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Birding in Southern New Mexico

By Joann Mazzio

Last updated on Wednesday, January 01, 2003

Night heron Photo by Joann Mazzio
Night heron
Southern New Mexico elevations range from under 3000 feet to mountains higher than 10,000 feet and cover five life zones from the Upper Sonoran through the Hudsonian.  This variety of topography affords homes to birds as dissimilar as sandhill cranes wintering in the Bosque del Apache  National Wildlife Refuge and the year-round water ouzel dipping and scratching its underwater way along the bottom of Whitewater Canyon in the Gila National Forest.  In the summer, the air around feeders flashes with iridescent purples, greens, blues, and reds as incoming hummingbirds congregate.  Some tropical birds such as the elegant trogon breed in a remote canyon of Southern New Mexico, one of the few places they can be seen in the United States.

In addition to birds that migrate south in the winter, and birds that come north in the summer, Southern New Mexico affords much delight to the birder in the spring and fall as many migratory species such as bald eagles follow ancient routes along the rivers.

Bosque del Apache NWR [1] (about 30 miles south of Socorro off I-25) is the best known viewing site in New Mexico.  In the fall, waves of geese, ducks, and cranes migrate to the managed ponds and flooded fields by the tens of thousands.  The numbers of human visitors swell in winter also. However, Bosque is only the brightest jewel of a string of bird-viewing sites along the Rio Grande.  The same migratory and resident birds are to be seen at Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge [2] (about 25 miles north of Socorro off I-25), Elephant Butte Lake State Park [3] (about 10 miles north of Truth or Consequences off I-25), and Caballo Lake State Park [4] (about 15 miles south of Truth or Consequences off I-25.)

To the east, and not as well known as Bosque del Apache NWR, is Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge [5] (about 12 miles east of Roswell, follow Pine Lodge Road.)  The access road goes through flat plains where a visitor can see quail, roadrunners, sparrows, ravens, pyrrhuloxia, pheasants, blackbirds, hawks, and falcons.  At the refuge, a birder may see a variety of ducks such as shovelers, buffleheads, pintails, and wigeons, along with blackbirds, coots, and wading birds.  Chukars have also been seen here.

Forty-five miles east of Roswell on U.S. 380, motorists begin to see sinuous waves of sand dunes, interspersed with short-grass prairie.  These are the Mescalero Sands [7] which have piled up against the escarpment known as Caprock.  Birds here include Cassin’s sparrow, western meadowlark, horned lark, northern harrier, Swainson’s hawk, common nighthawk, ravens, loggerhead shrike, scaled quail, burrowing owl, great-horned owl, and golden eagle.  The fortunate birder in early April may witness the courtship of lesser prairie chickens.  Temperatures are uncomfortable for most people in the summertime.

 Further south, many visitors to Carlsbad Caverns National Park [8] see the bats, but miss seeing the many cave swallows that nest inside the cave.  Rattlesnake Springs [9] (U.S. 62/180, 5 miles south of turnoff to the Caverns) despite its warning name, is worth a visit.  Here is an oasis that attracts painted buntings, vermilion flycatchers, scarlet tanagers, yellow-billed cuckoos, orioles, warblers, cardinals, wild turkeys, owls and hawks.

 In the Guadalupe Mountains (from N.M.  285, 9 miles north of Carlsbad, turn west on N.M. 137 for 31 miles, right on N.M. 276) at Sitting Bull Falls [10], look for rock wrens, swallows, and hooded orioles.

 At a higher altitude in the Lincoln National Forest, Bonito Lake [11] (25 miles north of Ruidoso) is a stopping site for migrating birds.  Trails and canyons from the main road will reward the birder with sightings of water dippers and Virginia’s, Townsend’s, and Wilson’s warblers.  Around the camp sites at the Lake are MacGillivray’s warblers, yellow warblers, acorn woodpeckers, belted woodpeckers, and osprey.

