Saturday, January 10, 2015

Close Encounters of the Bird Kind

When we think of the word "ALIEN", our minds often go to outer space.  If you live close to an international border,  you might think of someone who is NOT from your own country.  Today's adventure takes us into the heart of a snow storm, the search for a very welcome alien, and a trip to Roswell, New Mexico.  But we weren't searching for UFO's. 

It began as we headed on I-10 towards New Mexico.  My final days of vacation were to be spent searching for a very rare bird to North America. Some might call this bird an illegal alien.  But most birders think otherwise:)  I didn't want to go back to work wondering "What if...."

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge
As we moved closer to the New Mexican border, we began to see a very snowy and cold weather pattern building.  And so it began.  Severe snow showers! At times, we were in white out conditions.   How would this impact our trek??!!  Should we turn back?  

Western Meadowlark
But I began to see images like the ones above.  Birds in snow. I became curious and watched the heightened bird activity throughout the state along our route.  It was a very rare opportunity to see New Mexico covered in a blanket of snow.  And it was an opportunity to do a rare photo shoot with SNOW! 

The aftermath.....a frozen tundra!
Our trek would lead us into the Chihuahuan desert, up into forests and then back down into the hilly grasslands. As the skies began to darken, we pushed further into the storm before absolute darkness took over.  We had two excellent windows for observing this rare bird and one of them would be closing for us in a matter of hours!

Known as the Common Crane in Europe and other parts of the world, this crane isn't so common here in North America.  Cranes, during the day, will fly out into the agricultural fields and feed.  At night, the birds return to their wetlands to roost.  Early morning, they warm up and take off.  Those opportunities are what birders call "windows".  I didn't feel like chasing cranes all over the farmer's fields due to the bad road conditions.  Ice had begun to form.   

We arrived into Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge just in time.  The snow was now falling quite a bit.  We had our gear as we hiked to a spot where we could count the hundreds of Sandhill Cranes flying over our heads.  It wasn't long before we spotted our target bird, but darkness had settled in.....and so had the cranes.  We marked their location and where the Common Crane landed so that we could get some photos in the morning. By this time, the roads had become slick and dangerous.   

On the way back, we spotted deer and elk along the sides of the country roads.  We drove slowly to our bed and breakfast on the back roads careful not to make any sudden moves allowing ourselves enough breaking room.     

In the darkness, I could make out Western Meadowlarks hunkering down for the night.  This bird was very common around the fields here and it was a bird I wanted to study more.  We have both Eastern and Western Meadowlarks in southern Arizona, but they seem to be trickier to capture on camera.  Every time I've gone to New Mexico, they seem to pose for me.  

But this Common Crane.  It was our target bird.  A couple years ago, I studied cranes and took plenty of notes on them during a summer trip to Wisconsin.  My focus, at the time, was our state's very special crane known as the Whooping Crane.  While we were there, we attended several lectures about the various crane populations around the world.  The Common Crane, unlike many others, has a stable and very large population back in Europe, Asia and other parts.                                                                                                                                                            
Common Crane
It's rather distinct when compared to our Sandhill Cranes here.   The bird is larger.  It has a black crown and neck.  There is a white patch behind the eye with a yellowish bill.  The very top of the head on this crane is red and featherless. 

I've placed a pic of the common Sandhill Crane below for comparison. 

Sandhill Cranes
There is no denying the voice of a crane.  It's loud and can be heard in the far distance as they fly from one area to the next.  In the evening, we scanned the skies and counted over 2000 Sandhill Cranes!  And we found one Common Crane in the bunch.  In the morning, we knew we had to go back and relocate for an ID pic.  Anytime a rare bird is observed, it is best to get a picture for not only credibility but for evidence as well.  When ebirding a rare bird, it's important to include as much information as you can like......what you observe, what time, where, pics, etc etc....

So I am including real time photos of what we saw.  With my binoculars, I could see everything.  As you can see with this camera pic, it's a lot more difficult using a camera.  We stood in the cold.  Micheal kept the data as I relayed to him the information from my bins.  He'd punch in the numbers and I'd count the cranes flying over.  This allowed me to focus on what direction the cranes were flying and where they were landing.  Bitter Lake National Wildlife refuge was a new area for us and it was important we didn't waste time in the morning searching for the birds before they took off. 

