Tres Pistolas Trail Head 

in Tijeras Canyon, New Mexico-- a birder's album

Tres Pistolas Panoramic View


Through the efforts of local citizens and the cooperation of the City of Albuquerque, Bernalillo County and the Federal Government, the 106 acres of open space in the foreground were purchased to protect access to the  Sandia Mountain Wilderness and the Sandia Hawk Watch site.  The site is also known as Three Gun (after the spring at the head of the canyon to the north), Tres Pistolas, or, in most official documents as "Tres Pistoles," in improper Spanish.  On April 14, 2007 the city of Albuquerque purchased  the 63-acre Hawkwatch property. This page will document some of the characteristic flora and fauna of this remarkably beautiful site, only a few miles east of Albuquerque City Limits via I-40.  Viewers' contributions of information are welcomed.

One of the winter delights of living high in the mountains is the opportunity to leave the snow behind, descend a thousand feet into the south-facing Tres Pistolas canyon, and  bathe in the warmth of the mid-morning sun.  The effects of much less rain and snowfall are evident in the near-desert conditions one encounters here.  However, my favorite time to visit is in the spring, when the area truly "springs" to life.  Whether it's watching birds, coyotes and deer, or walking the trails to Three Gun Spring or to Sandia Hawk Watch, a visit to Tres Pistolas is a rewarding experience.  The area narrowly escaped development into luxury homesteads.  A few rich folks were deprived of wondrous vistas.  Thanks to the untiring work of a coalition spearheaded by Louise Waldron of the Monticello Subdivision, the generosity of Albuquerque taxpayers who voted themselves a temporary sales tax increase for open space acquisitions, the cooperation of the landowner,  and vital support from city, county, state and federal politicians and bureaucrats, this parcel was saved for all of us to enjoy.

Shrub Community Apache Plume Prickly Pear Cholla in Bloom CLICK ON THE FOLLOWING IMAGES FOR  LARGER VIEWS.  All photos were taken on location with Canon A40-- where necessary, through Kowa 77 mm spotting scope. The picture to the left was taken just a few feet from the parking area.  It shows a rich mixture of shrubs: Rabbitbrush, Apache Plume, Cholla, Prickly Pear, Mountain Mahogany, and shrubby Gray Oak with smooth, gray-green leaves and Shrub or Desert Live Oak, which has prickly, holly-like leaves, gray-green to green in color..  To the right are pictured Cholla , Desert Prickly Pear, and Apache Plume, all in bloom.  This patch often harbors wintering Fox and White-crowned Sparrows, and family groups of Scaled Quail.
Scott's Oriole Female Scott's Oriole Bear Grass Mountain Mahogany Early in the spring, often by mid-April, Scott's Oriole (male, carrying an insect to nestlings, and female, pictured to the left) arrive to begin the chores of defending a territory and pairing up.  The melodic song is reminiscent of snippets from the Western Meadowlark's carol.  By mid-May, nest building is underway, and June finds the couple gathering food for the young.  Unlike the familiar Bullock's and many other orioles, Scotts Oriole may weave its nest rather close to the ground, in Juniper, Mountain Mahogany (to the near right), a yucca, or even a clump of Mistletoe.  Beargrass (pictured on the far right) and Desert Prickly Pear are present through the desert grassland/juniper-oak savannah at the lower parts of the area, good habitat for Scott's Oriole.

Juniper Titmouse Curve-billed Thrasher Spotted Towhee Typical birds of the pygmy oak-piñon-juniper woodland include Spotted Towhee, Curve-billed Thrasher, Juniper Titmouse (pictured to the right), Northern Mockingbird, and Black-chinned Hummingbird (left).  Other breeding birds include the  Crissal Thrasher, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Bushtit, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Black-headed Grosbeak, Bullock's Oriole, Canyon Towhee, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Red-tailed Hawk, Kestrel  and Golden Eagle.  Other migrants include the host of hawks counted every spring at the Sandia Hawk Watch viewing and banding site.  With luck we will add photos of these birds to this album, and Northern Mockingbird Black-chinned Hummingbird replace some of the fuzzy images with better takes.

