New Mexico: Winter Enchantment

This is a birding tour, which has been designed to see the many specialties of the region. it also visits some excellent sites for photography in Sandia Crest and Bosque del Apache, so cameras are both welcome and encouraged!

For details of how Tropical Birding will be operating this tour, here are our guidelines and tour practices: Safety Tour Regulations and Policy.

The gorgeous “desert-scapes”, mountains and wetlands within the Land of Enchantment offer up a remarkable winter destination. This is when the legendary Bosque del Apache NWR is jam-packed with waterbirds, with countless thousands of Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese in particular. A 100-plus species day is expected during our full day in that refuge. It is also the time when the mountains near Albuquerque host three different species of Rosy finch at a single site, Sandia Crest, too. Along with the landscapes, the blur of geese, cranes and other waterfowl, and close ups rosy finches, comes a wealth of southwestern species available at this time, such as Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay, Northern Pygmy Owl, and Vermillion Flycatcher, a bird to brighten up any winter day. For many who have overlooked New Mexico, you are undoubtedly going to leave with a newfound respect for the state, and in particular the premier standard of winter birding available in this so-called “Land of the Delight Makers”.

Day 1: Arrival in Albuquerque. After arrival at a given time in Albuquerque, the guide will pick up the entire group and transfer together to a nearby hotel for the night, in readiness to explore the Sandia Mountains the next morning. A single night will be spent in Albuquerque.

The outstanding Black Rosy-Finch, a target on our first morning
The outstanding Black Rosy-Finch, a target on our first morning (Sam Woods)

Day 2: Sandia Crest and Rio Grande Nature Center. Straight off the bat, in the morning of day 1, we will drive up and east out of Albuquerque, to the infamous Sandia Crest, a 10,678 feet-high ridge that marks the highpoint of the small Sandia small mountain range. Feeders here are known nationwide as one of the most reliable places in wintertime to bag all three species of North American Rosy-finches, Gray-crowned, Black, and Brown-capped Rosy-Finches are all regular at this time. Visiting on a Sunday is also strategic, sometimes the local researchers conduct banding of the rosy-finches on this day of the week, so we might get treated to views of these beautiful mountain birds in the hand, as well as in the wild. Sandi Crest sits within the Cibola National Forest, home to other mountain species of interest, like American Three-toed Woodpecker, Steller’s Jay, Western and Mountain Bluebirds, and Mountain Chickadee.

Rosy-Finch fans will be delighted at Sandia Crest, where all three US species occur
Rosy-Finch fans will be delighted at Sandia Crest, where all three US species occur (Phil Chaon)

After lunch, we’ll head to the wetlands and tall cottonwood Rio Grande Nature Center, where we might find species like Cackling Goose, Wood Duck, Redhead, Canvasback, Ruddy Duck, Hooded Merganser and Belted Kingfisher, around the water. Away from there, Eastern and Western Bluebirds, roadrunner, Say’s Phoebe, Bushtit, Bewick’s Wren, Western Meadowlark, Spotted Towhee, and Lesser Goldfinch are all possible. In the afternoon, we will drive north to the wonderful arty city of Sante Fe, the state capital, for a two-night stay. At 7,199 feet (2,194 m) , Sante Fe holds the title of highest state capital in the United States.

One the tour's scarcer species, Lewis's Woodpecker
One the tour's scarcer species, Lewis's Woodpecker (Ken Behrens)

Day 3: Santa Fe Ski Area and Maxwell NWR. We’ll start out the day looking for New Mexico mountain birds again, this time in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains at around 10,350 feet (3100m). The ski area offers up chances at Dusky Grouse, Clark’s Nutcracker, Canada Jay, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Brown Creeper, Red-breasted and White-breasted Nuthatches, Pine Siskin and the scarcer Pine Grosbeak, among many other montane species.