Start counting and look for Waldo!  I mean...the Common Crane:)
We returned in the morning to the 2500 cranes.  They are noisy birds so it was easy to get into an area to view them.  The problem with this particular target bird was distance.  Scopes are great but I don't own one.  However with binoculars, I was able to spot the bird.  If I had used only a camera, I wouldn't have been able to spot the bird. 

Where might the Common Crane be?  Can you find the bird?
When I began birding, this type of mission would have been impossible for me.  Experience and practice have been wonderful teachers.  I used to dread these challenges but today I look forward to them.  I've also learned better to enjoy these crazy places and look beyond the birds.  Roswell wasn't what I thought it would be.  Sure it has its cheesy museums and restaurants, but it's also more than that.  

So part of our experience explored the cheesy tourist fun while the other led us into the amazing landscape vistas around this fantastic New Mexican locale.  

Note:  Bald Eagle above my head
When I first began birding, I hated the idea of exploring New Mexico because I "thought" it was a boring state.  After several years of visiting this state, I have fallen in love with this secret gem of America.  The food, the people, the landscape, the culture, and the wildlife seem to be mostly untouched by the outside world.  When compared to the crazy urban development of California, New Mexico is still wild and open. The Wild West is still alive here and I hope it stays that way for a very long time.  

My Senior Graduation Picture
Perhaps the greatest question behind discovering this bird was, "How on Earth did this crane get all the way over here to the US?" A common opinion is that this crane got mixed up in the northern migration route with the Sandhill Cranes.  Every bird has a story.  And in a way, I suppose it's a similar story to the Roswell Aliens who landed here many years ago. Supposedly, they also took a wrong turn:)  Either way, I now can say I've seen an alien(or two) in Roswell, New Mexico.


  1. Hello Chris, I enjoyed this Roswell alien story and the beautiful Common Crane.. I did find it among the group, an easy way was to look for that white patch near the eyes..Thanks to your info and description..

    I have been to the Bitter Lake refuge, it was a nice spot to see the Sandhill Cranes..Happy Birding, have a great weekend!

  2. I simply love to read your adventures and look at your awesome pictures especially birds that I'll probably never see.
    The meadowlarks are putting such a show!

  3. Wonderful sightings- you really go above and beyond to get the counts. I would have been frozen by lunchtime and whining for a hot meal. We haven't visited Roswell yet..tempted a couple of times, but the lure of the mountains always points us northerly. I love your meadowlark photos- such a pretty little bird.

  4. You do have some interesting adventures, Chris, and share them in a wonderful way!

  5. There are some nice photos in this post. I especially like the pony and the bending trees. Sandhills have been showing up here and there on the Atlantic coast in recent years, usually tagging along with Canada geese.

  6. What an enjoyable post. The Aliens were fun. - So happy you spotted that Crane and those little yellow birds were darling.

  7. Surprise, snow, but still a successful trip and interesting photos. Regards.

  8. I have always found Cranes to be an odd lot so aliens they may be.
    I love the elk shot!

  9. Hello Chris!:) Thank you for your visits. A wonderful read about your Roswell trip, and I'm glad the unexspected snowfall didn't deter you from your goal. You had a difficult job to count allthose heads.I have never seen so many Cranes in one place before.

    Great snow shots of the Common Crane and Western Meadowlark Chris, and I hope you have a successful birding year with many more alien sightings.

    Warm Regards.

  10. Great post Chris - can't believe you've been to Roswell - so envious :) Years ago I used to read a lot of UFO and unexplained mysteries type books and Roswell has always stood out!

    Superb photos - and well done on the Crane. Lovely to see some snowy photos too :)

  11. laughing at your graduation photo. :) i thought you escaped snow when you left wisconsin! :)

  12. Great trip and you got to see the bird you were looking for.

  13. Wonderful creative post, Chris! Just loved it. The snow was gorgeous to see, and I loved the photos of the meadowlarks and the cranes. You were brave, getting on those icy roads to complete your mission! Loved the other "aliens"...Roswell is quite a place! :-)

  14. What an adventure, seeking the cranes in the cold. How amazing to see so many and different ones. The closeup head of the crane is amazing, its beak looks rather worn and it looks very carnivorous with it's beak like a sword. It's interesting to find out the difference between the cranes as well, I think the Sandhill cranes came through here but I didn't manage to go see them.

  15. Snow huh? I see birds in snow four months of the year!


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