By Mel White
Birds in This Story
|National Wildlife Refuges||National Parks||Acreage of Important Bird Areas|
Birders headed for the southwest should think twice before reflexively booking tickets to Arizona. New Mexico, right next door, has one of the highest species lists in the nation. It encompasses birds that dwell in desert scrub, riparian woodland, and high-elevation coniferous forest, among other habitats.
New Mexico also claims one of the true can’t-miss destinations of North America. Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is famed for the spectacle of tens of thousands of wintering Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese. It ranks right up with the Everglades and Texas coast as a place every birder should visit at least once.
In the northern reaches of the state, birders go the beautiful Sangre de Cristo Mountains, a range at the southern end of the Rockies, to see species such as Dusky Grouse, Gray Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, Mountain Chickadee, Pine Grosbeak, and Red Crossbill. In the southwest, Gila National Forest contains highlights such as the Red-faced Warbler and Painted Redstart. The Southwest New Mexico Birding Trail connects this with other sites throughout the region.
New Mexico Birding Hotspots
In October, one of America’s great wildlife showcases begins at this refuge on the Rio Grande in central New Mexico. The first of thousands of Sandhill Cranes start arriving to spend the winter, creating a noisy, colorful scene that delights birders from around the world.
The nearby town of Socorro holds a very popular festival each November to celebrate the cranes. The programs, field trips, and general camaraderie make it a great way to enjoy not just the strikingly tall Sandhill Crane but also the huge flocks of Snow Goose, Ross’s Goose, Canada Goose, and other waterfowl (more than a dozen duck species) that winter here.
The other star winter resident is Bald Eagle, common from November into March. Winter also brings Ferruginous Hawk, Western Bluebird, Mountain Bluebird, American Pipit, and sometimes Chestnut-collared Longspur.
Bosque del Apache isn’t just a winter destination. The refuge manages certain wetlands for shorebirds, and more than 35 species are seen regularly in migration. Black-necked Stilt and American Avocet nest. Other nesting birds include three grebe species, Neotropic Cormorant, Least Bittern, Virginia Rail, Sora, Greater Roadrunner, Lesser Nighthawk, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Vermilion Flycatcher, Chihuahuan Raven, Common Raven, Crissal Thrasher, Phainopepla, and Lucy’s Warbler. Golden Eagle and Peregrine Falcon may be seen throughout the year.
The underground labyrinth of Carlsbad Caverns is famous around the world, and a definite must-see spectacle. Most visitors are unaware of a national park site just a few miles south of the cave: Rattlesnake Springs.
Here, a spring and seasonal wetland create a small oasis of cottonwood trees and scrub that has attracted more than 300 bird species over the years. It’s at its best from fall through spring, when not only local species but rare vagrants may appear, taking advantage of this greenery in the midst of the Chihuahuan Desert. Spring and fall migration are the peak seasons, when oddities such as Williamson’s Sapsucker, Blue-headed Vireo, and Worm-eating Warbler have shown up.
One special nesting bird here is Gray Hawk, distant from its main range. Other breeding birds include Wild Turkey, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Black Phoebe, Say’s Phoebe, Vermilion Flycatcher, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Bell’s Vireo, Lucy’s Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat, Summer Tanager, Pyrrhuloxia, and Painted Bunting.
Less than ten miles northeast of Roswell, Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge ranks among New Mexico’s best, and most under-rated, birding destinations. It’s well worth a visit any time of year. (Bitter Lake is a popular hunting area, so check for current schedules in fall and winter.)
Geese and ducks by the thousands make the refuge their home from fall through spring, and species such as Blue-winged Teal and Cinnamon Teal remain to nest in its many ponds and wetlands. Sandhill Crane is also common in winter, in impressive flocks.
The refuge is known as a very productive place for seeing shorebirds in migration, when they find the shallow wetlands perfect for resting and feeding. Species such as Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs, Western Sandpiper, and Long-billed Dowitcher are common, and Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, and Snowy Plover nest, along with a somewhat isolated population of Least Tern. American White Pelican and Osprey are present in spring and fall.
Some of the nesting birds of the refuge are Scaled Quail, White-faced Ibis, Virginia Rail, Wilson’s Phalarope, Greater Roadrunner, Cassin’s Sparrow, Pyrrhuloxia, and Blue Grosbeak. Bitter Lake has an eight-mile auto tour route and several hiking trails, including a good birding trail to an old oxbow of the Pecos River.
