Nutria Canyon Hike and the Ice Cave

Recently my friend Dia and I spent a whole day exploring the area around El Morro near Grants, NM.  Our main destination was to find Nutria Canyon.   I’ve heard very little about this hike and there is minimal information online.  But there was this one tantalizing photo online that drew me back again and again during the winter months.  I knew I just had to find this place during the summer when my friend could join me.  It’s about 3 hours away from where I live, so I didn’t want to venture out on my own.

We started out early with hopes of getting to the canyon by around 9.  Sadly there was a lot of road construction that slowed us down.  Then, when we were in the general area, we just didn’t know where to go.  Luckily I saw this one dirt road that said Nutria Lake.  It was 25 miles sooner on the highway than my online directions were saying.   Thankfully, just as we turned onto the road a local came driving by.  They were very helpful and told us we were definitely in the right place.

Since the lake was just a little side trip off the road, we headed over to see it.  It was a pretty place with a few ducks enjoying the water.  We got out to enjoy the view and let Scarlett have a bathroom break.

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Nutria Lake

Wouldn’t you know it, as soon as Scarlett started doing her “business” a pack of reservation dogs came out of nowhere heading straight for us.  Dia and I were calling Scarlett to HURRY! HURRY! get in the car.  But she just couldn’t finish her “business” quickly enough.  We were panicking by this time.  Dia ran to drag Scarlett to the car if need be, and I was opening the doors and grabbing the gun! Thankfully Scarlett hurried up and jumped in the car along with us in the nick of time! Whew! Needless to say, we left the lake and headed to our original destination.

The valley we were driving into was very lush.  We saw lots of happy horses and other livestock.  And there were prairie dogs EVERYWHERE!!!

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As we neared the trail head, we came upon a marshy area where Nutria Creek spills out of the canyon.  Just gorgeous!

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Marsh area near the trail head

Dia had just gotten a new tattoo on her entire back.  So she wasn’t able to carry a pack.  I told her I would carry everything in my pack (I’d do anything to go see this canyon!).  So when we arrived at the trail head, she started loading up my pack.  Wow! Heavy!

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That pack had to weigh 40 pounds!

I told her she had to at least carry the gun.  She gladly accepted that task!

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Dia packing heat!

The trail headed into the narrowing canyon with lush green trees and bushes.  It definitely beckoned us to head inside.

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Entrance to trail – so green!

Almost as soon as we started the trail, there was water.  Scarlett immediately dove in!

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Scarlett in her happy place!

Thankfully enough people have been on this trail that they have constructed makeshift boardwalks out of old pallets and scrap lumber.  They were rickety but effective to walk over the mud.

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We started climbing up above the creek and into a lush forest of oaks.  There were Yellow Warblers everywhere!  I didn’t bring my birding lens, so no bird pics this trip.  But so much birdsong in the canopy made me regret my decision to leave that lens at home.

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Kelly on the very lush trail.

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It was nice and cool in the shade

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We eventually met up with the creek again.  Then we turned a corner in the canyon and it opened up to a stunning view.  Beautiful steep red canyon walls and gorgeous green foliage.  We were getting close to where I saw that tantalizing photo so many months ago.

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Dia enjoying the view on this perfect seat.

Then there it was! A picturesque pond in this hidden canyon.  Stunning!  I was so wishing we had found the trail much sooner.  By this time it was noon and not the best conditions for photography.  But I did my best to capture some images that did the view justice.

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Gorgeous!

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I loved the reflections in the pond.

I just had to have a photo of me and Scarlett in this beautiful spot.

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My sweet Miss Scarlett

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Scarlett and Kelly

The day was warming up quickly.  Scarlett was tempted to jump down into that pond.  We kept having to tell her no.

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It was sooooo tempting to jump in…

Eventually we made it around and down to that pond and she was a happy girl!

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Such a peaceful place

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Scarlett loved the ponds.  Cool and refreshing water to play in.

We hung around here for a while as the trail just became too congested with brush to continue on.  I had hoped to explore further but this is just not a well known place.  So there isn’t enough foot traffic to keep the trail open.

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Untouched beauty

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Scarlett kept on eye on me as I navigated the big boulders

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Beautiful

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Dia and Kelly

Eventually we headed back to the car.  We still had quite a bit of daylight left to the day.  So we decided to visit the Ice Cave.  I had never been, and Dia said it had been a long while since she had been there.

