Birding in the Time of COVID-19 

Mark Pendleton, MVAS Vice-President 

Part I 

   During this COVID-19 pandemic, New Mexico is fortunate to have the science-based, strong, decisive leadership of Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham. As she has stressed many times, drastically reducing contact with others is demonstrably one of the best ways to reduce, slow and eventually halt the spread of the corona virus.   

   We all should also stay informed about the best ways to combat COVID-19. Two web sites essential for this are CDC.gov (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)  and WHO.org (the World Health Organization’s online home).  

   Check these sites often and be sure to follow the very latest guidelines. 

   This needn’t mean no birding, though! Getting out into nature can be uplifting and decidedly beneficial for your mental health. But I suspect that most birders already know that. It’s one of the reasons I go birding every chance I get. With Dripping Springs Natural Area, Aguirre Springs Recreation Area, NM State Parks and Las Cruces City Parks closed, though, you’ll need to be more creative in your choice of destination.[Text Wrapping Break]   When you go birding, here are some guidelines you should follow: 

  1. If you don’t feel well, or know you’ve been exposed to the corona virus, don’t go! As members of society, we have an obligation not to endanger others by our behavior. Enjoy birding alone or in small groups. This is commonsense for birders. The more people in the group the fewer birds you see. COVID-19 gives us additional compelling medical and ethical reasons to keep our groups small, though. Most health authorities are advising no more than 5 people together. However, out of an abundance of caution, I don’t go with any more than 3 (myself and 2 others). A corollary to this is: each drive your own vehicle. You can’t maintain social distancing when you’re traveling in a car with someone else. 

  2. Maintain a healthy 6-10 feet between each person in your group and anyone else you meet while out and about.  

  3. Use a face mask. The CDC now recommends using cloth face coverings when in public to help slow the spread of the virus.  https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/diy-cloth-face-coverings.html  has both sew and no-sew instructions for making these masks. 

  4. Get your birding “fix”, then go home.  

  

Here are some suggested destinations to jump-start you creativity when you’re deciding where to go birding: 

  1. La Mancha Wetlands. This wetlands restoration project of the Southwest Environmental Center (SWEC) is roughly 2 miles upstream (basically north) of the Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park. It’s a small—roughly 3 acres of land—parcel on the west side of the US International Boundary and Waters Commission (USIBWC) levee road. There’s a trail and you can spend an enjoyable couple of hours or so watching the birdlife. At this time of year, there are Lucy’s, Yellow-rumped, and Yellow Warblers, Phainopeplas, song and White-crowned Sparrows, American Coots, Mallards, Mexican Ducks, and others. For more information about the project, go to:  https://www.wildmesquite.org/what-we-do/desert-waters/rio-grande/la-mancha-wetland 

  2. Dripping Springs Road to the Gate. As mentioned earlier, the Dripping Springs Natural Area (including the visitor Center, La Cueva Picnic Area, and associated trails) is closed for the duration of the COVID—19 outbreak. **However**, you can still drive up to the entrance gate. Park there and look a bit south of east. About once every five or six times I go up there, I see a Golden Eagle sitting on the rocks atop the first promontory. When Dripping Springs is open, you can go through the gate, proceed up the road and pull off the road to the right at a conveniently located turnout much closer to and with a better angle of view of the knob.  Other possible avian sightings coming up the road are Chihuahuan and Common Ravens, Curve-billed Thrashers, Greater Roadrunners, Gambel’s and Scaled Quail, Black-throated Sparrows and more. 

  3. And when you’re at home, you can observe birds at your feeder(s). Don’t have feeders? You can get some, put them up and start enjoying the birds coming to you. Feeders, bird seed and other food are available at local retailers or online. Call your grocery store or bird feed outlet to see if they will deliver merchandise to your door. Most will. If you aren’t at high risk for COVID-19, you can go out and get the supplies yourself, just combine as many of your  excursions as possible so you’re not going out any more than absolutely necessary. 

  

And while at home, it’s also a great time to improve your birding skills by using some of the interactive online sites out there. Here are some suggestions: 

A) The National Audubon Society audubon.org  I know that I’m biased towards this site, but even after having said that, it is undeniably  impressive! 

B) eBird ebird.org In addition to keeping track of the birds you see, you can check out what other birders are seeing around the world. 

C) Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology birds.cornell.edu One of the world’s premiere repositories of knowledge about birds. 

D) All About Birds allaboutbirds.org This free resource from Cornell Lab may not have absolutely everything about every bird on earth, but it comes pretty damn close!  