There’s great birding in Albuquerque at this park on the Rio Grande, just northwest of downtown. More than 300 species have been recorded in this relatively small area, thanks to its location and habitats.
A pond at the visitor center should be checked for ducks (Wood Duck is common), Green Heron, and Black-crowned Night-Heron. There’s a window for viewing from indoors. Also check the Candelaria Wetlands before heading to the hiking trails along the Rio Grande.
Nesting birds here include Gambel’s Quail, Cooper’s Hawk, Greater Roadrunner, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Black Phoebe, Say’s Phoebe, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Bushtit, Spotted Towhee, and Black-headed Grosbeak. But it’s in migration that this site is at its best, when traveling birds follow the green belt of the riparian woods along the Rio Grande.
This 10,679-foot peak in the Sandia Mountains northeast of Albuquerque offers the chance to see high-elevation species. The winding road to the top passes through various habitats from pinyon-juniper to coniferous forest, adding to the variety of a visit.
Sandia Crest is best known to birders as a place to see three species of rosy-finch (Gray-crowned, Black, and Brown-capped) in winter, at and near the parking lots and feeders at the summit. The road is usually plowed and passable, but caution is advised after heavy snow.
In breeding season, birds at Sandia Crest include Band-tailed Pigeon, White-throated Swift, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Steller’s Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, Mountain Chickadee, Brown Creeper, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Townsend’s Solitaire, Hermit Thrush, Grace’s Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Dark-eyed Junco, Red Crossbill, and Pine Siskin.
At picnic areas and other stops on the way up the mountain, look for birds such as Red-naped Sapsucker, Plumbeous Vireo, Western Scrub-Jay, Juniper Titmouse, Pygmy Nuthatch, Virginia’s Warbler, Spotted Towhee, and Western Tanager.
Many of New Mexico’s best birding sites are located along the Rio Grande—a green ribbon running through the middle of a generally arid state. One favorite of local birders is this park located below Caballo Lake.
The cottonwoods here attract migrant songbirds and other species in spring and fall, leading to a very high total bird list. The nature of this oasis means that it has seen rarities such as Great Kiskadee, Philadelphia Vireo, and Kentucky Warbler. The Rio Grande also attracts migrant ducks, Neotropic Cormorant, Osprey, wading birds, Sandhill Crane, and a few shorebirds and gulls. Common Black-Hawk has been found here in spring.
Nesting birds in the park area include Gambel’s Quail, Swainson’s Hawk, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Vermilion Flycatcher, Verdin, Phainopepla, Lucy’s Warbler, Summer Tanager, and Black-headed Grosbeak.
From fall through spring, visit Caballo Lake and Elephant Butte Lake, 20 miles north, to look for waterfowl, loons, grebes, Neotropic Cormorant, American White Pelican, and gulls around the dams. The Paseo del Rio area below Elephant Butte Dam is another excellent spot for migrant land birds.
Forty miles east of Santa Fe, Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge lies just southeast of the town of the same name. Its 8,672 acres encompass grasslands, pinyon-juniper scrub, wooded sandstone canyons, and wetlands, making it a fine all-around birding destination.
Most of the refuge habitats are easily seen on its eight-mile auto tour loop—which, in addition to birds, offers superb scenery. A viewing platform at Crane Lake provides a chance to see waterbirds.
Greater White-fronted Goose, Snow Goose, and Ross’s Goose are found here from spring through fall, along with occasional Tundra Swan and masses of both dabbling and diving ducks. Sandhill Crane winters and is especially common in migration. Bald Eagle winters, preying on waterfowl. Shorebirds are common in spring and fall, and Osprey, Franklin’s Gull, and Black Tern are among the migrants over refuge wetlands.
Nesting birds of Las Vegas include Redhead, Ruddy Duck, Pied-billed Grebe, Eared Grebe, Western Grebe, Clark’s Grebe, Black-crowned Night-Heron, White-faced Ibis, American Avocet, Long-eared Owl (scarce), Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Prairie Falcon, Say’s Phoebe, Horned Lark, Vesper Sparrow, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and Bullock’s Oriole.
On Sundays in November, the refuge opens normally closed areas and volunteers are present to help visitors see and identify wildlife.
Boasting more than 280 species on its bird list, this 3,699-acre refuge in northeastern New Mexico has plenty to offer visitors, from breeding waterbirds to flocks of wintering Sandhill Crane to summer shorebirds—not to mention several “towns” of prairie dogs.