After a mountain and forest based morning, we will change tack in the afternoon, visiting some wetland areas northeast of Santa Fe, including Maxwell NWR, and maybe also some local reservoirs, time dependent. Raptors, grassland species and wetland birds will be in contrast to our morning’s quarry. Among the targets in the afternoon will be raptors like Bald and Golden Eagles, Rough-legged and Ferruginous Hawks, Prairie Falcon and American Kestrel, along with a veritable pile of waterfowl, like Ross’s and Greater White-fronted Geese, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Tundra Swan, and Eared Grebe, and two species of shrike (Loggerhead and Northern) in this open country too.

Mountain Bluebirds glow against a winter scene
Mountain Bluebirds glow against a winter scene (Sam Woods)

Day 4: Las Vegas NWR to Bosque Del Apache NWR. Our day will start out in the Pinyon-juniper cloaked hills east of Sante Fe. Located between that city and New Mexico’s Las Vegas, we will be seeking Pinyon Jay, a specialty of this habitat, along with Woodhouses ScrubJay, Juniper Titmouse, and perhaps even Lewis’s Woodpecker. After then, we’ll move further east to Las Vegas NWR, where we will be visiting more wetlands and grassland areas, that offers up to 5 species of grebes, masses of ducks like goldeneyes, wigeon, pintail, teal, scaup and others, as well as many raptors and grassland birds like sparrows, shrikes, finches and larks.

In the afternoon, following the longest drive of the tour, we will arrive for evening fly in at New Mexico’s most revered birding site, Bosque del Apache NWR. Our arrival time will be completely strategic, to witness thousands of waterbirds coming in to roost for the evening, among them being the stately Sandhill Cranes, which roost in the refuge each afternoon, often then bathed in gorgeous desert sunsets. The night will be spent in nearby Socorro, where we will be based in this marvelous town based at f 4,579 feet (1,396 m)in the Rio Grande Valley for two nights.

Sandhill Cranes under a wintertime New Mexico sunset
Sandhill Cranes under a wintertime New Mexico sunset (Sam Woods)

Sandhill Cranes as part of the evening
Sandhill Cranes as part of the evening "fly-in" (Sam Woods)

Day 5: Bosque del Apache NWR. This refuge is famous internationally, as the place to see and photograph impressive congregations of waterbirds, and particularly blizzards of Snow Geese and hordes of Sandhill Cranes. However, the refuge offers much more besides, and in winter, it is expected that we see over 100 species on this day alone. The refuge boasts a list of over 370 bird species. Our December visit is smack-bang in the middle of the best birding season, when the highest number of individual birds are present. Bring your cameras and your notebooks, they will both be packed by the day’s end! We will spend the whole day in and around the refuge, scouring wetlands, grasslands, and deserts for birds. …Named after the Apache tribes that formerly camped on the banks of the Rio Grande River, this refuge entices us with a huge list of bird species in this season. The most conspicuous will be ducks, geese and other waterfowl, a hulking list of raptors, and many other waterburds packing the refuge in spectacular numbers. However, in addition to these birds, we may also encounter three species of bluebird, Crissal, Sage, and Curve-billed Thrashers, Rock Wren, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Verdin, Pyrrhuloxia, Green-tailed and Canyon Towhees, Yellow-headed and Brewer’s Blackbirds, American Pipit, and swathes of wintering sparrows that may count Brewer’s, Sagebrush, Golden-crowned and Black-throated Sparrows among them. At the end of this bumper day, we will return to the comforts of Socorro for a second and final night.

A Sandhill Crane takes flight at dawn
A Sandhill Crane takes flight at dawn (Sam Woods)

Congregations of Snow Geese will be an undoubted highlight at Bosque del Apache
Congregations of Snow Geese will be an undoubted highlight at Bosque del Apache (Sam Woods)

Mountains...Deserts...Cranes! (Bosque del Apache)
Mountains...Deserts...Cranes! (Bosque del Apache) (Sam Woods)

Day 6: Magdalena Mountains and Elephant Butte. Our morning plan will be to head west of Socorro and up into the Magdalena Mountains to look for species like Northern Pygmy Owl, Acorn Woodpecker, Red-naped & Williamson’s Sapsuckers, Pygmy Nuthatch, Canyon Wren, Woodhouse’s Scrub Jay, Juniper Titmouse and Red Crossbill.

