Birding Melrose Woods Migrant Trap
On Mother's Day 2022, I got to be self-indulgent (I couldn't celebrate with my adult son until the next weekend), so my unending quest for new adventures led me and expert birder Peggy Trosper to one of the strangest and most productive birding spots either of us has ever experienced--Melrose Woods. Melrose Woods is a tiny oasis about 35 miles west of Clovis, New Mexico that provides food, water and shelter for migrating birds. During the first week of May, it was full of warblers, flycatchers, tanagers and lots of other interesting birds.
Melrose Woods doesn't look like much from the road or from Google Earth's satellite view (below), but this oasis has hosted more than 250 species of birds. A farmhouse once stood here, but only the front steps, the chimney and the stock tank survive. However, the large cottonwoods and poplars that were probably planted for shade and wind relief from the surrounding flat grasslands attract many unusual birds needing a rest stop during their migration.
Peggy and I left Canyon, Texas at 6:00 a.m., carrying plenty of water and snacks, and arrived in Melrose Woods by 7:10 a.m. Mountain Time. After opening and closing a couple of gates and pulling into a small gravel parking area, we started seeing interesting birds the minute we exited the car. A Plumbeous Vireo was directly above our heads. Then the first of many Western Tanagers appeared. Cave Swallows hovered over the stock tank and a Great Horned Owl flew into the cottonwood in front of the parking lot. At least a half-dozen Black-headed Grosbeaks sped past us into the nearby trees and brush. It took us 30 minutes just to move away from the car onto the first trail because we were so occupied with bird sightings.
Once we hit the trails, we found two particularly great spots: an area deep in the poplars where a water pump can fill three shallow dishes, and a trail on the east side of the property that gave us a view of the extensive flycatcher activity along the edge of the poplar forest.
At the drip area at the north end of Melrose Woods, among the tall poplars, we saw (below): Green-tailed Towhee, Hepatic Tanager, Swainson's Thrush, Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon's) and a Common Yellowthroat drinking together, Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle), Hermit Thrush, Western Tanager, Warbling Vireo, and a Dusky Flycatcher. There were other warblers present, like Yellow Warbler and Orange-crowned. However, we did not get to see the Prairie Warbler or Chestnut-sided Warbler that other birders had recently spotted there.
On the east side of the poplars, we lost count of all the flycatchers (below). Western Wood Pewees and Ash-Throated Flycatchers were abundant, along with Olive-sided, Gray, Dusky and Cordellian Flycatchers. Western Kingbirds chatted in every tree, of course, but the darker Cassin's Kingbird was also spotted.
Our big excitement of the day came from spotting a bird that had been absent from Melrose Woods for two years: a Lewis's Woodpecker. We saw a dark bird silhouetted against the sun which I said looked like a woodpecker and Peggy commented on the gray neckband. We realized it had to be a Lewis's Woodpecker, but I was not in a spot to get a good picture to confirm that. Later, however, on that east trail, I became distracted from all of the flycatchers by a red bird at the top of a tree. We were quickly able to positively identify it as the Lewis's Woodpecker we had seen earlier.
The Lewis's Woodpecker (named by Merriweather Lewis during his and William Clark's 1805 western expedition) is usually not found in Eastern New Mexico. So it was marked as a rarity in eBird. Besides being so striking in its appearance, it is also a very interesting bird because it doesn't behave like most woodpeckers. A Lewis's Woodpecker doesn't drum into trees searching for insects. Instead, it catches insects on the wing with tricky aerial maneuvers like a flycatcher. Maybe that's why it was hanging out with all the Empids.
Peggy and I were excited to be the first to identify a Lewis's Woodpecker in Melrose Woods in two years. However, we weren't thinking about the other birders who had also visited that spot that morning. By the time we got home late that afternoon, that day's rare woodpecker had already been reported to eBird. At least we had good pictures to confirm the sighting. But we were in for an even bigger surprise because a Lewis's Woodpecker had also been sighted that day in Canyon, Texas, less than two miles from Peggy's house. Now that was a real rarity!
If you decide to visit Melrose Woods Migrant Trap, you should be aware that the New Mexico State Land Office manages the property and requires a permit for visitors, although I seriously doubt many people bother with obtaining the permit because no one is checking on visitors there. When Peggy and I were there on a Sunday morning during the peak of migration season, we were alone for most of our visit. Less than five other people showed up during any part of our time there. There is no ranger, no visitor center, no check-in procedure. Thankfully, however, there was a port-a-potty! Volunteers have lined the paths with branches and tried to remove most of the tumbleweeds from the trails, so you can easily make your way through the area. There are tree stump benches in a couple of prime viewing spots, so after hiking a while, we sat quietly and just waited to see which unusual bird popped up next. If the blasted spring winds hadn't kicked up, we had everything we needed to stay at Melrose Woods for hours enjoying the migration.