Call of The Gambeler

A Gambel's quail calls out at sunrise at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

My alarm clock rang at 4:00am and I was on the road a half hour later, heading south out of Albuquerque and towards Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, best known for the spectacular fly-ins and fly-outs of snow geese and sandhill cranes during the winter months. It was late spring and those birds were long gone, but it was my first visit to New Mexico and I wanted to at least get a feel for the refuge. Even if it wasn’t the prime time to visit, I hoped for a few surprises.

The dark sky lightened as the minutes and miles passed, with the sun threatening to rise as I pulled into the parking lot of the Visitor’s Center. There were no other cars in the lot and I knew the center would be closed, but I hoped to find some trail maps and refuge information. When I opened the car door, I was greeted by a primal call coming from up the hill. Another call came, and then another. I didn’t recognize the call, so I grabbed the camera with the big telephoto lens attached and headed up the steps and towards the calls.

I moved slowly but anxiously until I saw a wooden pole with signs pointing in various directions. In the dim light I could see its top was crowned with a carved bird in the shape of a quail. I was a little disappointed when I guessed the calls were just a recording and no more real than the carving, something to give visitors a taste of the birds of the refuge. I decided to return to the car and head out onto the refuge proper. Before I could take a step the supposedly carved quail raised its head and gave a loud call.

I continued into the little desert arboretum as other quail were calling around me. It was a delightful little moment, to go from not sure if I’d see much of anything that day to being surrounded and serenaded by these birds on their high perches. The sun peeked above the horizon and I found this male in a nice location and angle to the sun, and only had to wait for the sun’s rays to reach him and for him to make his call.

I didn’t have to wait long.

A later look at my bird book showed them to be Gambel’s quail, a species I had never seen before. But names didn’t matter for now. I stood alone and watched and listened, mesmerized by my welcome to Bosque.

Our Most Beautiful Protector

A male Williamson's sapsucker drills into a tree at the trailhead of the Cerro Grande Trail in Bandelier National Monument in Los Alamos, New Mexico in May 2007. Original: _MG_7695.cr2

On our first trip to New Mexico, my wife and I spent our first day at Bandelier National Monument. Most of the day we wandered about the cliff dwellings built by the ancestral Pueblo, even putting aside our fear of heights to climb the wooden ladders to a kiva high in the cliffs.

We still had enough time at the end of the day to wander up to the western edge of the park and do a little hiking on the Cerro Grande trail. At the trailhead parking lot, this sapsucker flew up into a tree right next to the wooden fence. The tree was obviously a favorite as it had drilled a bunch of irregular holes on this side of the tree and a regular patchwork of squares on the other side.

It was my first time to ever see this sapsucker, a beautiful little jewel, and I was thrilled to be only a few feet away and watch it work the tree for sap. While we were watching, we heard a loud crashing sound a short ways away in the forest. As we looked up, a tree came crashing down across the trail ahead of us, unusual given the lack of wind. If we hadn’t stopped to watch the sapsucker we might have been on the trail when the tree came down, so this little bird became not only one of my favorite wildlife encounters from the trip but perhaps our most beautiful protector.

Red-spotted Breakfast

An American bittern eats a red-spotted garter snake at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge

Red-spotted snakes are almost too beautiful for words. They are not too beautiful for breakfast, apparently, at least not if you’re a hungry bittern. I came across this bittern after it had captured a red-spotted garter snake early one morning. It killed the snake by applying pressure with its beak, often to the snake’s head. The snake was already bleeding a little bit and not putting up much of a fight.

While it adjusted the snake’s position in its beak from time to time, it never let the head get too far from its beak so the snake couldn’t swing up and bite any soft tissue. It took a while for the snake to die, this shot is from right at the end of the snake’s life, it went limp after this final crushing of its head. The bittern made sure the snake was dead before swallowing it by thrashing it around.

Probably a good idea when your breakfast can bite you back.

Scout Hates Pelicans

A brown pelican flies over the Pacific Ocean at Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area in Newport, Oregon

I was editing some pictures of brown pelicans that I took on the Oregon coast last fall when Scout jumped onto my desk. Nothing unusual there, but then she took a great deal of interest in what was on my computer screen, which was showing an adult pelican soaring through the air. Before I realized what was going on, she took a swipe at the bird.

Bad Scout! Bad Scout!

My old CRT had a big scratch in it thanks to my little kitten and I didn’t want the same with my LCD. Fortunately she kept her claws retracted and no damage was done. She was eyeing the pelicans later in the day but made no further attempts to attack the digital birds.

Remind me never to take Scout to the coast.

Templeton goes to the vet tomorrow, he’s been sleeping all the time and not eating and drinking as much as he used to. I wasn’t too concerned when we first brought him home but he should have bounced back by now. He doesn’t seem to be in any pain and is as sweet and loving as usual, but he’s lost weight and just sleeps constantly.