On the way out, we decided to stop at a few of the abandoned homes in the valley.  They are interesting to explore.  Just a plethora of things to photograph!

 

We had lunch at the Ancient Way Cafe.  It’s a tiny little place, but the food is good and the desserts were outstanding! They have quite a baker working there.

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Our sandwich was shaped just like a Bigfoot footprint!

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Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm!!!!!

The visitor’s center at the ice cave was very interesting.  It’s amazing what they found down in that hole.  Centuries of history perfectly preserved.  I highly recommend you take the time to look around at all the treasures jammed into this small building.

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Look at those giant perfectly whole Indian pots!

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Fascinating!

The Ice Cave offers two hikes.  One up to the Bandera Volcano and one down to the ice cave. We hiked the volcano first since we knew we would cool off at the ice cave. 🙂

It was a short and relatively uninteresting hike.

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Bandera Volcano

At the top of the trail, Dia collapsed due to lack of a Starbuck’s for hours.  I told her to hang in there.  We will get her one soon.

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Where’s Starbucks????????? she wailed

The Ice Cave was much more interesting.  The trail to the cave takes you through the basalt fields left by the volcano.  It makes you wonder how anyone found that ice cave so long ago.  It had to have been quite the challenge to navigate through that jagged sharp basalt.

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Basalt field

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A blooming cactus brought beauty to the stark view.

The area was called The Devil’s Playground by early settlers.  It’s easy to see why.  While hiking to the cave we came across this unique dead juniper.  I took a picture of Dia there being her naughty self.  She then took my photo and edited it to fit the area’s nickname.  🙂

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Dia being evil…

At the cave you climb down a steep set of stairs.

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Kelly and Scarlett ready to descend

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Steep stairs

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There it is deep below the surface.

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As you descended you could really feel the temperature dropping.  It was quite refreshing after a hot climb up the volcano.

I didn’t let Scarlett go all the way to the bottom.  You could see what she thought about that…..

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The inside of the cave was beautiful.  I tried to capture the colors in the cave by setting my camera to a slow shutter speed.  Just beautiful.

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The colors in the rock ceiling were so beautiful.

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The ice had a green cast to it.  It made for a lovely contrast with all the colors in the rock formation.

Too soon we were heading home.  On the way out we saw a few Mule Deer.  One was more curious than the others and had a beautiful shaggy coat.

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Mule Deer

When we got to Grants, Dia had to have her Starbucks.  But she almost had a big tantrum when she realized there wasn’t a Starbucks there.  It was hilarious!

The drive home was long due to yet more road construction.  But the day’s adventures had been fabulous (even with the lack of Starbuck’s at the end).  🙂

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65 miles to go until home….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Birding from Melrose Trap to San Angelo, TX

I recently took a trip to the Gulf Coast town of Port Aransas, Texas, to spend a week at the beach with my folks.  I drove a route that would take me past one of the best birding spots in New Mexico for sheltering spring and fall migrants.  This place is called Melrose Trap near Fort Sumner, New Mexico.  The reason it’s so good is because it’s one of the few places in that vast flat area that has a large patch of trees that has been left wild for many many years and there’s not much human presence for miles.  The undergrowth is so thick, it’s difficult to navigate your way around this small forest.  But because of this, the migratory birds absolutely love it.  It is well known for harboring rare sightings during migration due to storms that can send a bird off its normal migration course.

I had noticed on eBird that recently two rare sighting warblers were seen at Melrose Trap:  Swainson’s Warbler and Worm-Eating Warbler.  The Swainson’s normal territory is in the coastal states from Texas to Florida.  The Worm-Eating Warbler has a larger territory but most usually seen from Texas east.

Before getting to Melrose Trap, I stopped in at Fort Sumner and visited Bosque Redondo Park.  It has a little stream-fed pond and is usually a good birding spot.  It was a nice stop for Scarlett and I to stretch our legs after a couple hours of driving. During this visit, I saw the usual Red-Winged Blackbird showing off their striking plumage.

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Red-Winged Blackbird

I saw quite few birds, but nothing was being very cooperative for photos until I spotted a Gray Catbird.  I had only seen this bird once before briefly while visiting my friend Kelly in Atlanta.  So it was wonderful to not only see this bird more closely though briefly, but hear his unusual song.