In the Organ Mountains 10 miles east of Las Cruces is the unexpected desert oasis of Dripping Springs [12].  Year-round, visitors can see red-tailed hawks and Gambel’s quail.  In spring and summer, golden eagles and prairie falcons occasionally soar on the updrafts.  Black-chinned sparrows, Scott’s orioles, canyon wrens, and sapsuckers are visible from the trails.

Pancho Villa State Park [13] abuts the border town of Columbus.  With its cactus and mesquite, the Park is home to desert bird life such as roadrunners, quail, burrowing owls, and cactus wrens.  Overhead, in spring and summer, are turkey vultures and black vultures, and hawks such as Swainson’s and Harris’.

Backpackers in the Gila National Forest [14], including the Gila Wilderness Area, may be treated to the richest variety of bird life, but the motorist, also, by visiting campsites and observing along the highways and roads will be well-rewarded.  The Gila Wilderness encompasses 1000 square miles and ranges from Upper Sonoran desert canyons to subalpine mountain peaks.  The three forks of the Gila River are popular with birders from all over the world.

Silver City [15], the jumping-off place for the Gila NF, hosts mountain bluebirds, phainopepla, roadrunners, and robins.  At 7000 feet altitude, the old mining community of Pinos Altos [16], surrounded by the Gila NF, is rich with western bluebirds, pinyon jays, chickadees, titmouses, kinglets, ravens, crows, kingbirds, orioles, tanagers, and mockingbirds.

The campsites and hiking trails at the Gila Cliff Dwellings [17] (about 45 miles north of Silver City on N.M. 15) sound with the calls of poor-wills, robins, and chattering jays.  Going north on U.S. 180 from Silver City takes the visitor to Glenwood [18].  Here where Whitewater Creek froths from the mountains, great blue heron can frequently be seen.  A short drive up Whitewater Canyon to the historic Catwalk [18] almost always affords a birder the sight of water dippers.

If it’s solitude that’s wanted to make the birding experience special, then Guadalupe Canyon [19] in the southwest bootheel of New Mexico satisfies that need.  It can be reached by hiking over an inhospitable area visited mainly by herpetologists who capture rattlesnakes to milk their venom.  A more comfortable access is from Douglas, Arizona.  (About 25 miles east of Douglas.   From Douglas, take 15th Street which turns into Geronimo Trail. Take a right on Guadalupe Canyon Road, continue past the New Mexico state line. Just past the line, take a Forest Service road north for 2 miles to the Canyon. High-clearance vehicles are recommended.   Almost 160 species have been recorded in the canyon, and these include several which are rarely seen in the United States such as the elegant trogon, the buff-collared nightjar, thick-billed kingbird, and fan-tailed warbler.

For relaxed birders who prefer letting birds come to them, Pueblo Park Campground [20] (about 20 miles north of Glenwood, on U.S. 180, turn west on Forest Service Road 232, drive for 8 miles.) is perfect.  Scatter bird feed with various size seeds – big seeds attract big birds, small seeds for little birds.  Hang a hummingbird feeder.  This is normally a dry area, so a large drip pan – the kind that goes under flower pots – brimming with water will attract the kind of bird that turns up its beak at seeds.  Have camera or binoculars ready and enjoy.

Many of the sites mentioned are inhospitable at certain times of the year because of searing temperatures or rains which flood canyons and make sandy or caliche roads dangerous. Check with local authorities, such as Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service offices, to ascertain conditions.  Always carry water and food and an extra layer of clothing.  Beware of poisonous snakes and insects. Use sun-block and wear sun-protective hats and long sleeves.  Even in the winter, the high-altitude sun can quickly raise blisters.  Don't even think about drinking from the clear, bubbling springs or touching wild animals.

There are many publications available in print or on the Internet which give more details about birding in Southern New Mexico.  Also, once in the area, ask local enthusiasts to recommend their favorite birding sites.  Whether you're an avid birder looking for a new bird for your life list, or a family engaging in an activity that all can enjoy, birding in southern New Mexico can give you many hours of enjoyment while immersing you in the varied natural habitats of the region.

Click here for a map of the best places to go birding in Southern New Mexico

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