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new mexico trip report part 2

2004-11-27 - 9:24 a.m.

all photos © 2004 by Elaine Radford and Roger Williams

sandhill cranes

You have entered Part 2 of my New Mexico trip report. To start with Part 1, click right here.

Nov. 17, 2004

"A gray bird for a gray day," in the words of our guide. We met for the Crane Behavior class at 5:30 A.M. on a dark and foggy morning.

gray ghosts in the mist

We could hear the birds before we saw them -- the police whistle of hungry youngsters, the bill clatter of irritable adults. The sun came up, but the fog actually grew thicker, and it took awhile before I suddenly understood the sheer numbers of cranes that stood sleeping or just waking up in the cold water. Yes, they sleep with their legs in the water for safety from predators, since they lack a strong fourth toe and can't perch in trees. Yikes.

After the class, we decided to explore some indoor activities in order to get away from the rain and fog. Our first stop was the mineral museum, where we admired the many impressive specimens, including many blue and green Smithsonites and native Gold from area mines. However, my favorite photo from the museum is this Herkimer Diamond, from Ace of Diamonds mine in New York, snapped by DH. It just happens that way sometimes.

herkimer diamond from ace of diamonds mine, new york herkimer county

We decided to depart from our scheduled events and go ahead and tour the Very Large Array on our own. In that way, we would have the whole day Friday free to do whatever we wanted. As we drove toward the VLA, we noticed some actual cowboys on horses driving actual cows. I thought about photographing them, but I realized I probably wouldn't want to be photographed un-announced while just doing my job, so I didn't.

The weather changed as we drove toward the Plains of San Augustin. It was becoming a beautiful sunny day. Hmm. I didn't really appreciate the size of each radio dish in the VLA until I stood next to them. According to the sign, "the antenna dish is 5,280 square feet. The average house in the United States is 2,200 square feet. Two houses could fit in a single dish." Our house plus garage is slightly smaller than average. It boggles the mind.

radio dishes in the vla

At the time of our visit, the VLA was in its "A" configuration, with the dishes very widely spaced -- they actually have a way of moving them around on railroad tracks -- such that it would take a single dish 22 miles in diameter to do the same job as these 27 strategically spaced dishes.

cranes on farm loop, bosque del apache refuge Since the sun had returned to New Mexico, we returned to the Bosque del Apache in the afternoon for an incredible experience. At the "Eagle Scout" platform, we stopped to enjoy the first Bald Eagle who had arrived at the park for its winter vacation. (Bald Eagles are, I presume, creatures of habit in New Mexico even as they are in Louisiana, which no doubt made it easier for the refuge to get sponsorship from the Eagle Scouts to build the overlook.) The Bald Eagle ate a duck with orange feet while American Crows got dangerously close to watch. A Red-Tailed Hawk struck at three female ducks and missed, then went to a nearby perch where it pretty much sat and sulked.

My binoculars proved their value when I noticed, off in the distance across the pond, that the Crows and a Northern Harrier were chasing another Northern Harrier. Once pointed out, of course, DH and the other person there could also watch the show. The chased Harrier escaped and, in the course of flying away from her persecutors, noticed the Bald Eagle and buzzed it rather rudely. Then she perched on the ground and mantled her prey, so that we could watch her eat in the scope. A great show.

An even better show was to come when we visited the Farm Loop to watch the Sandhill Cranes feast on corn before flying out for the night. The blue mountains, the yellow cottonwoods, and the red-crowned birds against the beigey-gold corn made a wonderful feast for the eyes, accented here and there by the glorious faces of the male Yellow-Headed Blackbirds seeded among the blackbird gangs.

And I can't forget to mention that the black eyes and black feathers of the Black Phoebe were like velvet in the scope.

Nov. 18, 2004

It was a beautiful morning complete with a pink sunrise for today's fly-out of geese and cranes. The cranes didn't all depart at once, preferring to depart in small groups, often in multiples of 3, but there was a marvelous explosion of thousands of Snow Geese who left their roosting grounds directly over our heads. Two sun dogs made small rainbows on either side of the rising sun.

snow geese fly out shortly after sunrise

We took a behind-the-scenes tour of the refuge, venturing into areas where tourists aren't normally allowed to go. Alas, we weren't allowed out of the bus, but we did get the opportunity to add some birds to our list we wouldn't have otherwise gotten, including Ferruginous Hawk, Greater White-Fronted Goose, and the Black-Crowned Night Heron.

