Now that the famous Festival of the Cranes has come and gone at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, all the good birding opportunities in New Mexico have flown the coop, right?
Well, not so fast.
Just a little farther south there remain some excellent opportunities to spot any number of our feathered friends as they continue to fill the skies along the Rio Grande flyway corridor.
“Sierra County is one of the best birding counties in New Mexico in terms of habitat diversity and potential rarities,” according to the book, “New Mexico Bird Finding Guide,” written by John Parmeter, Bruce Neville and Douglas Emkalns. “The riparian habitat along the Rio Grande and its associated lakes is a paradise of egrets, herons, pelicans, grebes and unusual avian sightings.”
Across the contiguous areas of the country, some 800 species of birds have been indentified and more than 500 of those can be spotted in New Mexico.
In Sierra County alone, there are more than 300 different species that can be spotted. And that should make the county a beacon for birders, said Truth or Consequences Mayor Steve Green.
“In one county you can get about 65 percent of the entire bird population that have been identified in the entire state,” he said. “And almost 40 percent of the birds that have been identified in the continental United States. So it makes it a wonderful opportunity to see many different types of birds.”
The county’s diverse geography makes it a prime birding zone, Green said, attracting not only lower-elevation water fowl, but higher elevation woodland birds.
“What makes Sierra County so unique is we have four or five bio life zones,” he said. “So they’re going to have different types of plant life and different types of seeds that fall to ground for food and insects that will be eaten. We go here from 4,460 feet in elevation all the way to 10,000 feet at Emory Pass, which is about an hour or so from TorC going west. And down here in the lake we have the sandhill cranes, American white pelicans, eagles and other predators that follow the food chain. It is truly a Santa’s workshop for a birder in the county.”
The New Mexico state parks at Elephant Butte Lake, Caballo Lake and Percha Dam have all been recently designated by the Audubon Society as important birding areas.
The Paseo del Rio Park within the Elephant Butte park is a startling little area, managed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, that is known as a migrant trap. Situated in a riparian canyon along the river, with many miles of open desert and lake stretching to the north, the area is overwhelmed with birds passing through the area on their journeys north and south.
An easy circular trail of just over a mile rises from the river into the desert and back down, providing access to both desert and river birds, Green said.
West of Caballo Lake along N.M. 152 and Animas Creek Road sits the only stand of rare Arizona sycamore trees east of the Continental Divide.
“Because of that, it’s one of the few sites east of the divide where you can see things like elf owl, brown-crested flycatcher and bridled titmouse,” Green said. “They’re sneaking over the border from Arizona because they normally wouldn’t be here, but they feel comfortable because they’ve got the right tree.”
He cautioned much of this area is private property, so birding should be done from the roads.
Continuing west along N.M. 152 into the Black Range toward the high Emory Pass greatly expands the numbers of bird sightings, Green said.
“You have the conifers and mixed forest, which offers some of the mountain birding,” Green said. “And it is most accessible because there are many trails that you can walk.”
Green said one of the great things about birding it that it gets you out into nature moving at your pace.
“As long as you can walk at whatever speed you can, it spans from young to old,” he said. “The excitement of seeing a flash of color flying out of a bush or sitting up in a tree; it’s truly a great feeling. It’s a great way for me to connect to the land, to connect with wildlife and nature.”