An Accidental Birder’s Journal

Birds and more while walking in Gallinas River Park
at Las Vegas, San Miguel Co, New Mexico

Me as the Accidental Birder
Me as the Accidental Birder on my way to the Gallinas River, Sept 2015


I am not a real birder, I am just a just a guy who likes to take a walk, preferable near some water and who notices and appreciates his natural environment, all of it: animal, vegetable and mineral. In the past I concentrated on the vegetable and mineral; photographing, identifying and cherishing. The animal part of the natural world was a little too quick in most cases for anything but cherishing a fleeting glance. The dead of course are an exception, though the living are quick to make them disappear too. Birds were the worst. By the time I set the f-stop, time and focused the camera or got out the guide book and found the right page the subject was gone. Cherish the memory.

I have a serious defect to being a real birder. I am perfectly happy here at home in Las Vegas, the thought of boarding an airplane or even getting into a car just to look for birds bewilders me. Once you have learned that there are different lands with different environments, geography, flora and fauna, languages and customs, why travel to distant places before learning all you can of your own. I just like to walk my own home ground now to see what I can see.

I have a couple more handicaps. I cannot hear the high pitched song of those little birds, an important clue to their identification and I’m myopic making everything in the distance a little blurry. Woops! Thare goes a little blue fuzzy thing, I wonder what it was. That’s me, a half deaf, half blind stick-in-the-mud.

I am not a real birder, but I found that a new digital camera I bought to photograph all the plants of Las Vegas gave me a fighting chance to record and identify all that I see: the birds, animals as well as the plants, those beloved stationary beings. A 60X zoom lens and multiple exposures with one press of the button gives me plenty of material to figure out from my books and the internet what I saw. Therefore I have accidentally become a birder!

So, as I would say to Willy when he was my constant companion
“Let’s take a walk on the wild side.” of the Gallinas River.


Yellow-crowned Night-herons: a Coda

I include here a some of our Yellow-crowned’s family members found here in years past. The only way I have seen the Black-crowned here is flying away when I inadvertently disturb these hunched over bumps-on-a-log. The Great Blues usually see me first and fly away; this immature one was less wary and merely repaired to a tree. The Snowies showed up here in the drought year of 2012 and like the Yellow-crowned are seemingly less skittish then these other herons.

About names
These Yellow-crowned are not really Night-herons as you can see from from photos. They are quite active in the day. They used to belong to the same genus, Nycticorax, as the Black-crowned Night-herons and others but now they have their own genus Nyctanassa. with Nyctanassa violacea violacea the migrating sub-species breeding in the SE US, wintering in the Caribbean and South America. They still retain the ‘Night-heron’ in the official AOU name.   At we learn:

In late summer, a few wander far to north. Strays from western Mexico reach southwestern United States.

If ours are from Mexico, they are Nyctanassa violacea bancofti and in Spanish are called ‘Garza-nocturna Coroniclara’, ‘pedrete corona clara’ o ‘Martinete Coronado’. The differance between the two sub-species is slight if not purely subjective. Mainly the difference is that they have separate territories and N. v. bancrofti does not migrate.

I have been careful not to call the juveniles ‘Yellow-crowned’ (though I believe them to be so) but little brown herons or just juveniles because from what I see in descriptions and pictures in the resources they look like Black-crowned juveniles (yellow lower bill and larger spots) but are associated with Yellow-crowns and are about in the daytime. I don’t know.

About turtles basking in willows and another little brown heron

While I have been abirding I have also continued my usual walks, seeing what is out there. The flood of 2013 reconfigured the river, cleaning out 100 years of silt, turning ponds into gravel bars and digging new holes here and there. In one of these new holes I have recently gotten a glimpse of possibly a large fish falling back into the water with a loud splash and noticed turtles basking…


Thur, 6 August 2015
I see a Red Eared Slider (like those iconic Madeleine, I remember from my childhood the pet turtle with the exact same markings in a clear plastic pond with a island in the middle) and two other very similar smaller ones but without the red ears. They separately rise from the deep, swim a short way taking in oxygen, then silently sink back to the depths. Their endurance under the water is far greater than mine for waiting for them to reappear so I walk on.

