Amy Gross began bird watching five years ago when she was looking for a new hobby. “I had specific criteria,” she says. “It had to be outdoors, low impact, not [cost] a lot of money and be something I could enjoy right away, even if I wasn’t an expert.” She had been noticing the birds around her Eldorado home, where she and her husband had moved from Texas a few years previously. And suddenly it hit her: her new hobby was right in front of her eyes.
The coronavirus pandemic reportedly has triggered a spike in bird watching across the United States. As people began working, eating and playing at home, they looked out their windows and saw a world of avian activity they had never noticed before. Many realized in 2020 what Gross recognized in 2015: You don’t need much to start watching birds. What’s more, it’s an outdoor (or indoor if you prefer) activity virtually anyone can experience, even in winter.
The state of New Mexico hosts more than 540 species of birds throughout the year. In Northern New Mexico, some birds stick around all year; some summer species, such as warblers, tanagers, swallows and hummingbirds, migrate south to warmer latitudes, while others move in from colder places. The various elevations throughout the region create many different habitat types that favor different species. So, depending on where you look (or listen), you can find a variety of species.
“I see different species even in different parts of Eldorado,” Gross told me as we strolled around her neighborhood, masked and socially-distanced, on a cold November morning. “It really varies, even here.” All we needed for our walk were binoculars and some warm clothes. It is also handy to have a bird guide to help you identify what you see or hear — either one of the many birding books, such as the Audubon Bird Guide, or a digital app, such as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Merlin ID app. One benefit of using an app is that you can also hear what each bird sounds like: Much of birding comes down to hearing the bird, even if you don’t actually see it.
Gross has become an expert local birder and served as my guide for our morning walk. (I’m a transplant from the East Coast who studied birds at Cornell years ago, but I’m still learning New Mexico’s species.) She is founder of the MeetUp group Santa Fe Bird Brains. Before COVID-19 hit, her group would meet regularly and take field trips to regional birding hotspots, including Audubon’s Randall Davey Center and Sanctuary in Santa Fe, Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge and the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge near Socorro. There, thousands of stately Sandhill cranes and elegant Snow geese swarm the wetlands in the winter. It helps to tag along with experts giving guided bird walks at some of these locations, Gross advises, to learn species. Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, many guided walks have been suspended. But there’s still plenty to see on your own.
Back in Eldorado, Gross and I spotted more than a dozen species during our one-mile walk, including Pine siskins, Dark-eyed juncos, Northern flickers, House finches, Bushtits and Western scrub jays. Sitting on her portál near her birdfeeders, we also watched White-crowned sparrows, Mountain chickadee and Bewicks wren, among others.
“Juncos and White-crowned sparrows are the first sign of winter for me,” Amy Erickson, Avian Biologist for Audubon Southwest, told me. These birds arrive in the fall from Canada and Alaska and stick around until spring. “But there are a ton of year-round residents,” she says. She noted that at the Audubon’s Center in Santa Fe, observers recorded 133 species in July and 64 species in January of 2020.
Year-round species include at least three species of woodpeckers and nuthatches, Pinyon jays, Clark’s nutcrackers, Juniper titmouse, Spotted towhees, at least two species of owl, Coopers hawk and Wild turkey, according to Erickson. My husband and I also regularly see Western bluebirds, Canyon towhees and Curve-billed thrashers around our home.
Both Gross and Erickson encourage birders to set up feeders and water sources. (See winter feeding tips below.) And if you want to help scientists study birds, share your sightings with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology through their eBird app. This app lets you record your birds and send the results automatically to Cornell’s database, helping scientists document how bird numbers and ranges are shifting in response to human threats. A scientific study led by Cornell scientists in 2019 reported that birds in North America have declined by 29 percent since 1970. So if you want these lively creatures to keep brightening your winter days, become part of the solution by helping birds and the scientists who study them.
Winter Feeding Tips
- Birds go where there is food — where they’ve seen it before or expect it. Feeding birds is a commitment.
- Set up several kinds of feeders to attract different species.
- Suet (food containing animal fat) is particularly important in the wintertime when birds need high-fat, high-protein food.
- Black sunflower seeds mixed with a little millet also attract a wide variety of species. The millet falls to the ground where species like juncos feed.
- Thistle seeds draw Lesser goldfinches, House finches and Pine siskins.
- Because birdbaths can freeze over, try filling a shallow planter tray with water each morning (and scrubbing it between fillings).
- Overcrowding at feeders can spread avian diseases, so keep feeders and water sources clean. Wash out feeders with a mixture of water and ten percent bleach every couple of weeks.
Where to Buy Birdseed & Supplies Locally
Eldorado Country Pet & Wild Bird
7 Avenida Vista Grande, Suite B5
Wild Birds Unlimited Nature Shop
518-B Cordova Road
The Critters & Me
1403 Agua Fria Street
The Feed Bin
1202 W Alameda Street