The afternoon will be spent checking out Elephant Butte Lake, the largest body of water in New Mexico which often masses more waterbirds, including Western and Clark’s Grebes, American White Pelicans, and plentiful ducks and other waterfowl. The next two nights will be spent in the wonderfully named city of Truth or Consequences, a name chosen by the local people after a radio show of the same name!

Sparrows do not have to be dull! (Black-throated Sparrow)
Sparrows do not have to be dull! (Black-throated Sparrow) (Phil Chaon)

Day 7: Caballo Lake, Percha Dam and Lunas County Grasslands. An early start will be required to bird Caballo Lake and Percha Dam, two of the best birding sites in the state. This area often hosts multiple rarities in the lush riparian vegetation as well as large numbers of more typical wintering birds, including a wide variety of sparrows and vibrant Vermillion Flycatchers. The area has fantastic diversity and is always full of surprises. Some of the regulars here include, Scaled and Gambell’s Quail, SIX species of grebe, TEN raptor species, Phainopepla, and almost twenty species from the sparrow family, along with the more expected clusters of waterbirds! However, of course, we will also be on the lookout for the irregular too, like a Black-legged Kittiwake, or something even better!

The afternoon we will head to some high quality desert grasslands in a remote part of the state to search for rare wintering grassland birds like Chestnut-collared and McCown’s Longspurs, Grasshopper Sparrow, Sprague’s Pipit and Baird’s Sparrow. This will be one of the tougher excursions, as we need to walk (optional) off-road and cover as much ground as possible to track down these scarcer New Mexico birds.

Yellow-headed Blackbird inhabit the marshes of New Mexico
Yellow-headed Blackbird inhabit the marshes of New Mexico (Ken Behrens)

Day 8: Truth or Consequences to Albuquerque via Valle de Oro NWR. We will spend the final day birding our way back to Albuquerque from Truth or Consequences. Our specific plan will be dictated by what is in the area and what we are still missing at this point. The plan will be presented the night before on review of our burgeoning bird list!

In the afternoon we will bird the Valle de Oro NWR on the south side of Albuquerque before a final, farewell dinner. This refuge also boasts an extensive bird list, with 260 species having been recorded, including Greater Roadrunner, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Say’s Phoebe, Bushtit, and Chihuahuan Raven, and of course, lots of waterbirds too! A final night will be sprnt at the same Albuquerque hotel where it all began.

A desert
A desert "lightbulb", Vermilion Flycatcher (Phil Chaon)

Day 9: Departure from Albuquerque. The guide will transfer the entire group to the airport at a given time, in order to avoid hotel shuttles (these can be used if you prefer though). There is no birding on this day.

FIVE species of thrasher are possible on the tour (Curve-billed)
FIVE species of thrasher are possible on the tour (Curve-billed) (Sam Woods)

Winter in Bosque del Apache can offer gorgeous crisp, clear days
Winter in Bosque del Apache can offer gorgeous crisp, clear days (Sam Woods)

An interesting angle on a. Mountain Chickadee
An interesting angle on a. Mountain Chickadee (Phil Chaon)

Thousands of waterfowl will be seen throughout the tour (Redhead)
Thousands of waterfowl will be seen throughout the tour (Redhead) (Sam Woods)

Steller's Jays occur in the forests
Steller's Jays occur in the forests (Ken Behrens)

Pinyon Jays occur near Sante Fe
Pinyon Jays occur near Sante Fe (Ken Behrens)