Sun, 16 August 2015
I discover a small Snapping Turtle in turtle hole. The snapper was trying to climb onto a short two inch diameter floating branch which kept rolling toward him whenever he put his claws on it trying to climb on. Finally he decided that the dead willows the flood had laid into the river would do just fine. He crawled onto the semi-submerged branches, stretched out his neck to its full extent leaving just his carapace and his nostrils out of the water, his favorite basking position. That neck of his is just about as long as his carapace, so be very wary trying to pick him up. His name is well deserved.

Fri, 21 August 2015
That supposed fish jumping I had a glimpse of earlier this month turns out to be a Slider. Being cold blooded, turtles need to bask in the sun to keep their body temperature up. These turtle were named for their ability to quickly slide off their basking platform, be it log, rock or stream-side willows and into the water.Sat, 22

Sat, 22 August 2015
With the disappearance of the Yellow-crowned Night-herons I went directly to the turtle hole. I stalked slowly up to where I could see the debris dam at the end of the hole, where I knew that the turtles sun themselves. There I see on a floating log a large Red Eared Slider and a smaller one. I get their photo which seems to annoy them. They slide back down into the murky water and I continue down stream.
Just beyond, on the other side of that tangle of dead willow, floating logs and whole saplings liberally festooned with plastic bottles, rubber balls and various other flotsam and jetsam was a juvenile brown heron, standing tall, perched on the dead willow. After photographing him I continued on my way. Forty minutes later I was back on the other side of the river and he was still there, in a slightly different position, hunched over, staring at the water. I assume he is waiting for little fishes, while about 100m downstream I saw fat crawdads feeding on algae growing on the spillway of the dam that had formed the old mill pond which the flood of 2013 had turned into a gravel bar.

The continuing account of Yellow-crowneds

Fri, 14 August 2015
Gr5_151030879  I find Gr5 in a contemplative mood surveying his fishing grounds. Actually I read that Yellow-crowns spend 70% of their time foraging just standing still waiting for their prey to wander within striking distance. I take a few photos, then continue on my way. Ol’ Gr5 also takes off, flying past me to his branch as stage and strikes an attentive pose, which deserved more photos.

Blue Grossbeak
Before I had seen Gr5 I took a photo of a big billed dark-blue silhouette on a distant bare limb, now as I return a Blue Grosbeak lands on the path far ahead of me as a group of brown grosbeaks (females and juveniles) fly off from the river. I have only seen Blue Grosbeaks once before, again at a distance making a fuzzy-graph.

Sun, 16 August 2015Gr5_151030998

The only heron I saw today was a gray one that flew low over my head going from tree to tree, possibly Gr5.

Tue, 18 August 2015
Old Gr5 is in his favorite tree posing for those passing by, standing on one foot like a stork this time. I guess he has claimed this stretch of river as his private fishing ground as is the reported habit of these birds and has persuaded the others to go elsewhere. Just the sight Gr6_151030871

of that bill on a threatening bird would cause me to back off. I measured Gr5’s bill, it is 2/3s of the distance from the tip of the bill to the back of his head. The herons use it to stab the crayfish and crabs they eat. Gr6 on 8/12 has some white matter on his, possibly crayfish.

Fri, 21 August 2015
Yesterday there were no herons. The nights here are in the 50’s and the fall migration is on. The Yellow-crowned Night-heron is a warm weather bird and they are a long way from home, I assume they have moved on so I thought I would look for some other evidence of them.   After the heron catches his favorite dinner, crab or  crayfish,he eats the whole thing or if it is a large









The picture is a collage of three photos.

one he shakes it to bits then eats all the bits shell and all. (A young lad showed me a missed crayfish pincher he had found while fishing) After digestion the heron regurgitates the undigested shell bits a la the owl. So I searched under some favorite trees and Lo! I found the evidence.

P1040053-6aI may not have seen a heron but I got a chance to watch a couple or more of Willow Flycatchers do that which gives them their name. They sit on a prominent perch constantly moving their heads looking for bugs. When they see one, Zoom they grab it mid-air, then back to the perch and surveillance. Usually I see them perched on fence-posts grabbing insects close to the ground, but here they were in the tree tops grabbing insects high up.  They must eat a lot of bugs to fuel all that motion.

