Naturally Speaking: Year's wildlife wonders inspire gratitude – Las Cruces Sun-News

Especially during times of times of turmoil, the wonders of nature can be a life-affirming balm for the soul. We New Mexicans are incredibly fortunate in having so much accessible open space that is rich in spectacular vistas and jampacked with a bounty of birds and other wildlife. When I began to recall some particularly memorable moments in nature in just the past year for this Thanksgiving week column, I ran into difficulty trying to select the best of the best.
An obvious and ongoing highlight has been the intrepid female rufous hummingbird that has apparently adopted our place as her preferred wintering grounds. She first appeared in October 2020, in adult plumage so at least a year old then, and remained until mid-March, when she departed for parts unknown in the Pacific Northwest for the breeding season.
Wintering hummingbirds in our area are relatively rare, as most spend the winter in southwest Mexico, so her stay was quite noteworthy, but to top that feat she returned in the fall of 2021 and stayed again until March, subsisting mostly on available insects with occasional visits to our nectar feeder and spending most of the time sunning herself. Once we saw her taking bits of peanut butter suet, ahead of an especially frigid night.
Wonder of wonders, the girl is back, apparently for her third winter! She’s chased at least two other hummingbirds away from her proclaimed territory, multiple times performing aggressive display maneuvers, and is back to her old routine of soaking up sun and occasional foraging forays. We feel so privileged to have such an intimate glimpse into this remarkable creature, pushing the boundaries for her species.
Some other bird blessings of the year have been a handful of rarities, like rufous-backed robin, broad-billed hummingbird, and common ground-dove, and a few especially flashy migrants, including a male rose-breasted grosbeak and a pair of hooded orioles. We chuckled when a northern waterthrush bobbed its way around our in-ground birdbath, snapping up a couple of mosquitofish, and delighted in the primeval sounds of returning sandhill cranes swirling high overhead.
Also remarkable has been the huge influx this fall of birds from mountain habitats stricken by the double whammy of drought and wildfires. Woodhouse’s scrub-jays, pinyon jays, juniper titmice, and Townsend’s solitaires have been locally widespread, with latecomers like red crossbills and Cassin’s finches now also being reported. Though we fear for their long-term future, we are grateful that area habitats — including our yard and neighborhood — appear to be productive enough to sustain them through the winter.
Another blessing has been the recovery of lizard and toad populations in our yard, having temporarily taken a beating a couple years ago when a family of roadrunners nested in an acacia. With the birds shifting their home turf a bit, we’ve tallied seven different species of lizards this year, and are especially grateful for the Texas horned lizards and their penchant for harvester ants.
Some particularly special moments this past year include the pair of gray foxes that leisurely walked across the path in front of me one early morning; the butterfly chrysalis that I carefully monitored on a milkweed plant, and the excitement of seeing the still-moist, freshly emerged queen resting on a nearby shrub; and the family of golden eagles soaring so high overhead that I only spotted them when I raised my binoculars for a closer look at a red-tailed hawk.
While typically I’m not particularly thankful for the large conglomeration of white-winged doves in our neighborhood, I’m currently appreciating them on behalf of the several wintering accipiters — Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks — that depend heavily upon the meaty doves for sustenance. Making a living as a bird hunter is not easy, and I’m grateful that our habitat can provide for these awe-inspiring birds as well.
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Marcy Scott is a local birder, botanizer, and author of “Hummingbird Plants of the Southwest.” Along with her husband, Jimmy Zabriskie, she operates Robledo Vista Nursery in the North Valley,, specializing in native and adapted plants for birds and wildlife habitat. She can be reached at