Out of a ten day camping trip to New Mexico this spring, my husband and I spent two days at the National Wildlife Refuge of Bosque del Apache. Its environment is intricately linked with the nearby Rio Grande, a major migratory route, and is best known for the overwintering of myriad Sandhill Cranes, Snow Geese, plus a vast proportion of western North American waterfowl, but represents an avian haven year-round. The combination of a 12 mile car loop, hiking trails, and overlooks provides access to significant portions of the refuge with its various habitats, which center around wetlands, but include prairie and woodlands as well.
We came for the birds, but all manner of creatures made their presence known. Bullfrogs, unfortunately an invasive species, were audible from afar. The sinuous copulation dance of two snakes on the edge of the road in plain sight caught us by surprise and made us feel slightly voyeuristic. Desert cottontails and black-tailed jackrabbits abounded, and mule deer browsed on screwbean mesquite, leaving a clear line of demarcation, with copious fruit above a line they could reach while standing on their hind legs, but none below. We had our first sighting of a family of collared peccary, or javelina, foraging for food during the early morning hours. A striped skunk flashed us a warning, tail raised, but thankfully scuttled into the brush, without emitting a fragrant cloud. At dusk, bats began to hunt insects, which was also the signal for Common and Lesser Nighthawk to commence their feeding.
Depending on the source, the impressive bird checklist for the refuge hovers around 393 species. Still somewhat a novice to birding, my discoveries might not rouse expert birders to flights of exultation, but they were uplifting to me. Bosque’s graceful, adobe-style visitor center, is a good place to start looking for feathered beings. Directly over the entrance, tiny, but noisy Say’s Phoebe babies greeted us from their nest. A large window overlooks feeders which often yield unusual encounters. Only a few days earlier, fellow birders glimpsed a Northern Parula, but this rarity did not repeat his curtain call for us. A second feeding station in the artfully designed adjacent desert arboretum afforded sightings of the speedy Greater Roadrunner, New Mexico’s state bird, and of Gambel’s Quail, known to loaf there all day.
In this setting, I also lay eyes on my first fanciful Pyrrhuloxia, fittingly described as desert cardinal.
On the refuge proper, a central pond with dead trees offered roosting sites for Great, Snowy, and Cattle Egrets, as well as for Double-Crested and Neotropic Cormorants, which facilitated the comparison of their prevalent features. This crowd was joined, on occasion, by a gorgeous Green Heron. Vermilion Flycatchers, brilliantly attired, flew onto my life list, followed by an equally dazzling Summer Tanager, and by elegantly dressed Black Phoebes.
Yellow and Yellow-rumped Warblers, as well as Common Yellowthroat were conspicuous, but I am sure I missed many other warblers. They still present a challenge, along with flycatchers, gulls, and several other families. American Avocet, Black-necked Stilts, Spotted Sandpipers, Willets, Long-billed Dowitchers, and Wilson’s Phalarope helped lessen my intimidation with shorebirds, though they are outnumbered by the many I have yet to recognize. The prize for cuteness went to a Pied-billed Grebe and her five young. All jostled for a free ride on her back, succeeded for an instant, but one or the other slid off, paddled hard to catch up and hop on again, until, finally, everybody was safely stowed.
Needless to say, two days were not enough to explore this sanctuary. My resolution: Return there. Often. Hop on Interstate 25, take Exit 139 in New Mexico. The distance between Colorado Springs and Bosque del Avian is a mere 300 miles.