Hints and Hot Spots for New Mexican Birds
February 6, 2023
A review by Meg Scherch Peterson
New Mexico Bird Finding Guide, 4th edition, edited by William H. Howe
New Mexico Ornithological Society, 2022
414 pages, paperback
I have had spectacular fails birding in New Mexico. They have often resulted because I simply couldn’t find where the bird was supposed to be. The remoteness of many parts of the state, the inadequacy of various maps, and my predilection to figure out things along the way have all contributed to this bad luck. So, I was thrilled to receive the latest New Mexico Bird Finding Guide published by the New Mexico Ornithological Society and edited by William H. Howe.
This fourth edition is dedicated to the memory of Dale and Marian Zimmerman, editors of the first two editions and pioneers of expanding our knowledge of New Mexico birds. Dale’s illustrations grace the pages of the guide.
To bird New Mexico is to be ready for surprises—of species, of terrain, and of weather. The state’s huge diversity of physiographic regions (from playa lakes to tundra lakes, from sagebrush flats to riparian corridors, and from the Chihuahua Desert to the Rocky Mountains) results in a high diversity of birds.
According to the guide, there are 549 bird species within New Mexico, making it the fourth most diverse state in the U.S. The painstakingly precise maps and directions throughout the guide will increase your probability of seeing these species. There’s cautious advice (“Stream crossings should not be entered during flash floods”) and helpful tips (“A two-track dirt road leads under the interstate”).
This guide organizes species by region and county, and the chapter authors are recognized experts. An annotated checklist neatly summarizes the status of New Mexico’s birds, as well as their occurrence and distribution within the state. The index is particularly handy, with birder-friendly entries such as “night birding.”
You’ll learn about Roosevelt County’s Melrose Trap (“No spot regularly produces a greater variety of migrant landbirds”) and where you can find the best montane birding (hint: in Taos County). Along the reservoirs that impound the waters of the Rio Grande and the Pecos River, you may find flocks of Ring-billed, Herring, and Bonaparte’s gulls, and even the occasional Laughing, Glaucous, and Short-billed gulls along with Black-legged Kittiwakes. Wintering Red-necked Grebes turn up, as do a variety of terns, shorebirds, and loons.
On a recent trip to Rattlesnake Springs, another state hot spot and a part of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, I met birders from across the country who’d come for a glimpse of a Blue Mockingbird. According to this guide, Cave Swallows are regulars, and Groove-billed Anis, Great Kiskadees, and Yellow-green Vireos have made an appearance there. Gray Hawks have summered nearby.
The guide rightly contends that for in-state and out-of-state birders alike, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is the most famous birding site in New Mexico. Tens of thousands of wintering Snow and Ross’s geese and Sandhill Cranes have been the focus of countless feature stories, nature documentaries, and segments on Sunday morning television shows. The place abounds with raptors.
The guide includes helpful maps of the refuge and of the surrounding areas, including sites in the San Mateo and Magdalena Mountains. My personal favorite near the refuge is the location of a water tank east of the old El Camino Real town of San Antonio, one of those spots I’d been unable to find in the past.
What becomes clear in using this guide is that from any point in the state you can easily access nearby natural areas. A short drive from Albuquerque, for instance, will land you in the Sandia Mountains, where in winter you can check out all three species of rosy finches and in summer enjoy Western and Hepatic tanagers; Orange-crowned, Virginia’s, and Black-throated Gray warblers; and Flammulated Owls.
Urban birding is particularly rich. A stroll through Albuquerque’s open space areas may yield a wide variety of breeding species, including Lucy’s Warblers, Blue and Black-headed grosbeaks, Bullock’s Orioles, and the ever-present Greater Roadrunner and Gambel’s Quail. This past summer, a Purple Gallinule visited a large mud puddle along the Rio Grande about four miles from downtown.
The guide summarizes the more popular locations within Albuquerque as well as in the second most populous city, Las Cruces, near the border with Mexico. West from there, in the “bootheel,” are the Sky Islands—isolated mountain ranges in southwestern New Mexico, southeastern Arizona, and northern Mexico.
Be aware that this region is particularly remote and wild; the area’s Animas Mountains are completely inaccessible. This guide steers you through the Peloncillo Mountains along Geronimo Trail, then up and over the summit to Chihuahua Pines. Species you may encounter along the route include Whiskered Screech-Owls; Broad-billed, Violet-crowned, and Lucifer hummingbirds; Northern Beardless-Tyrannulets; Thick-billed Kingbirds; and Botteri’s Sparrows.
Whether you’re an experienced or casual birder, this book will be a helpful companion on your New Mexico birding adventure. And while I love surprises, I won’t be venturing again into any region without it.
From her home along the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico, Meg Scherch Peterson writes about wildlife and environmental issues. She writes a bird column for the local newspaper and, if you’re exceptionally good-natured, will happily take you birding to her favorite haunts. Her feature stories and interviews are on her website, megscherchpeterson.com.