With the peaks of the Sangre de Cristo mountains on the horizon, Maxwell is mostly composed of high plains grasslands, with around 700 acres of wetlands intermingled. A ten-mile auto tour road loops through the refuge, accessing prairie, lakes, cropland, and a few scattered small woodlands.
In fall, great flocks of geese, ducks, and Sandhill Cranes arrive at the refuge, accompanied by Golden Eagle, Bald Eagle, Rough-legged Hawk, and Ferruginous Hawk. Prairie Falcon is seen more often in winter, as well. Other possible wintering birds include Northern Shrike, Mountain Bluebird, longspurs, and American Tree Sparrow.
Burrowing Owl nests in prairie-dog towns, and American Avocet and Wilson’s Phalarope nest in wetlands. A few of the breeding birds here are Cinnamon Teal, Ruddy Duck, Pied-billed Grebe, Eared Grebe, Western Grebe, Clark's Grebe, White-faced Ibis, Long-billed Curlew, Say’s Phoebe, Black-billed Magpie, Horned Lark, Cassin’s Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Lark Bunting, Vesper Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow, Blue Grosbeak, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and Lesser Goldfinch.
When water conditions are right, shorebirds can be common on the refuge in spring and late summer into fall. Some of the more-common species are Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs, Baird’s Sandpiper, and Long-billed Dowitcher.
Birders visiting the Santa Fe area have a fine resource at the Randall Davey Audubon Center and Sanctuary, which has hiking trails on 135 acres three miles east of the Plaza. The sanctuary has a bird list of more than 200, including such summer or permanent residents as Black-chinned Hummingbird, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Red-naped Sapsucker, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Western Scrub-Jay, Mountain Chickadee, Juniper Titmouse, Bushtit, Virginia’s Warbler, Canyon Towhee, Spotted Towhee, and Black-headed Grosbeak. The staff can also help with information about birding the region.
The drive up Hyde Park Road (Highway 475), which becomes the Santa Fe National Forest Scenic Byway, leads to the Santa Fe ski area in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains about 15 miles from downtown. Stopping along this drive brings a range of birds, and at the top are many high-elevation species typical of the Rocky Mountains.
At Hyde Memorial State Park look for Plumbeous Vireo, Steller’s Jay, Pygmy Nuthatch, Hermit Thrush, Western Tanager, and Pine Siskin. Then continue to the parking area at the end of the road, where trails lead even higher into the spruce-fir forest.
Some of the birds found in these mountains are Dusky Grouse, Northern Goshawk, Band-tailed Pigeon, Williamson’s Sapsucker, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Hammond’s Flycatcher, Gray Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, Grace’s Warbler, Pine Grosbeak, Cassin’s Finch, and Red Crossbill.
Driving north from Silver City on Highway 15, you soon enter Gila National Forest. In about 11 miles you reach the Cherry Creek campground, and less than a mile later the McMillan campground. Both are good spots for many high-elevation, conifer-forest birds, including some specialties of the Southwest.
In nesting season look for Spotted Owl, White-throated Swift, Acorn Woodpecker, Greater Pewee, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Plumbeous Vireo, Hutton’s Vireo, Steller’s Jay, Mexican Jay, Mountain Chickadee, Bridled Titmouse, Pygmy Nuthatch, Olive Warbler, Virginia’s Warbler, Grace’s Warbler, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Red-faced Warbler, Painted Redstart, Dark-eyed Junco, Hepatic Tanager, and Pine Siskin.
In 12 miles, turn right to reach Lake Roberts, where you may find waterfowl, Pied-billed Grebe, Double-crested Cormorant, migrant Osprey, Black Phoebe, Western Scrub-Jay, Bushtit, Western Bluebird, and Spotted Towhee.
Returning to Highway 15 and continuing north leads to the historic Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, 42 miles from Silver City.
Sandwiched between Arizona and Texas, New Mexico is sometimes overlooked as a birding state, but it offers remarkable rewards—if you look in the right places. The southwestern region's wild and rugged backcountry holds particular gems. This carefully crafted trail hosts more than 40 of the best birding sites in the state, from quiet desert canyons haunted by crissal thrashers and rock wrens to mountain forests where summer resident olive warblers and hepatic tanagers mix with migratory birds from farther north in early fall. The easternmost points on the trail, along the Rio Grande, include isolated groves of trees that may swarm with Wilson's warblers and other migrant songbirds in fall and reservoirs that attract a surprising diversity of waterbirds. —Kenn Kaufman