. One of those little moments of Zen encountered while looking at birds.

Water Canyon is one of the world's most wonderful places. More on this in the nearest future.

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