Birdwatching at Las Vegas NWR in New Mexico
Go to New Mexico's Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge to see a fantastic mix of mountain and prairie birds
Published: December 22, 2005
|As a wildlife and nature photographer, I am lucky enough to have visited every state in the continental United States. I've returned to certain locations many times. But if I ever move out of the Cleveland, Ohio, area, I'm heading for Las Vegas, New Mexico, a place of amazing beauty where the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains converge.|
On my first visit to the region, a cool breeze blew over the prairie, causing waves in the grasses and wildflowers. As the sun sent its first light over the horizon on that August day, a Swainson's Hawk swooped low over my car and flew west toward the mountains in morning shadow. Before I could react to this wonderful scene, a long-tailed weasel popped out of the prairie and looked around. Driving slowly with binoculars ready, I eased to a stop to observe the weasel. It sniffed the air before crossing the road into a sedge meadow.
My adrenaline was surging as I drove on to find Lark Buntings feeding along a fence and Lesser Goldfinches hanging from sunflowers. A little farther down the road, not one but seven kestrels were perched in a dead tree. By now, I was filled with birder euphoria and ready to spend the next several days observing and photographing. I was in Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern New Mexico and was quickly falling under its spell. After such a fantastic first visit, I've returned many times over the years.
Las Vegas NWR preserves habitats that attract upwards of 270 species of birds. The refuge's bird list counts 80 nesting species, 50 of which are neotropical migrants, and 14 species of raptors, including five that nest there. Plus, five owl species breed at the refuge. The most numerous birds are waterfowl, shorebirds, and cranes, many of which peak in numbers during spring and fall migrations. But no matter when you visit, the birding is sure to be good.
The refuge's name is Spanish for "the meadows," a fitting description because the place is dotted with ponds, wet meadows, and a couple of lakes that are surrounded by high-plains prairie. Grasses dominate the plant life, including big and little bluestem, blue and sideoats grama, buffalo grass, needle-and-thread grass, western wheatgrass, Junegrass, and Indian grass. Numerous wildflowers mix in throughout the prairie. Some birds, such as Long-billed Curlew, prefer to nest in areas with shorter grass, such as blue grama and buffalo grass. Lark Bunting, on the other hand, selects taller grasses to build its nest. Along the ponds, lakes, and meadows, several species of sedges and rushes provide plenty of seed for birds.
The refuge encompasses 8,700 acres and sits on a plateau bordered on three sides by forested canyons. Pinyons, ponderosa pines, and junipers dominate the canyon slopes and Rocky Mountain foothills. Ash, cottonwood, and willows grow at stream level in the canyons.
A rectangular wildlife drive, open all year, is the best place to get started on your refuge tour. The eight-mile-long loop takes you past prairies, ponds, lakes, and wet meadows. It starts at the refuge entrance and soon passes the visitor center. The main stops are the overlook at Crane Lake, woods and prairies near McAllister Lake, and the Gallinas Nature Trail.
In summer, my biggest thrills are seeing nesting birds of prey along all parts of the drive. Swainson's Hawk and American Kestrel are usually everywhere. I see them flying or perched on telephone poles, fence posts, or trees. The kestrel is common all year, while Swainson's Hawk leaves in autumn for South America. Red-tailed Hawk, which nests in the refuge, is also easy to spot on the wildlife drive. Whenever I visit, I always see Cooper's, Sharp-shinned, and Ferruginous Hawks, and Northern Harrier.
Prairie Falcon and Golden Eagle nest in the canyons and are seen year-round. On my most recent visit, I did not spot either bird right away, which was unusual. Luck was with me, though. On the last day of the trip, I saw both species in flight and perched. In spring and fall, Merlin and Peregrine Falcon are fairly common visitors. Rough-legged Hawk is seen during migratory seasons and sometimes spends the winter. Bald Eagle and Osprey feed at McAllister and Crane lakes in the spring and fall, and some eagles stick around for winter.