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Gray Catbird

While driving back to the highway, I saw this cute foal with it’s mother, who had the most glossy coat I think I’ve ever seen on a horse.  Adorable!

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Upon arriving at Melrose Trap, I noticed a couple of fellow birders there from Albuquerque.  We quickly joined forces to hunt for these warblers.  While looking for these birds in the thick vegetation, I enjoyed photographing a few of the more regular sightings for the area.

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Northern Mockingbird

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Western-Wood Pewee

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Western Kingbird

One of the highlights of the day was seeing a pair of American Kestrals nesting in the area.  I happened to catch one of the birds holding breakfast for their babies.

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American Kestral

Soon I heard someone call “Wormer!”  I quickly headed in that direction hoping to see that warbler.  But I missed it.  In the process I gave myself a 6-inch gash along the back of my thigh trying to navigate quickly through the thick mess of broken limbs and undergrowth that litter the floor of this grove.  Ouch!!!  Note to self:  wear long pants next time!

While I was trying not to scream or dance around like an idiot due to the sharp pain of my new wound, I looked down and saw the Swainson’s Warbler foraging on the ground.  As I was taking a photo, I alerted the others of my sighting.  It stayed deep in the shadow but fortunately moved slowly enough that we all got a nice look at the bird.  Lifer!!

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Swainson’s Warbler

Soon after that I saw a blackbird in bush in the distance.  As I took a picture I saw it’s red eye gleam in the rare shaft of sunlight coming through the thick canopy.  Another lifer for me!  A Bronzed Cowbird.  I was lucky enough to get one crappy photo before he disappeared never to be seen again.

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Bronzed Cowbird

I needed to hit the road as I still had hours of driving ahead of the me to get to San Angelo.  Just as I was about to leave, another sighting of the Worm-Eating Warbler was called out.  This time I managed to get over to the area without further injuring myself (whew!) and managed to get a couple photos of this bird way up high in the canopy.  As is usual with warblers, this guy was moving fast!  So even though my photos weren’t very good, I was still thrilled to capture an image of this lifer bird.

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Worm-Eating Warbler

I hated to leave this great birding spot, but knew I must.  As I was getting into my car, I noticed a thrush foraging on the ground not too far away.  When I zoomed in with my camera, I saw it was a Swainson’s Thrush.  Lifer!!! I wasn’t expecting to see this bird, so it was a nice surprise.  Four lifers in 30 minutes!!!  🙂

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Swainson’s Thrush

Upon reviewing my photos when I got in my car, I noticed I was still having issues trying to get a good focus with my new camera.  I was struggling with focusing on a fast-moving bird among leaves, limbs and grasses.  I needed to get this camera figured out!

My next stop was outside Clovis, New Mexico, at a large, beautiful park called Ned Houk Memorial Park.  It has 3 ponds and lots of trees with manicured lawns.  Scarlett enjoyed running and stretching her legs.  We were practically the only ones there that morning.

We were greeted by a Western Meadowlark hopping across the parking lot.  I always have a hard time getting them to show me their beautiful bright yellow breast feathers.  As usual, this bird only showed me his plain back.

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Western Meadowlark

I noticed a large number of Barn Swallows nesting in the area around the shelters over picnic tables.  I managed to get a photo of one with a mouthful of mud for its nest.  🙂

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Barn Swallow

There was one nest that was just low enough that I could hold my phone over my head to get a photo of the inside of the nest.  They had lined their nest with some soft, white duck feathers.  🙂

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Barn Swallow eggs

I knew from a previous visit that Great Horned Owls nested in a large cottonwood in this park.  I figured I was too late to see any babies, but thought I would check the location just in case.  I was rewarded with seeing an adult snoozing in the tree.  He kept a sharp eye on Scarlett.

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Great Horned Owl

My next stop was at Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge.  I had never stopped in here before so I thought I would take the quick detour to see what it was like.  It has several lakes (more like ponds…), but seemed like one lake in particular was popular on eBird.  I saw lots of prairie dogs and one burrowing owl way off in the distance.

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Baby prairie dog – so cute!

Among the short grasses and flowers, I spotted a large flock of Lark Buntings.  I never can seem to get a good photo of these birds.  This is the best I got on this day.

