Trip to Mexico was truly enchanting

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My wife and I recently enjoyed eight days visiting friends in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Jan Brydon and Terry Canup promised to show us some of their favorite places and feed us great food. And I hoped to see some great southwestern birds.

Jan and Terry’s beautifully landscaped backyard immediately delivered on my hope.

In about five minutes I saw lesser goldfinches, black-chinned hummingbirds, a broad-tailed hummingbird and a seemingly limitless number of incessantly vocal white-winged doves.

We began our visit with a trip to Albuquerque, where we ate dinner and watched the sun set atop Sandia Peak at an elevation of 10,378 feet.

Getting to the top required a 2.7-mile, 15-minute tram ride in a car that held 40-plus people. From the summit, ravens soared across the canyons below, and a family of Colorado chipmunks scurried beneath our feet.

Stunning view

The view from the top was stunning, and the bolts of lightning punctuated the night sky in the distance. Summer storms in the southwest are mostly bluster and little rain.

The next day we visited the Albuquerque Arboretum. The highlight was the butterfly house where colorful lepidopterans flew about freely and sometimes even landed on our arms.

In the “nursery,” dozens of chrysalids, acquired from a variety of butterfly farms, awaited to transform into adult butterflies. The chrysalids had been painstakingly glued individually to their perches to await transformation.

Among the most spectacular were iridescent blue morphos from the tropics and giant swallowtails.

Old community

The next day, it was off to the Acoma Pueblo, about 60 miles west of Albuquerque. Billed as the oldest continually inhabited community in North America, Acoma sits on a mesa nearly 370 feet above the desert floor.

Access to Acoma is only by bus, from the museum at the Cultural Center. A native tour guide explained how the pueblo was built to discourage aggressive neighboring tribes and Spanish invaders.

Next on our agenda: White Sands National Monument, located about 50 miles north of Las Cruces and just east of the Sacramento Mountains. I was really anxious to see the endless white gypsum sand dunes that stretch for 275 square miles and define the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert.

The landscape is harsh and seemingly devoid of life. But a closer look revealed scattered plants between the dunes, many insects, and a surprising number of Little Whiptail Lizards.

They thrive in the desert heat and occur only at White Sands. From White Sands, we continued onward and upward to cooler temperatures into the mountains.

En route, we stopped at a scenic overlook. As soon as I opened the car door, I heard chatter reminiscent of chimney swifts.

I scanned the rocky walls on the far side of the canyon, and sure enough, dozens of swifts patrolled the area.

They were boldly marked white-throated swifts. At another higher overlook, we heard and saw a singing orange-crowned warbler, and later we drove to 9,200 feet and reached the National Solar Observatory.

From the parking lot, we got leisurely views of western bluebirds, western tanagers, and pine siskins.

Wrapping up

On the penultimate day of our visit, we drove about 35 miles into the foothills of the Organ Mountains, for a picnic breakfast. We were the only people at the Dripping Springs Recreation Area, and the birding was excellent.

The first bird I saw was a Gambel’s quail, perched on a bush about four feet above the ground guarding her brood as they fed below. Black-throated sparrows, curve-billed thrashers, cactus wrens, pyrrhuloxias, and scaled quail competed for our attention.

Then a husky drab sparrow-like bird with a huge bill flew into view just a few feet from us.

Female blue grosbeak came to mind, and my hunch was confirmed when a beautiful male flew in to perch next to her.

Finally, a big “thank you” to Jan and Terry.

Great places, great food, and some great birding! Mission accomplished. New Mexico is truly a “land of enchantment.”

But a few words of warning if you ever plan to visit a desert. Be prepared, regardless of season.

Water, polarized sunglasses, a wide brimmed hat, and sunscreen are must-have gear.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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