A Bird Lover’s Dream

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. IMG_1752Desert 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.


Gambel’s Quail

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.


Vermilion Flycatcher

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.

A Hidden World

Cave swallows chirp in high-pitched voices while circling the gaping hole that constitutes the Natural Entrance to Carlsbad Caverns. Approaching it on the foot path from the visitor center, my husband and I gaze into darkness from a bright day, and once we are swallowed up by the gullet, we leave blue sky and sunshine behind. Our eyes need a few minutes to adjust to the surrounding dimness. Strategically located artificial lights illuminate the subterranean space and without them, we wouldn’t be able to see our hands in front of our eyes. The drop in temperature parallels the trail’s decrease in elevation. From the high 80s, it plummets 30 degrees, to the average year-round temperature in the mid 50s. The humidity, on the other hand, climbs from 10 to nearly 90 percent, and our skin feels cool and clammy for the first time since we entered New Mexico’s Chihuahuan Desert one week prior.

We pass a sign pointing to a side tunnel whence tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of Brazilian free-tailed bats appear every evening between March and October, having migrated from Mexico, Central, or South America. 400,000 was the highest, mind-boggling count ever recorded. This species of bat is one of 16 in the park, but constitutes the most celebrated and numerous of the flying mammals whose presence likely alerted humans to the caves throughout the ages. The bat residence is off limits for human visitors, but we were fortunate to witness their emergence on the previous evening and now envision them suspended upside-down from the roof of their bedroom, snoozing and digesting, following a night of hunting.

Switchbacks take us steadily down, and we catch a glimpse of the imposing height of a first wide cavern, our conduit to even deeper spaces. After a one-mile descent, we reach the rest area, 755 feet below the surface. Restrooms, picnic tables, vending machines and kiosks filled with curios, and elevators that typically transport the wanderers back to daylight, appear out of place, reminders of this other world we left behind. Here, also, lies the beginning of two more tours, one ranger-guided, requiring a reservation, the other a self-guided trek around the famous “Big Room”, named aptly, if a bit unimaginatively. The trail that circles and traverses this chamber also measures one mile and is relatively even, with only a few mild rises and dips. It affords close-up views of the artful designs that adorn the caves. Not being spelunkers, we learn an exotic, delicious new word and let it melt on our tongues: speleothem. This comprises the stalagmites, stalactites, columns and various other shapes fashioned by the action of mineral-rich droplets of water, resulting in a wonderland of figures which engender flights of fancy. IMG_2178They range from marble-, to colossal-sized, from lacy lightness to ponderous heft. In our mind’s eye we discern icebergs, snow cones, bones, whales’ baleen, Portuguese Men of War, dwarves, sentries, and moss growing off the ceiling. Draperies resemble delicate fabrics hung from the ceiling, and it is easy to envision them fluttering in an imaginary breeze. IMG_2169Where I see cauliflower and small icicles, earlier observers were reminded of popcorn and soda straws, a distinctly American touch. A less savory example among the creative appellations is “snottite”, or “snoticle”—no further description necessary.

It comes as a surprise to us that 95% of all formations are considered dry, and, therefore, completed. We hear and feel heavy drops of water plummeting out of the dark and visualize the creation of yet another whimsical silhouette, reserved for future visitors to behold, 500 or 1000 years hence. Some of this water has accumulated in underground lakes which generate mirror images that exist only as reflections.

We can only speculate (or should I say speluncate?) what went through the minds of the first humans to enter these cavities, but it’s easy to relate to the sense of awe overcoming each new explorer. When step after dim step on terra firma, or on ladders made from tree branches and metal wire that hung into gaping gorges of unknown depth, revealed new passages and peculiar mineral deposits by the light of a candle, or oil lamp, fear of heights and darkness was untenable. IMG_2144Those who publicized their experience, did not lack in superlatives, and ever since word of this hidden realm reached the public, it has been the focus of unwavering interest.

Because the elevators that usually return guests to above ground have been out of service for over six months when we visit in May 2016, we are not tempted to ride, rather than walk, the serpentine route back to the entrance. This allows us to take our leave gradually, and to relive and relish once again the immense and wondrous sphere encircling us. Our enchantment from our all-too-brief glimpse through the window into the earth notwithstanding, we can’t help but wonder about hidden treasures in the one hundred-odd identified hollows scattered throughout this region, much less in those yet unknown.

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White Sands

Following several visits to Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes in recent years, in May of this year I finally had the opportunity to acquaint myself with White Sands in neighboring New Mexico. Both sandscapes rise like physical anachronisms from the surrounding land and seem to be the product of a painter who wielded her brush in sinuous movements across the canvas. From her palette, she used grey and reddish tints in Colorado, and what appears to be essence of snow in New Mexico, where the sand consists of gypsum. Water dissolves this white mineral from the nearby San Andres Mountains, and deposits it in Lake Lucero in the Tularosa Basin where evaporation transforms it into translucent selenite crystals. Once they erode into the tiny grains that make up the dunes, they sparkle and glisten in the sun, blinding the observer, despite sunglasses.


In the core of what has been designated a National Monument, the road is lined by sandbanks. Snow, or sand plows have to clear it regularly, lest it be overblown, and become impassible for vehicles. Sand banks remind of snow banks, sand drifts of snow drifts, sand storms of snow storms, sandalanches of avalanches. My fellow traveler through life who conceived of the word sandalanche, also described White Sands as “glacier of the desert.” Yet, unlike a snowy environment, this world was hot. Windy conditions mitigated the heat, but also left shoes and skin feeling gritty, a detail not appreciated by my companion. He prefers the crunch of snow to that of sand, which likely inspired his wintery neologisms.

Covering nearly 300 square miles, with individual dunes reaching heights of approximately 100 feet, the undulating scenery would be disorienting were it not for the vertical posts which mark several trails, and try to keep the hiker from getting lost. A limited number of backcountry camp sites on the Monument are accessible by foot only, but since we were not equipped for backpacking, we hope to experience the solitude and vaunted views of the desert night sky during a future foray.

That plants and animals survive in what appears an extremely inhospitable environment is worthy of marvel. White Sands’ vegetation is more dense and varied than at the Great Sand Dunes, and comprises grasses, bushes, and flowers well adapted to desert life. Among the most impressive is the Soaptree Yucca whose stem can extend 20 feet below the surface. Animal tracks bespeak the diversity of the local fauna which includes insects, reptilians, birds, and mammals, but are evanescent, waiting to be swept away by the next breath of wind.


Light-colored lizards and foxes represent a perfect adaptation to this bright habitat, jet-black ravens notwithstanding. Several camouflaged reptilians made an appearance at mid-day, but most mammals, apart from humans, took a siesta during the mid-80s heat. Despite the air temperature, we were surprised by the persistent coolness, and chalky consistency of the dunes to the touch of our hands and feet.

Red, or white, in Colorado or in New Mexico, the sandy mounds in both locations are permanently in flux, rippling like waves, swirling in the breeze, relentlessly blanketing whatever enters their path. Both transport the human visitor into a realm of contrasts: at once soft and harsh, attractive and deterring. And both continue to ripple through my consciousness and evoke images of otherworldly beauty. IMG_2038


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