September 26-31, 2020 ~ The last leg of our 3-week road trip through the Rocky Mountains included a stay in the tiny community of Embudo, New Mexico. To get there, we traveled from western Colorado, south through Durango and the sharp-edged San Juan mountains, a sub-range of the Rockies.
We found a bright red ground cover at high elevations on Grand Mesa, that we hadn’t seen before. I believe it is the Mountain Bearberry, Arctous alpina, a very low-growing high-altitude ground cover, which had just the right amount of frost in its tundra environment, at just the right moment in its life, to trigger this intense color.
Quaking Aspen trees, Populus tremuloidas, had turned gold at higher elevations. Aspen trees are interesting. They propagate more readily by root runners than seeds, which means that a whole mountainside of trees may actually be a single plant. Both their leaves and bark perform photosynthesis. And the stems of their trembling leaves swivel, easily shedding wind load and reducing the risk of breaking branches (as well as enhancing their shimmery gold appearance in the fall).
These Aspen along the Million Dollar Highway showed rare tinges of apricot, not often seen in the Rockies, again due to the perfect combination this fall of temperature, sunlight and water. The persistent haze in the normally crystal-clear air is smoke from the forest fires in California, some 800 miles to the west.
We left the chill mountain air behind us, and headed toward the desert plateaus and dry gulches of north-central New Mexico, where we had rented a home on the edge of the Rio Grande river. The home was built and decorated in the Pueblo style by an artist, whose sensitive touches were visible everywhere from the textiles and furnishings, to the original Impressionist paintings, to the lush courtyards and grounds. The willows and cottonwoods lining the river were full of birds.
Before even unpacking our suitcases, we stepped out into a spacious backyard alive with robins, crows, and a variety of warblers. This is the Townsend’s Warbler, Setophaga townsendi, which darted about in a stand of Altheas glowing with dappled afternoon light.
The Townsend’s Warblers were very interested in bugs that lived in the lush lawn.
This Black-capped Chickadee, Poecile atricapillus, obviously shares my fondness for sunflower seed heads. His solid black head and chin are his identifying marks. He is common in the northern half of the US and the southern half of Canada; it was fun to get reacquainted with this childhood friend!
Flitting in aerobatic loops and swirls out over the Rio Grande then back into the yard, the Yellow-rumped Warblers, Setophaga coronate, were feasting on bugs. This is the Audobon’s variety, which has the yellow chin, while the Myrtle (eastern US and Canada) has a white chin. They used the towering cottonwoods and poplars along the river as momentary resting spots. Down in Texas, we affectionately call them “Butterbutts”.
The next day, our hostess demonstrated the use of an acequia (pronounced “ah-SAY-key-ah”), one of the historic rock-lined water channels, some built as early as the 1700’s, that network across the New Mexican landscape. These channels guide water from higher elevations to the gardens and croplands of small towns and villages which might be miles from the river. Maintenance and management of the acequias is performed by the mayordomo, who she said walked the channels in this small community early every morning, checking that water was flowing where and when it should. For more information, check out this article, “The Politics of Water”, about the history of water control along the Rio Grande. Water is life, and as Will Rogers said, “The Rio Grande is the only river I ever saw that needed irrigation.”
When the acequia had flooded the lawn for its weekly watering, the warblers went crazy, hopping and swooping to catch bugs hovering over the lawn, chased up by the briefly rising water.
I was tickled to see the dappled sunlight reflecting from the water onto their bellies and the undersides of their wings. Of course, the reflections and harsh shadows are distracting from the bird’s form and markings, but since I’m shooting when the birds are available, I’m learning to appreciate the characteristics of shooting in full sun.
And what a treat this was! This is a male red-shafted Northern Flicker, Colaptes auratus. The “shafts” are the central vein in the wing and tail feathers. The red-shafted variety has his fiery red head marking on the malar (jawline) area, while the yellow-shafted variety has his red stripe along the back of his neck. While they will drill into tree bark after bugs like all woodpeckers, the Northern Flickers prefer to pick bugs from the ground and from rocky outcroppings.
And sure enough, I found the female red-shafted Northern Flicker pecking along the top of this very short wall that separated the lawn from the Rio Grande. She spotted me and started limping, and then began dragging her wing. Her pure white rump made sure I saw her along the shady wall.
She fell clumsily off the side of the wall, splashing noisily into the shallow water from the acequia that had flooded the lawn. Without any difficulty, she jumped up and clung to the side of the wall, checking on my reaction.
I was not taken in by her feigned injury. I kept clicking, so she hopped up and flew a few feet to the foot of the nearest cottonwood tree. From there, she easily flew the length of the yard, into the far cottonwoods. Maybe she was trying to entice me away from her nest or young… or perhaps she was just practicing her technique for next breeding season.
I finally got the focus dialed in on her head and tail for this shot – but, you can see that I clipped her right wing, so I had to crop her down a lot tighter than she should have been to make the shot look fairly balanced. Oh well. She did her darnedest to lure my attention, and she succeeded!
We left Embudo and took two days to drive across Texas to San Antonio. Our planned birding destination there was still essentially closed for Covid, so we tried the Crescent Bend Nature Park, a subdivision in the community of Schertz, TX, on the northeast edge of San Antonio which, after numerous disastrous floods, was razed and left to return to the wild. We found this fine Red-Shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus, who let me walk all the way around him before flying away. If you click to enlarge, and click again to magnify, you can see the tiny green seeds of some opportunistic plant hitching a ride in his feathers.
Our last hurrah was a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Tyrannus forficatus, showing vivid coloring along his flanks and tail. I waited for ages for him to fly… but not this time.
And that closes this series on our 3-week trip through the Rocky Mountains. We saw beautiful and varied scenery, animals and birds that were new to me, and, best of all, had a warm and loving visit with our family. It was the perfect vacation!