We lunched at a questionable-looking restaurant called Hong Kong which was recommended in an old article from Bird Watcher's Digest. Some law enforcement officers were eating there, so I figured we wouldn't get mugged, but I was a little worried when I noticed that the Feng Shui goldfish in the usual Chinese restaurant fish tank were tiny feeder fish! But when the food arrived, I knew that the BWD writer had not steered me wrong. My Lord, I almost fell out of my chair. My little ole $4 Hunan Chicken was large enough to feed an entire wagon train, and the taste was out of this world. Crazy value for the money. I had to put most of my lunch in the motel refrigerator so I could reheat it in the microwave for later. DH said that his sweet and sour chicken was equally good, and it must have been. It was the size of Texas, but he somehow managed to eat every bite -- one of the few moments in human history where he out-competed me in an eating contest.

greater 
sandhill crane In the afternoon, we explored some trails on our own. We did a complete circuit of the Canyon Trail and its spectacular overlook of the refuge. It was less birdy than we might have wished, but we did add a singing Rock Wren, Western Bluebird (we'd meet them again), and Say's Phoebe. And the scenery was classic John Ford western stuff.

old tree near top of canyon trail

Nov. 19, 2004

If you can have a gray day for a gray bird, why not a blue day for the blue bird?

It was a beautiful day for a drive through the mountains. We headed back down south, craving more of the Gila National Forest. At the old prospector's rock shop in Hillsboro, we admired some spectacular specimens. At the Percha Creek antique bridge, we first noticed a squirrel which I will now tentatively identify as the Western Gray Squirrel. The change from Monday was amazing. The snow had completely melted from an area where a Native American family had pulled over to take photographs of each other throwing snowballs -- and also from a place where I had hesitated to step because I was afraid of getting more than ankle-deep in the snow! New Mexico may have something in common with Louisiana; if you don't like the weather around here, wait five minutes.

At Emory Pass, I had one of the most satisfying life bird experiences you can imagine. We found the birds ourselves, we wrestled with the identification, and when the birds finally came forward, we got a great look at something completely outside our normal experience -- the Red Crossbill. It was interesting to me how the mind worked. At first, at a distance, I saw yellow finches, and tried to make them into Lesser Goldfinches, although I was unhappy with the call. When the birds came lower, I saw a streaky little devil darting behind the pine branches. Then, deep in shadow, I saw a bright red rump.

As my hand-written diary phrases it, wtf?

The bird stuffed his head into a pine cone and carried it off, leaving me mystified.

Finally, a female bird, one of the yellow guys, took pity and came out into the open, directly overhead. Suddenly, we could both see the mutant-looking crossed bills. After that, all was explained. We had a mixed flock, maybe a family, with females, at least one young, and males.

A very moving experience that reminded me of the natural wealth of this world and its many unusual creatures.

old mosaic, wall, silver city, new mexico We drove all the way to Silver City, where we found the Shevek "slow food" restaurant as if guided there by special heat-seeking missiles. The walls were lined with old science fiction books, and the menu offered a fine selection of ales and wines. I sampled a wonderful Wexford Irish cream ale, while DH went for the Fat Tire "Amber" ale. My portobella mushroom was good, but my minestrone soup was "best in show" for its category. And the prices were good too. We were sorry that we didn't have a hotel room there for the night so that we could do some more ale testing...er, I mean...explore a bit more of the town.

On the way back out, we couldn't resist a second stop at Emory Pass. The crossbills had slipped away, but we did encounter a handsome pair of Western Bluebirds.

A sun dog accompanied a bright setting sun, which sank in slow motion, creating a spectacular pink sunset over red and blue mountains.

The only problem with that glorious sunset and those wonderful high clouds was that it didn't look good for the Friday night star party at the observatory. Instead of a trip into outer space, we took a trip back into time. Indeed, I experienced some eerie feelings as we sipped a drink in the El Matador lounge attached to the El Camino diner. The private booths with their walls decorated in red leather ornamented with huge brass upholstery tacks reminded me of the old Checkmate lounge in Gentilly in the 1970s.

You have just finished Part 2 of my New Mexico trip report. You can find out how it all started by reading Part 1 right here. Or stay tuned for Part 3, a tour of Trinity.

greater sandhill cranes come in for a landing

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