Jennifer Goes to Things & Does Stuff
Jennifer Levin grabs a pair of binoculars and tries bird-watching at the Randall Davey Audubon Center
A couple of Saturdays ago, I went to the free guided bird walk offered weekly at the Randall Davey Audubon Center & Sanctuary, which is located where Upper Canyon Road dead-ends, past the Santa Fe Canyon Preserve. It had been warm in town, but when I stepped out of my car at the sanctuary just before 8 a.m., I wished I were the kind of person who keeps a sweatshirt in the trunk for emergencies. About a dozen people milled about in the parking lot, happy to be up early on the weekend under storm clouds threatening to break. Most of them wore weatherresistant, outdoorsy clothing. Some looked into the distance through fancy binoculars. I’d never been bird-watching before and it hadn’t occurred to me that I would need binoculars — which seems absurd in hindsight — but when I signed in at the visitors center, they pointed me to a bin full of them, free for borrowing. “They’re old and they’re not the greatest, but you can see through them,” a volunteer told me.
The bird walk was led by volunteers Warren and Rocky. We began in the parking lot, where there were a few hummingbirds nearby. One hung in midair for the better part of a minute and then zoomed away to amuse itself — and us — by repeatedly arcing high up and diving into the top of a tree. A magpie was spotted farther away, but when I looked through my binoculars, I saw only its dark silhouette. I hadn’t used binoculars since I was a kid, and had clearly forgotten how to focus them. A woman named Arlene Ory kindly showed me which of the moving parts I needed to adjust, and I was then able to see the magpie picking at its black and white feathers with its sharp beak. I let out an audible gasp, as I suddenly understood the appeal of bird-watching. Ory, who has lived in Santa Fe for 20 years, has been coming to the Saturday bird walk for three years. “I don’t know the birds very well, but I’m learning. It’s just fun to be here,” she said.
Though the walk takes place in the early morning, the guides told us that contrary to popular belief, you can see all sorts of birds at all hours of the day. Rocky and Warren led us into the gardens behind the visitors center, where there are many birdfeeders, but the number of birds in the area was unusually low that morning, probably due to the presence of a cooper’s hawk, who preys on smaller birds. “They’ve been scared away,” the guides told us, and then they differentiated the cooper’s hawk from the red-tailed hawk: The latter hunts rabbits and mice. (Red-tailed hawks are spotted frequently at the Santa Fe Recycling Center on the north end of town.)
One couple from Toronto gently teased me for never having been birding before, but many of the people on the walk were new to the activity, there to educate themselves further about the kinds of birds that frequent their own backyards — which in Santa Fe include mourning doves, western tanagers, canyon towhees, spotted towhees, and ladder-back woodpeckers. A tourist couple from Maryland, Brian and Susan Bartel, were there due to Brian’s recent interest in birds. “He makes his own sugar water for the feeders,” Susan told me as we stood outside Randall Davey’s historic house, near an old orchard. Between bird sightings, Brian gleefully told me that he knows nothing about birds, “But I love them. I’m a bird whore.”
We next tramped down a path to the Santa Fe River. Because spring and early-summer rains have been plentiful this year, the river was in flood stage, and even the rocky footbridge they usually use when the river is high was underwater, so we were unable to cross. I looked for birds when others pointed them out, including a goldfinch with a yellow breast and black cap, but I was happy just to listen to the chatter of my fellow birders — talk that turned to how high fences have to be in order to keep out bobcats — and stand around in the unusually lush forest.
I went back the following Friday afternoon at 2 p.m. to take the tour of the Randall Davey house and studio. The house was originally a lumber mill that Davey, an artist, converted when he moved to Santa Fe in 1920. Davey painted landscapes, portraits, and nudes, many of which are on display in the house. He came from a family of polo players and was an early adopter of the automobile, which he liked to drive at high speeds; he died in a car wreck on his way to California in 1964 when he was seventy-seven years old. Though the house could use a tremendous amount of maintenance and restoration, the tour is well worth the five-dollar admission fee. Davey’s house is a strange, wonderful hybrid of Santa Fe and Victorian styles with Art Deco influences. The studio is preserved as Davey left it, with a half-finished painting on the easel, brushes in a jar of turpentine, and dozens of half-used tubes of paint on the tables. Each docent gives a slightly different tour; some know more about Davey’s art and some concentrate on the way he lived, so groups are welcome to call ahead to arrange tours based on a specific angle.
I would definitely visit the Audubon Center again, for the bird walk or to explore on my own. It would be a great place to take out-of-town visitors who aren’t prepared for a rigorous hike at altitude but still want to get out into nature. Information about special guided hikes and events, as well as gardens and birding trails, is available on their website, http://nm.audubon.org/ randall-davey-audubon-center-sanctuary. The next guided bird walk is at 8 a.m. on Saturday, July 4.
Illustration of common magpies by John James Audubon, 19th century; bird-watchers at the Randall Davey Audubon Center & Sanctuary