Some more Yellow-crowned Night-herons

Fri, 07 August 2015
I have made a couple of walks in the last few days, expanding my area of observation both up river and down, checking likely cottonwood trees and slow and shallow stretches of river with no luck until on my way home today I noticed movement in an old riverside alamo. I see a striped gray side and one long leg inching up a slanting branch under the concealing foliage toward another camouflaged gray and a peaceful nap away from the prying eyes of predator and birder. I have found one of their trees-of-rest!

Sat, 08 August 2015
cropped-Gr4_150821.jpg  On my way to the Farmers’ Market I make a quick stop at the river. There are two gray Yellow-crowns sitting on the same branch, one with a completely black head [Gr3] and the second is the first with complete adult breeding plumage [Gr4] including the long white plumes. All the other gray ones are probably in their second year and not yet breeding. Yellow-crowns normally take two years to breed.

Wed, 12 August 2015
Gr5_151030847  I spot a gray heron in a tree across the river amid camouflaging foliage. He spots me then carefully peers through the leafy drapery like an actor peeking through the stage curtains, checking out the house. Or maybe he is just checking for falcons. In either case he then jumps down to an exposed branch, his stage, does a little primping scratching, and advances to stage center.Gr5_151030855




At stage center Gr5, for so he is dubbed, assumes a pose, he is a hunched up Night-heron, then he is a stretched out Blue-heron. Shades of Richard Burbage what a ham-bone he is. I continue on my way leaving him to his posturing.

I'm a Night-heron  _Gr5

Now I'm a Great Blue Heron _Gr5

On my return on the other side of the river about three trees down river from where I had seen Gr5 I spy another gray one. This one, Gr6 has a small white stripe behind his right eye on an otherwise black head like Gr3. Of course I am comparing a right profile to a left, so they may be the same bird.

I discover a new Heron

I discover a new Heron

    They had not been seen enough in Las Vegas or the entire West to merit listing in area checklists for birds. They are not listed for this area on (I tried to include them in a report), nor on the Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge (LVNWR) checklist of birds that have ever been seen there.

And I use the word “discover” as Columbus” did of the Indies.


Fri, 31 July 2015

Br1_150629bIn the last few days I have have had a glimpses in passing of largish birds, some brown, some grayish flying out of the river bottom and heading for the bosque down stream. Then yesterday on my way home I saw in the distance what might be a small brown heron standing on the river bank peering into the water.

Therefore today I was ready with camera ’round my neck, scrutinizing the river banks, looking for my little brown heron(?). Approaching the first school footbridge I spied it on the opposite bank, a small brown, yellow streaked heron walking away from the rio. Click, Click, Click, three images immortalizing his/her being.

Gr1_150634b I scan around for more. Bingo! A grayish one is in the water staring at me. Click, Click, Click, three more images while he leaves the water. Having lost the brown one in the grass, I cross the bridge to get another perspective. Click, Click, a couple more images of the gray one on the bank, one glaring red eye on me as he surveys his fishing territory. “Enough of this!” says he and takes off down river. Shortly thereafter the brown one leaps into the air from the tall, camouflaging grass and follows.

Sun, 02 August 2015
Gr2_150722aWith a timeout for the 100 year anniversary Horse Parade and unsure of what I had seen two days ago, I was back at the river with my camera. I spy a gray one in the river, fishing, oblivious of me. I manage to take a few frames before a jogger spooks him and off it goes followed by another brown one. A short way down the river I photograph another or the same brown one, which was spooked by the dog accompanying me.

With all of my pictures, a couple of books and the Internet I have determined with difficulty that the birds are Yellow-crowned Night-herons. The difficulty is due to the fact that the birds are either juvenile (brown) or immature (gray) with incomplete adult plumage. There have been a three sighting reported by birders on the internet. One aloft at Story Lake and two at Texico Marsh August 2 in Curry Co. I have named the different birds I have photographed: Br(own)1, Gr(ay)1, Gr2 and Br2.