Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Birding at Seminole Canyon State Park

Last Spring, we visited Seminole Canyon State Park to view comet C/2011 L4.  This year we returned and stayed for one day of hiking and birding along the new trail system. The Google map below shows the hike. We started in the campground mid morning with cool and misty weather, packing our binoculars and small small SX-50 cameras. We started down the original Rio Grande trail which follows the west boarder of the park as an old jeep road making for the scenic overlooks at the river which we missed last time. The fog cleared quickly around noon while we were at the end of the trail. On the way back, with the sun out, it was quite warm as we followed the new Canyon Rim trail which follows the contours of the Seminole Canyon. In all, a 9 mile hike.

The scenic overlooks were breath-taking. Unfortunately, our Labrador seemed to think he could get access to the "big swimming hole" so we had to keep him on a tight leash. The first view is looking down along the Seminole Canyon to the Rio Grande River. We were surprised to see so much water, especially after visiting Las Cruces and walking around in the Rio Grande basin where the water was about 2 inches deep. Nestled in the bend of the river at the left edge of the picture is the famous Panther Cave pictograph site. By tour only, no dogs allowed.

The second view is at the end of the trail looking upstream along the Rio Grande. We were able to see a number of water birds down in the shallow river as well as a small fishing boat.

We were pleasantly surprised by how many bird species we identified, without the use of any bird blinds or feeding stations. Below were the ones we got pictures of. All images taken with Canon SX-50 HS, most at full zoom.

Cactus Wren - A number of these were stationed in the area around the campground as well as the initial part of the hike. Seemed to be separated by 50 meters or so and positioned midway to top of tall bushes. Unmistakable sound of car starting with bad battery.

Western Meadowlark - Based on the song, more likely a western variety, both types might be found in Texas. Only saw one of these.

Northern Mockingbird - These were everywhere. Nice photo of one in the light of the setting sun.

Great Egret - Yellow bill, black legs ... this one is a great egret. Only saw one of these down in the reeds along the far side of the Rio Grande. It caught a few fish as we watched.

Female Bufflehead - Two of these swimming just upstream of Panther Cave. I was amazed that the water was transparent enough to see the movement of the feet underwater.

Black Phoebe - Perched on an Ocotillo overlooking the Rio Grande gorge below. Unlike at Balmorhea, this one did not show off its aerial hunting skills. We only saw one during our hike.

Canyon Towhee - Saw several in and around the campground at dusk. This was a challenging shot as I had to focus manually, a real pain using the Canon SX-50. The camera insisted on auto-focusing on the high-contrast bush in the far distance and not on the bird, despite setting the smallest AF point.

White-Crowned Sparrow - One of several sparrow species we identified in the park.  These were very numerous, especially in the campground. Here an adult and two immature birds foraged together behind the restrooms. This clinched our previous identification of the juvenile white-crowned.

Black-Throated Sparrow - Saw a few of these throughout the park but not nearly as numerous as the White-Crowned.

Possible Song Sparrow - Only photographed this species once and did not confirm the song.

Possible Cassin's Sparrow - This fluffed up sparrow caused us lots of consternation trying to identify it so not confident. We saw several and heard its song every 100 meters or so along the Rio Grande trail in the morning mist. I recorded a snippet of the song on my iPhone for later comparison. A whistle-like tee trrrrrrreh-ee  tee-tehhh tooo.  My tentative identification based mostly on this song pattern. However, we did not see any of these sparrows "skylarking" ... too early in the season?

Winter Lark Bunting - Saw several of these foraging in the distance. This bird stumped me for quite a bit. Initially assumed it was a sparrow and came up blank matching the wing bars and the heavy striping. Finally dawned on me that the bill was too heavy and tried buntings. Wing bar on the Lark Bunting was right but took some hunting to find a confirming illustration of a bird in winter plumage. This is a radical change in wardrobe!

House Finch - Numerous during the morning part of the hike. Moving in groups from the top of one bush to the next singing en-masse.  I like the shot on the yucca.

Say's Phoebe - I am now seeing this bird everywhere now that I have identified it once. This pair was particularly fun to watch. They were perched at the top of bushes and, in turn, they would fly up, hover, and then drop down. Almost looked like courtship but probably just finding bugs.  Interesting that they took turns, though.

Pyrrhuloxia - Finally, a real Pyrrhuloxia ... we saw two birds together. At Ft Davis SP, we saw a "strangely colored" cardinal which we had convinced ourselves might be a Pyrrhuloxia. Having seen this one, we think that what we had seen was an immature male cardinal in final molt. Only caught a few blurry shots of this one due to more camera focusing issues. However, the bright yellow, stubby bill is quite evident and clearly different from the narrower, orange-red cardinal bill.

Curve-Billed Thrasher - This was another birding highlight of this trip. I saw one of these in the fading light our first evening. I got a very blurry shot of it, enough to give me some confidence of the identification but really wanted to see it again more clearly. The next day, a fellow camper from the neighboring site approach me and explained his dilemma that a "bird with long curved bill" was repeatedly striking his trailer window and wondering why. I mentioned that I was hoping to see that very bird and joked that I would hang out at his trailer.

The next morning, as we were packing, he came by and said that the bird was back in action. He showed me a nice photo of it taken from inside the trailer. After waiting in vigil for a quarter hour, the bird came back. It was actually a pair of thrashers restoring a nest in the bush next to the trailer. After watching, I conjectured that the pecking was most likely the male fending off a phantom rival in the form of its own reflection. The photo shows the reflection but I should have taken a movie of its aggresive fencing moves! Many thanks to our neighbor for alerting us so we could get a closer look at this bird.

Barn Swallow - The area around the restrooms was grand central station for a dozen swallows, especially in morning and evening. I did not see evidence of nest building but the power lines above the restroom were a favorite perching point. The barn swallows were the most numerous.

This next video clip shows the swallow contorting itself to preen its feathers. Funny how stiff the wings remain during this operation.

Cave Swallow - I saw a couple of these mixed in, a bit smaller than the barn swallow and lacking the long forked tail.

Purple Martin - This was a surprise. A lone pair of purple martins that I only saw on one occasion at sunset. When I was a kid, my dad set up a purple martin house in our yard. One of those two-story aluminum condos with doors on both sides. The bird guide I had at that time indicated that purple martins were permanent residents in Las Cruces. However, we never saw a single martin, either in the bird house or anywhere else. Lots of house sparrows took up residence instead. My dad remembered that a roadrunner even tried to nest in it. In retrospect the thing was too low to the ground and too near the trees to have a hope of attracting martins. My current bird guide also indicates that Las Cruces has no purple martins anyway. To this day, my few sightings of purple martins have brought back memories of my anticipation that these birds would take up residence in our yard and delight us with their swooping about.

The second shot below of the male is rather humorous. It was not vocalizing at the time ... it looked like it was yawning ... do birds yawn? Maybe just waiting for the insects to fly into its mouth!  The picture does show how the seemingly small bill is really part of a big bug scoop. It almost looks like a frog's mouth.

In addition to the birds we were able to photograph, we also saw many Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures, a number of Common Ravens, a Great Blue Heron in the Rio Grande along with a half-dozen American Coot, and a flock of Sandhill Cranes traveling north along the Seminole Canyon.

The biggest surprise of this location ... no Kingfishers!

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