I'm lucky enough to have had the opportunity to spend several mornings and evenings along the middle Rio Grande bosque counting songbirds and waterfowl. Along with the season's emblematic Sandhill Cranes, there is an abundance of birds that are easy to spot, easy to identify and which there is plenty of to see along Albuquerque's sliver of the mighty river.
Among these, perhaps the most common is the Mallard Duck. Both males and females- usually mated at this point in the year- swim through the acqueias and the river proper. These ducks are endemic the whole world through and the males- with a glossy green head and shades of brown feathers down their wings, backs and chests- are easy to spot. More often than not, if you spot a male, there will be a better camouflaged female nearby.
The Gadwall Duck- nearly the size of the Mallard, but with more understated coloration and a black bill- is also easy to find in the river this winter. These ducks are nearly as widespread as the Mallard due to their extreme adaptability. They've even been known to snatch food from the beak of other diving ducks.
Looking for something even more adorable? The Coot- technically part of the Rail family- is dark, petite and easy to spot in open water. These birds are black throughout the body, but have a light, even white colored bill, and sometimes show white on the tail. Making them even more endearing, coots have small, rounded wings and are weak fliers, despite their ability to cover large distances when necessary.
Also keep an eye out for the striking Wigeon, too. These birds breed farther north and make their way down to Albuquerque during the winter season. Males are colorful, with a cream colored forehead and jade green highlights while females are grayish overall. I've spotted just one along the Rio Grande this winter, but these are increasingly abundant.
Also found along the river: dog prints, coyote prints, the spine of a large mammal. Winter time is just as wonderful to test the waters of the Rio Grande, particularly when we have such an abundance of beautiful birds floating by for the season.
Setting aside all the drama of Cam Newton and his possible, or alleged, violations of NCAA rules, the stage has been set for quite a while for an excellent championship game. Two nights ago, that game unfolded in almost every great way it could have. After a scoreless first quarter, the action finally got started with Oregon chipping in a field goal. Replays quickly after those three points showed that Oregon's quarterback, Darron Thomas, missed LaMichael James for what could have been a touchdown. By the end of the game, Oregon would regret missing out on those four points.
Things continued as Auburn marched quickly down the field and scored a touchdown to put the Tigers up on the Ducks seven to three.
Oregon threw a gutsy play from their own five-yard line and ultimately netted a touchdown from the resulting plays and then made it even better with Oregon coach Chip Kelly calling for a two-point conversion and sealing it.
Auburn, again, came down the field with Newton doing the lion's share of the work. However, this time Auburn was the team that should have settled for the field goal. Newton threw the ball just a bit low, missed his target, and turned the ball over, and Oregon took over on their own two yard line.
The Auburn defense saw their chance, though, and forced a safety, the craziest play in football. (Seriously, it is the craziest play. You score and then you get the ball back? That doesn't happen with any other play in any other sport, right?) Auburn tacked on two points and got the ball back. The Tigers continued down the field and Newton threw for an easy touchdown.
On the ensuing Auburn kick, there was a penalty for 15 yards and Oregon capitalized to begin their drive. (Replays later showed it was a particularly dirty play by Eric Smith and it was good to see Auburn coach GeneChizik get all over Smith in reaction to the play.) Oregon, however, couldn't get the job done and settled for the punt on fourth and 10, giving the ball back to Auburn for the final couple plays of the first half, where the Tigers had a chance to set up for a field goal and ultimately settled for a Hail Mary just to see if they could grab some points. The game broke for halftime with Auburn up 16-11. (Another weird aspect for this game, that score seems suspiciously un-football-like.)
Auburn started the second half with the ball and quickly got down to business. After making it to the 11-yard line, Auburn came up short on third and five and settled for a field goal.
When Oregon received the ball, another Auburn personal foul (or dirty play, depending on your read of the situation) resulted in a 15-yard penalty and the Ducks moving quickly onto the other side of the field. Oregon stalled out midfield, though, and punted from the 41 yard line.
After Auburn had a four and out, Oregon took control of the ball and had a poor series followed by a faked punt for a first down. The next play was a long pass, setting up a goal line stand where Oregon simply could not force its way into the end zone. Auburn's defensive line held strong and received the ball on their own one yard line.
After a series of back and forths between the two teams, the fourth quarter was riddled with subpar offense from both teams, until Oregon forced a turnover around the five-minute mark. They advanced the ball, finally converting in the red zone and securing a two-point conversion on a risky play.
After Auburn was conspicuously not tackled on the biggest play of the game, Michael Dyer broke free for what could have (and, perhaps on Oregon's part, should have) been a touchdown. However, Wes Byrum got the opportunity to kick the game-winning field goal. With two seconds left, the ball was snapped, set, held and kicked good.
Oregon had their chance, and the game was a great one, but, ultimately, Cam Newton and the Auburn Tigers rolled to the SEC's fifth-consecutive championship games.