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Lark Bunting male

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Lark Bunting female

When I got to the lake, I noticed a busload of kids had just unloaded.  With all their noise, I figured any birds in the area had moved on.  The only bird I spotted was this Lark Sparrow.

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Lark Sparrow

I didn’t stay long and headed back to the highway.  Just as I was about to turn onto the highway,  I saw several variety of sparrows in the area.  I was thrilled to get this good photo of a Grasshopper Sparrow.  I had seen this bird once before, and the distance was too great for a decent pic.

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Grasshopper Sparrow

My next stop was at Big Spring.  I’ve never stopped here before, so decided to walk around the lake so Scarlett could do her business and stretch her legs.  I’m so glad I stopped in.  It was a beautiful afternoon and the birds were active.  I got a mockingbird holding a worm to take back to the nest.

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Northern Mockingbird

Here are a couple other birds I saw there.

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Muscovy Ducks

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House Sparrow

As I was heading back to the car, I noticed some birds I thought at first were Barn Swallows but they sounded different.  Upon closer inspection, I realized they were Purple Martin babies.  Lifer!!!  I looked for a parent bird, but none showed up while I waited.  But the babies were adorable waiting for their dinner to arrive.

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Purple Martin juvenile

It was dark by the time I made it to San Angelo.  I woke up early to spend some time birding there before I had to hit the road again.  I visited beautiful Spring Creek Park.  It was a lovely morning and birds were EVERYWHERE!!!

My first sighting was of two young Great Horned Owls.  They will soon be in the more adult plumage.

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Great Horned Owl juvenile

I heard a flycatcher nearby.  It looked like an Ash-Throated Flycather, but sounded nothing like one.  After searching my bird app, I realized it was a lifer for me – a Great Crested Flycather.

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A starling was busy feeding its greedy baby.

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European Starling

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European Starling

Across the lake I noticed a huge rookery.  It had all kinds of egrets noisily nesting.  I enjoyed sitting for awhile watching all the activity.

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Rookery with a posturing Great Egret

A spotted a pair of Golden-Fronted Woodpeckers bringing in breakfast for their young.

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Golden-Fronted Woodpeckers

Before leaving, my last sighting was of this Great Blue Heron catching a nice breakfast.

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Great Blue Heron

I was happy to note that I was doing much better with the focus of my new camera.  I figured by the end of 10 straight days of birding, I would be an expert! LOL!

Next post:   Port Aransas, Texas.  So many lifers!!!!  Stay tuned!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Birding With My New Camera!

For the past few years I was using a Nikon 1 V3 mirrorless camera for all of my birding photos.  While I loved that camera when I had plenty of light, I was always let down with any photos I took that were in low-light conditions.  The sensor in the camera just couldn’t handle low light, high ISO conditions.

So recentlly I purchased a new camera.  An Olympus OMD EM1 Mark ii (could they have come up with any longer of a name??!!).  This new camera is a micro 4/3 camera.  It has a better sensor for low light and it has much better in-camera stabilization.  I got a birding lens to go with it that has a reach of 800mm.

Of course, I just had to take it out right away to see how it performed birding.   So I planned a whole day of birding in different locations and light conditions.  When I shot with my Nikon, I mostly used shutter priority.  So that’s what I set the new camera to.  I was less than pleased with the first photos I took that day.

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Western Meadowlark

I headed over to Owlville in Los Lunas.  I had heard there were lots of Burrowing Owls nesting there this year.  I wasn’t disappointed either – I saw lots of owls.  They are located right next to the road, so you can get pretty close sitting in your car.  I played with the settings in my camera and my results were better.  It was a lot of fun watching these little owls.  It was early in the morning and the owls were very sleepy still.

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Burrowing Owl snoozing in the morning sun

They seemed to be having a hard time waking up.  🙂

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Big yawn!

I just never seem to be able to get enough owl photos to satisfy me.  They just make me smile.

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Love this expression.

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This one was a little more alert than the others.

Then I saw one on a bush.  I think this made for wonderful photos.  I really like the bokeh with my new setup.

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I’m impressed with the details in the feathers with this new setup. 

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Burrowing Owl

I then headed to Belen to the Taco Bell marsh.  When you shoot there, you are looking toward the sun – always a challenge to get good photos in those conditions.  I was pretty pleased with how the camera performed though still disappointed in the end results.  I just couldn’t figure out how to set this camera.  It has a very complicated menu system that is not intuitive.

