The 2019 WFO Conference in Albuquerque, a Young Birder’s Experience

By: Alexander deBarros

From August 22-25, I attended the Western Field Ornithologists Conference in Albuquerque. Amazing is the only word that comes close to describing the experience. From the field trips, to the science sessions, to the social gatherings, it was just a great time.

On Thursday, I attended Andy Johnson’s trip to the Parajito Ski Area, a spruce-aspen forest in the mountains above Los Alamos. The place was beautiful, and the birds were incredible. We totaled 39 species on the trip, and found more Tanagers, Vireos, and Dusky Flycatchers than I have ever seen, and 5 life birds for me. After leaving the ski area, we drove over to the Valles Caldera, a massive meadow covering the mouth of an extinct volcano. Later that evening, the entire WFO group went to the reception at the Museum of Southwestern Biology at the University of New Mexico. They had most of the specimen collection out on display, and everyone meandered around the room chatting with grad students about their current research. The students were studying everything from Hummingbird genetics to changes in average Golden Eagle size since the ice age.

Friday morning, I returned to the Museum to attend a workshop on specimen preparation. I got to observe 3 great Ornithologists make study skins of different birds. Andy (who runs the collection) did a young Prairie Falcon. Phil Unitt, who runs the San Diego National History Museum, did a Gambel’s Quail.

Kimball Garrett prepares GRRO

Kimball Garret, who is the collection manager at our NHM, as we all know, did a roadrunner. It was fascinating watching the process, and observing the 3 compare notes on their different strategies. There was a lot of overlap between the three, most of the variation coming in around the wings and the skull. After that incredible experience, I participated in the sound identification challenge. And boy was it a challenge! Most of the teams could figure out the family pretty easily, but few got the species. In the end, my team won third place. Once that was done, I attended the young birders reception, where I got to speak with the 20 other kids and teens about their birding experiences. Apparently, young birders in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and even Alaska have fairly similar stories.

Female WETA ready for banding

On Saturday, I went to the bird banding station at the Rio Grande Nature Center. That stretch of the Rio Grande is a floodplain filled with giant cottonwoods, a small lake, and a few agricultural fields for the local cranes (which had not come in yet). It actually reminded me a bit of Sepulveda. The banding station was located in this abandoned photography blind, and they catch a lot of birds. The place was bustling with college students banding Flycatchers, Towhees, and Warblers (including my lifer Virginia’s Warbler). They also catch hummingbirds in great numbers, but these are usually just released at the net. While I was already familiar with the process thanks to San Fernando Audubon’s banding station, it was interesting seeing it with new birds (half the species caught that day have not been caught at our station) and talking to other, more experienced banders. As we were leaving, the banding team caught a young female Prothonotary Warbler, which is highly unusual. Everybody was super excited to see that. It was easily the coolest bird seen during the entire conference. Following that, I returned to the hotel to watch the photo ID panel, where a group of WFO certified experts look at pictures of difficult to ID birds, and try to figure out which species is shown. I gathered in the back of the auditorium with most of the young birders, and we formed an unofficial panel to try and ID the birds as well, and we successfully identified most of the birds. We had a field guide, and the official experts actually knew what they were doing, so it was pretty evenly matched. It was interesting to see which field marks everybody would focus on in identifying the birds. I did not know how important primary projection was in identifying sandpipers. Once that was done, we all gathered for the banquet. As usual, all the young birders sat together and spent more time chatting and bonding. We listened to Christopher Witt give his speech on confounding factors in avian evolution, which was just fascinating. After the banquet, we went to the silent auction, and everybody went home with as many books as they could reasonably carry (or more than they could carry, in some cases).

On Sunday, the final day, I visited Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. After stopping in some agricultural fields near the edge of the refuge and finding lots of species there, we entered the Refuge and I soon spotted a Crissal Thrasher, which was a lifer for most of the group (myself included). We then stopped by the visitor center, which had more hummingbirds than anybody could count. After that brief stop, we went out and explored the refuge. It is an area with lots of small, seasonal lakes lined with cottonwoods. It was very reminiscent of the Piute Ponds. While most of our birding was done in a van, with occasional stops, we still found 64 species. We returned to the hotel, and that was the end of the conference.

The WFO Conference was one of the best weeks of my life. I saw 122 species, 20 of which were lifers. I learned a lot about birding, and met so many great birders, young and old. I would like to thank SFVAS for sponsoring this trip. Next year’s WFO conference will be in Reno, Nevada from September 9-13. Until then, if you are interested in bird banding, please contact Mark Osokow at [email protected].

My bird lists from this trip are available here:, Crowne Plaza Hotel, Pajarito Ski Area, Crowne Plaza Hotel, Crowne Plaza Hotel, Rio Grande Nature Center, Field near Bosque Del Apache, Bosque Del Apache, Turtle Bay Park (near Bosque Del Apache)