48 Hours of Birding (and Other Things): Santa Fe, New Mexico

Chasing western birds is yet another reason to visit the Southwest’s most beloved city.

When Georgia O’Keeffe traveled to New Mexico in the ‘20s, it was for the quiet and the landscape—the colors, the shapes, and the openness. She produced hundreds of works inspired by the region, but not many featuring birds. Perhaps her quote about flowers was true—she said she painted them “because they're cheaper than models and they don’t move.” But if O’Keeffe had been into flying subjects, she would’ve found plenty of inspiration in New Mexico. Today, travelers can find dozens of bird species, plus a number of endemics in the hills around Santa Fe. Some can be spotted just blocks away from the Plaza, the city’s historical and cultural center.

Santa Fe is an excellent place to bird year-round. In winter, skiers might pass Mountain Chickadees or Pine Grosbeaks on the slopes, while in summer, the hills come alive with nesting Grace’s and Virginia’s warblers. Many other native favorites can be found in every season, like the Juniper Titmouse and Pygmy Nuthatch.

But autumn in Santa Fe is perhaps the best: The aspen trees turn a brilliant yellow, and the landscape teems with migrating birds. The dry air and falling temperatures create famously great weather—perfect for the International Balloon Fiesta, which happens in nearby Albuquerque in October—and make for comfortable birding and healthy appetites at the end of the day.

Day 1

8 a.m.

There Will be Chile

Wake up with a spicy breakfast smothered in chile, a staple of New Mexican cuisine. The sauce comes in green or red and is made from roasted green chiles or dried red chiles, respectively. Try it on anything at Cafe Pasqual’s, Pantry Restaurant, or anywhere else, really.

Well fed and with senses alert, or slightly burning, set out on foot in the Santa Fe Canyon Preserve, a couple miles east of the Plaza.  As Broad-tailed Hummingbirds buzz you, look for resident Canyon or migrating Green-tailed Towhees. A stroll through these foothills is a peaceful introduction to the desert flora and western fauna. Peaceful . . . until the Western Scrub and Steller’s Jays show up.

At the end of the road is a nice surprise: the Randall Davey Audubon Center and Sanctuary. Its historic buildings are surrounded by over a hundred acres of pinion-juniper woods. Extensive wildflower gardens and bird feeders make the center’s patios a great place to relax and explore the region’s wildlife up close. Hummingbirds swarm the feeders—Black-chinned, Rufous, and even a few Calliope hummers are possibilities. Gray-headed Juncos, Bushtits, and Pine Siskins also hang about looking for seeds. Watch for Cassin’s Finches and challenge your friends to tell them apart from House Finches. (Loser buys the green-chile cheeseburgers.)

12 p.m.

Wrens and Ruins

The green-chile cheeseburger, as mentioned above, is another regional favorite. It’s a good example of New Mexico’s multicultural identity—a mashup of Native American, Hispanic, cowboy, and Route 66 culture. The burger at Santa Fe Bite, downtown, has the most famous pedigree, but most of the burgers in the area won’t disappoint.

Sante Fe is rich in history, too; people have lived in the area for over 11,000 years. A trip to Bandelier National Monument, less than an hour away, lets you explore ancient ruins, along with great bird habitat. Search for Rock and Canyon wrens among the ruins, and scan the scrubby trees for Western Bluebirds and Townsend’s Solitaires. Hepatic Tanagers might also be around, fattening up before their imminent trip south.

As the afternoon winds down and the crowds start to thin, you may get a hint of how the region entranced Georgia O’Keeffe: the wide-open spaces full of strange rock formations, earthy hues, and a blissful quiet. You might be tempted to dig a kiva, settle in, and never leave—but dinner awaits. (Besides, your paintings of flowers would probably just look like…flowers.)

6 p.m.

Adobe Sunset

As evening sets in, the Plaza’s adobe walls glow in the late sun and dining options abound. The Shed, for example, is popular with both tourists and locals and is quintessentially Santa Fe, with a beautiful courtyard, cozy dining rooms, and a classic menu.   

After hours, the Plaza grows quiet and the energy changes. It’s the perfect place to walk off a meal, window shop, or find some dessert or tequila.

Day 2

9 a.m.

Early Alpine Air

If you feel like finding the cooler side of Santa Fe—something you’ve sensed in the air but haven’t yet seen—hit the light-industrial area along West San Mateo Road. There you’ll find Chocolate Maven, where hipsterism is best accompanied by chocolate croissants and peach empanadas.

Few cities provide access to the Rocky Mountains like Santa Fe: Within minutes you’ll be climbing twisty Hyde Park Road into the Santa Fe National Forest. Stop along the road at Little Tesuque Picnic Area and scenic turnouts to look for Clark’s Nutcrackers, which start to descend from their higher breeding grounds in the fall. When walking through the alpine woods, keep an eye out for a Williamson’s Sapsucker. Red-breasted and Pygmy Nuthatches might also flit through the conifers.

Speaking of conifers, they take second billing to the aspens, which change to a brilliant yellow in autumn. It’s such an impressive display that Ski Santa Fe, the ski resort at the end of Hyde Park Road, opens its lifts to leaf peepers. If the lifts are running, hop on for spectacular views and the chance to glimpse a couple higher-elevation birds, like Gray Jays.

1 p.m.

A (Tiny) River Runs Through It

Spend the afternoon strolling around town with your binoculars close at hand. Find the tamale and fajitas cart at the southeast corner of the Plaza when you’re ready for a quick lunch. Shopping is always right around the corner; boutiques offering jewelry, art, rocks, fossils, beads, and leather goods line the nearby streets. Wouldn’t those binoculars like a new handbag? Maybe something with fringe?

The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum is a short walk from the Plaza and houses a huge collection of her work. The Palace of the Governors, a 400-year-old building that once housed the Southwest’s original Spanish government, is also a popular attraction. Just south of the Plaza is San Miguel Chapel, likely the oldest church in the United States.

A walk along Santa Fe River Park (actually a creek) is a return to greenery and a chance to see western birds in an urban environment. Red-shafted Flickers and Lesser Goldfinches may rest in the cottonwoods, while Spotted Towhees explore the bushes along the water.

Other birding spots in the area can be hard to find, but the rewards are great. Check out Birding Hot Spots of Santa Fe, Taos and Northern New Mexico, by Judy Liddell and Barbara Hussey, for extra help.

6 p.m.

Regional Birding at its Best

One of the charms of Santa Fe—and most of New Mexico, for that matter—is that the culture runs deep. That makes it hard to have a bad experience in the city . . . or even a bad meal. The green chile stew or posole, a spicy hominy soup, at, say, the fast-casual Bumble Bee’s Baja Grill, is just as amazing as a haute meal from anywhere else.

End the day with another stroll through Canyon Preserve or atop Hillside Park, overlooking the city. As the temperature quickly drops, the smell of pinion smoke may fill the air. As the stars come out, start planning next year’s visit.