____________________

TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: : Easy. This is not a particularly physically-demanding tour (see Physical Difficulty section below), but the days will be pretty long. For the day around Bosque del Apache in particular it is best to get there before dawn and to linger until sunset, for the most dramatic scenes of waterfowl going to and from roosting sites. Sunrise at this time of year is around 7am, and so in general I would expect to eat breakfast around 6:00am and leave the hotel at 6:30am. Sunset is at around 6pm, and so we will get back to the hotel around 6:30pm or earlier on most days, with time for a short rest before dinner. Some lunches may be field, packed, lunches in order to avoid crowded restaurants.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Moderate. Most of the walking will be on gravel roads and wide paths, though we may take a few more narrow trails. There is an optional, longer, off-road walk on the afternoon of day 7 to search for scarcer species. There are some longer drives on this tour, with drives of 2.5 hours on two days of the tour, and one 4-hour drive on day 4. The tour visit the mountains of New Mexico, so some days are spent at high altitude. Albuquerque sits at 5315ft (1620m), Sandia Crest at 10,680ft (3255m), Sante Fe at 7200ft (2195m), Sante Fe Ski Area at 10,350ft (3155m), and Truth or Consequences at 4250ft (1295m). We should also mention that within some of the more remote areas public toilets may be unavailable, and so the Great Outdoors will need to be used!

CLIMATE: Winter weather in New Mexico is brisk. Expect temperatures in the low 30sF (0C) in the evening, with days ranging from the low 30s (0C) to mid-50s F (13C). It frequently will get into the 20s F (-5C) overnight, temperatures can get as low 5F (-15C) and occasionally as warm 70F (21C) down around Percha Dam and Luna County. This is one of the lowest months for rainfall in the state, with around 4 days typical in the month of December.

ACCOMMODATION: All the hotels we utilize are fully-modernized with hot water, heating, and wireless internet. Importantly, and because of COVID-19 concerns, we have deliberately selected smaller hotels where the rooms are accessed externally. This will minimize time in communal spaces like lobbies and hallways. All lodgings are high-quality with an emphasis on customer service.

WHEN TO GO: New Mexico is arguably at its very best in the winter season, when Bosque del Apache and other wetland sites are packed with birds. This is within the November-February period when the highest numbers of wintering birds are found in the region. However, New Mexico can be visited year round, although this itinerary is designed for a fall/winter visit. The itinerary would be modified for a spring/summer tour.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, chasing specialties. However, some of the sites we visit are excellent for birders with cameras. This is particularly true of Bosque del Apache and the feeders at Sandia Crest. Therefore, cameras are not only welcome, but encouraged on this birding tour.
Gear: Binoculars are essential and a camera is highly recommended too. Scopes will also be very useful if you wish to bring your own too. The guide will have a high quality spotting scope for group use, so it is not essential to have your own.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: For US citizens, there are no special travel requirements. For all foreign citizens, please check the ever-changing restrictions as a result of COVID-19. Tropical Birding cannot be responsible for changes in entrance policy or restriction levied by the US government. Citizens of Canada may enter the US with a valid passport, and do not need to obtain a visa. For citizens of the 38 countries on the visa waiver list (including the UK, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and Japan), you can enter the US with a valid passport and a completed Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), which can be applied for online. For all passports, the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Citizens of all other countries will need to apply for a US visa. Travel requirements are subject to change; please double check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff if you are unsure. Those who need to apply for an ESTA or Visa should do so long in advance of the tour, as these can take days weeks to be issued.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Accommodations from the night of day 1 through the night of day 8; meals from dinner on day 1 through to breakfast on day 9 (if you do not leave too early for that); all park fees to sites stated in the itinerary; one airport transfer per group at the start of the tour, and at end of the tour done as a group (times to be confirmed later by the office); Tropical Birding tour leader from the night of day 1 through to the morning of day 9; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from days 1 to 9 in a modern rental vehicle with the Tropical Birding tour leader as the driver; printed bird checklist to be distributed by the guide on night 1 of the tour (if you wish an electronic copy in advance of the tour, please email the office for this).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Any extra nights you wish to stay in the area; any flights; optional tips to the tour leader; tips to any baggage handlers if used anywhere; any passport or visa fees; excess baggage fees; snacks; any drinks other than drinkable water; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, internet, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.