E) National Wildlife Federation nwf.org Truly a great site and the largest private conservation organization in the US. 

F) American Bird Conservancy  abcbirds.org Focuses on conserving native birds and their habitat in the Western Hemisphere.

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Birding in the Time of COVID-19

Mark Pendleton, MVAS Vice-President

 

Part II:

   As the corona virus spreads more and more, I’m heartened to see so many people heeding Governor Lujan Grisham by staying at home as much as possible.  How do I know they are? The few times I have gone out there seem to be about 80-90% less traffic on the road  than I would expect. This is good. More New Mexicans staying home will slow down infection rates. The faster they drop, the fewer hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 there will be. That’s something that we all want.

   Remember that we’re safest at home.  But, let’s also be realistic. Many of us would get at least a mild case of the twitches if confined for weeks on end with no sense of when we can get out again, no? I know I would.

  Here are some observations that have helped me keep the situation in perspective.

   First: COVID-19 can cramp your style with more finality than any quarantine (self or government imposed) ever could. It can kill you. That will end anyone’s birding days. You’ll never again need to worry about how long you’ve been inside. Ever.

   Second: A friend sent my wife a timely thought the other day. She said we need to remember that we’re not so much locked up at home, but that we’re safest at home.

   Third: Let’s back up a couple of steps. No one ever said to **never** go outside. What the Governor is stressing is to stay inside as much as possible. Birding is a mental health activity.  As long as you’re feeling well with no cold-like symptoms, cough, or difficulty breathing, and haven’t been exposed to the corona virus you could go birding.

   Fourth: When you go birding, be sensible. Follow the guidelines I suggested in Part I of this series. Bird by yourself or in small groups; wear a mask; drive your own vehicle; get out, go birding, get home.

   Fifth: We still need to honor our obligations to the social contract, though. We owe it to ourselves and our friends and neighbors to curtail the amount of time we are out and about. Yes, still go birding, but please, not as often as in pre COVID-19 days. So . . . use some of the time you’d normally be out birding to hone those birding skills. There are many ways to do that even at home, and I expect none of us are such expert birders that we couldn’t benefit from improved birding skills.

  

Apps are a great way to do that. And, if you’re like most folks, you probably take your smartphone almost everywhere. So, as long as you have it with you, you might as well use it to up your birding game. Here are five apps that will come in handy for doing so. All are available at no cost from the Apple App Store or on Google Play. You can also use all of them either in the field or at home.

+Audubon Bird Guide: North America With photos, descriptions, recordings, range maps and more for the vast majority of North American birds.   

+eBird I mentioned eBird yesterday in part I. The laptop version has more features, so  when you’re sitting at your table with morning coffee and toast I’d muse it. But, if you don’t want to bring that with you while you’re out on your porch watching your feeders, then download it onto your phone.

+Song Sleuth The maker bills this as a great app for when your out in the field. I agree, but it’s equally suited to using on your porch. You just turn it on and let it listen to the bird vocalizations around you, then it suggests possible matches. After you identify the singer, you can use the Sibley guide in the app to learn more about the bird.

+Merlin Bird ID when you see a bird you can’t ID, answer 5 simple  questions re: its color and size and Merlin suggests species possibilities. If you get a photo, upload it and Merlin has a better chance of a match.

+Raptor ID Just as with Merlin, this is from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. And, just like eBird it’s in partnership with another prestigious ornithological organization. With eBird, it’s the National Audubon Society; with Raptor ID, Hawk Watch International. The name is self explanatory.

   I’ll end today with a couple of recommendations for birding spots around Las Cruces.

   A) The area behind (east of, on the opposite side of as I-25) the Las Cruces dam is a great area to bird. You can park in Marshall’s/Ross/Petco parking lot and cross Lohman and enter from that side. There are trails that lead up to Sagecrest Park at the corner of Frontier and Roadrunner, There’s a constructed wetlands with viewing blinds to the southwest of Copper Ridge, High Range Village, and Quail Ridge Apartments. You can also walk on a trail for roughly 3 or 4miles up to the north end of the dam and pass loads of good birding spots along the way.

   B) Baylor Pass National Recreation Trail Since Aguirre Springs is now closed, this trail is now only accessible from the western (Baylor Canyon Road) end. To reach the trailhead, either take US 70 east towards Alamogordo. Go to the Baylor Canyon Road exit and turn right or south. A mile and a half later, the Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument sign informs you  a mile and a half later that you’ve entered the Monument. A half mile later, the trailhead parking lot is on the right.

Mesilla Valley Audubon Society