Here is a note I received (February 10, 2004) from an out-of-state visitor.  She says it all!  Ken


Jean Martin and I (from Austin, TX) had only an hour and a half to hike in the Tres Pistoles wilderness area on 2/9/04, doing some birding there. What an absolutely magical place!!! I was stunned by the beauty of this wilderness area. The soft desert colors and many native plants, the many huge boulder formations (which must have fallen off of the mountains hundreds or thousands of years ago and been weathered into rounded shapes by wind and rain), combined with the backdrop of mountains, was just awe-inspiring. How I wish I lived closer so that I could hike here often. I am so thankful that this wonderful display of the best desert nature has to offer has been preserved for all to enjoy, and that it was not turned into a luxury housing development as had been planned. It's heartening to know that sometimes we humans do the right thing where nature is concerned.

Lisa Meacham

David Cristiani clarifies the distribution of oaks in Tres Pistolas.  We have noticed that Ladder-backed Woodpeckers are often found in these trees, which I erroneously called Gambel Oaks..  He writes (December 26, 2004):

...Great to see something on this nice place near me, and I learned several things I had not heard of.
Just a small note of correction: there are no Gambel Oaks anywhere near the parking area, though they start appearing as one ascends into colder country, starting at about the actual spring and on protected, cooler slopes, eventually dominating the west faces of South Peak higher up.
The oaks that dominate the area from the parking area to just above the springs are evergreen (semi-evergreen in drier or colder winters) species common throughout the foothills of milder winter parts of New Mexico, Texas and Arizona, and on into the Sierra Madre of northern Mexico. These Gray Oak (Quercus grisea) has smoother, gray-green leaves and can sometimes get over 40' tall in some canyons in the western Sandias and Manzanos (and on into the Organs and Gila). Shrub or Desert Live Oak (Quercus turbinella) has prickly, holly-like leaves, sometimes gray-green and sometimes green, and it is usually between 10'-15' tall. There are even a few oaks that resemble Arizona White Oak (Quercus arizonica), though I am not sure on those. Anyway, those are all broadleaf evergreen oaks that need milder winters of Madrean origins.
Also, much beargrass (Nolina texana), desert prickly pear (Opuntia engelmannii) is present through the desert grassland at the lower parts of the area. Pretty cool place...
D a v i d  C r i s t i a n i
"Where the earth is dry, the soul is wisest and best"...Heraclitus

HOW TO GET THERE:  Tres Pistolas is located north of I-40 in Tijeras Canyon, just east of Albuquerque, north of the Monticello Subdivision.  From Albuquerque, take I-40 east to exit 170 (Carnuel).  Take NM-333 (Historic Route 66) to the left (east) about 1.8 miles to Monticello.  The left (north) turn into Monticello is marked by a very small green sign in the median, over an orange construction barrel.  If you pass the Taxidermy building on NM 333 you have gone too far east. From Tijeras, go west on old 66 approximately one mile past Deadman's Curve (which is where the road passes under I-40).  Turn right on Monticello Rd.  There is a green street sign in the center median indicating Monticello. You will have to make a 180 degree turn to get on Monticello, then follow around the curve and come up the hill. Take Monticello north to the first left turn, which is Siempre Verde.  Follow Siempre Verde as it curves to the north, all the way to the top.  At Alegre bear slightly left, where Siempre Verde becomes a dirt road that becomes Tres Pistolas road and leads to the parking lot at the trail head.  Be sure to bird the Monticello subdivision all the way up to Tres Pistolas.   Curve-billed Thrashers are common in the ornamental cactus.  Scott's Oriole is usually fairly easy to find along the stretch of dirt road, in the cottonwoods and dooryards. If not seen there, look for Scott's Oriole along the first 100 yards of the foot trail.  The trail north to Three Gun Spring is well-traveled.  The Sandia Hawk Watch site is accessed by a well marked trail that takes off to the right (northeast) just after you enter the Sandia Mountain Wilderness marker.
CLICK HERE for an interactive map centered on Tres Pistolas


Birding the Sandia Mountains East of Albuquerque
Birding the Manzano and Manzanita Mountains
Rosy-Finches at Sandia Crest
Cedar Crest Back Yard Birds and Birding Calendar