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Killdeer

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Black-Necked Stilt

As I was leaving the marsh, I saw someone had created a track that goes to the other side of the marsh.  Seeing as I own a Jeep Wrangler, I was pretty confident I could drive on this sandy track and be ok.  I knew if I got to the other side, the sun would be behind me making more perfect conditions for photos.  And I wasn’t disappointed!  I saw this Cinnamon Teal right away.  Beautiful!

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Cinnamon Teal

I then saw this Morning Dove fly in looking for nesting materials.

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Mourning Dove

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Getting some nesting material. 

I then headed to a rookery I had recently heard about (thanks to my friend Joe!).  Here the lighting was low due to all the shade trees.

As soon as I got there, I saw a Cattle Egret in the tree right above me trying to get just the right stick for its nest.  I was amazed at how well this bird balanced itself on that skinny limb.

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Cattle Egret

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It took some skill to walk on that limb.

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Of course it wanted the stick on the very end LOL!

While photographing this egret, the owner of the home came out.  We visited for a while, and then he invited me into the yard to get a closer look.  Wow!  He was very kind and you could tell he enjoyed having the annual visitors.

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Black-Crowned Night Heron

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Snowy Egret

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The owner leaves some of the fallen sticks on the ground for the birds to use.  This Cattle Egret was taking advantage of this bounty. 

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This is just one small view of the trees in this yard.  Look at all those nests! 

The owner told me about a Sharp-Shinned Hawk next door.  It was deep in the canopy and my camera was struggling to get a focus.  So I put the camera in manual focus and was pleased with how easy it was to change the settings and focus on the bird.

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I was still trying to shoot on Shutter Priority.  While I like these images, I still think this camera could do much better.  I know it’s all user error.

My next stop was in Santa Fe.  I had to deliver some supplies to a job site there, so I visited the Randall Davey Audubon Center.  I walked the trail behind the center that follows a steam in the woods.  I immediately spotted warblers!  I love warblers but they are a big challenge to photograph – especially with a new camera!

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Black-Throated Gray Warbler

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Grace’s Warbler

I spent a little time in the gardens of the center.  I was really challenged trying to focus on my subjects.  I just couldn’t figure out the settings for center focus.

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Pine Siskin

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Broad-Tailed Hummingbird

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Mountain Chickadee

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Broad-Tailed Hummingbird

I could see I still needed to practice and learn this camera.

My next outing I went to check on the owls at Academy School.  I haven’t been there in weeks.   I figured that baby might have left the nest by now.  He had, but he was still hanging out in the same tree.  I think he needs to grow into those feet!

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Great Horned Owl

At my home I got more practice with my camera.  Lots of good stuff showing up this spring!

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Lesser Goldfinch

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House Finch in gorgeous breeding plumage

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Black-Throated Gray Warbler – the second year in a row it has come to my home

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Plumbeous Vireo

Remember that Mountain Bluebird I saved last December?  Well, he’s doing fine and is nesting with his lovely lady this spring.  I love the photo I got of her, but I just couldn’t get a decent photo of him.

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Mountain Bluebird – female

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Mountain Bluebird – male

I made a brief stop at Kit Carson park to find the owls there.  I had heard about them, but hadn’t had a chance to go by.  I found one adult and one baby.  The baby had left the nest and was way up high hiding well within the canopy.  So well I couldn’t get a decent photo.  But one of the parents was nicely out in the open.

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Great Horned Owl

My last outing was to the Cienega Trail on the east side of the Sandias.  It was a cold and cloudy morning.  Very low light conditions.  By this time I had switched to Aperture Priority.  I was much happier with the results.  I also learned I can set a maximum ISO when on Auto ISO.  This is great because I know I can control the amount of noise in my low-light photos.    I think these low-light photos are much better than what I would have gotten with my Nikon.

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Mountain Chickadee

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Hairy Woodpecker

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Spotted Towhee

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Orange-Crowned Warbler

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Yellow-Rumped Warbler

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Chipping Sparrow

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Say’s Phoebe

So all in all I’m much happier with my new gear.  I know I have lots to learn, but I think I’m off to a good start!

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Not sure what this little guy is…but he’s darn cute!  I saw him at the Cienega Trail parking area.