Burrowing and Great Horned Owls nested near the visitor center recently. Burrowing Owl is most numerous in summer, nesting in short-grass habitats. In early morning, check fence posts for perching Burrowing Owls. You can also see them on lands surrounding the refuge because the grassland is still in good shape.
A trail adjacent to the visitor center driveway with willow, cottonwood, and elm growing alongside is a great place to spot nesting Great Horned Owls. My wife and I were rewarded a couple of times in the early morning seeing owls low in trees. The refuge's Great Horneds are of the southwestern race, and so are light brown in color.
Other Las Vegas owls include Barn Owl and Western Screech-Owl (uncommon breeding residents) and Short-eared and Long-eared Owl (migrants that spend the winter). Long-ears perch in trees in the canyons and foothills, and Short-ears hunt in the grasslands or rest on the ground.
On the east side of the wildlife drive, a parking area and observation deck overlooks Crane Lake. You'll need a spotting scope to study the lake's ducks, geese, and grebes. Over the years in all seasons, I've seen lots of waterfowl on the lake. Peak numbers occur in spring and fall, but it's also home to breeding and wintering species.
Being from the Midwest, I look for western species when I visit and have never been disappointed. Cinnamon Teal occurs in all seasons; I prefer seeing it in the summer, when adults swim with young. I have also seen Clark's Grebes on the water with chicks in summer. Other summer waterfowl observed frequently are Ruddy Duck, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, Mallard, Blue-winged Teal, Canada Goose, and Eared and Pied-billed Grebes. All of these species nest on the refuge. A couple of years ago, two pairs of Pied-billed Grebes nested in Brown's Marsh right along the wildlife drive.
Continuing on the drive to the grasslands, look for Western Meadowlark, Lark Bunting, and Brewer's, Lark, Vesper, and Song Sparrows. In a nearby sedge meadow, Yellow-headed and Red-winged Blackbirds become quite numerous in spring and early summer.
Toward the end of summer, flocks of Violet-green, Cliff, and Barn Swallows are common. Also watch for American and Lesser Goldfinch and Pine Siskin feeding on the numerous sunflowers. In this area, I have also spotted Townsend's Solitaire in late summer and fall.
The paved road ends along the southeastern side of McAllister Lake, which is a state wildlife area contained within the refuge. Hunting and fishing go on here in season, but they do not hinder birdwatching. Trees lining the south side of the lake host a wide variety of songbirds in spring, late summer, and fall.
One day recently at sunrise, I parked my car at a pull-off, walked into the woods, and was rewarded like never before. Three Orange-crowned Warblers greeted me in a group of willows, and then a Black Phoebe (a rare visitor to the refuge) darted off after bugs along the lake. I've also seen Wilson's, Virginia's, "Audubon's" Yellow-rumped, and Yellow Warblers along with Common Yellowthroat in the area.
The sun rose as I approached a shrubby thicket, and I heard high-pitched yips that soon changed into a howling chorus from a family of coyotes about 15 feet in front of me.
As the chorus faded, I spotted a male Black-headed Grosbeak sitting on a fence post. When I made it through the trees to the lakeshore, I saw White-faced Ibis, Belted Kingfisher, Spotted Sandpiper, Killdeer, and Ring-billed and Franklin's Gulls.
The next stop on the drive is the Gallinas Nature Trail. Here you walk from a Great Plains prairie ecosystem into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. An area where two ecosystems meet, known as an ecotone, contains a variety of plant and animal life, and the nature trail is no different. You start out walking through prairie grasses and prickly pear cactus and watching prairie birds such as Lark Sparrow.
After only a quarter-mile, you end up in a forested canyon looking for Canyon Towhee and Cordilleran Flycatcher. You need a permit from the refuge office to hike the trail, and it is open only on weekdays.
Steep canyon walls offer nesting sites for Golden Eagle and Prairie Falcon. The raptors are best spotted soaring over the prairie after they leave nests and perches in Gallinas Canyon, located on the southwestern edge of the refuge. Both species occasionally perch low to the ground in the early morning, offering the best chance for close viewing or photography.
Autumn brings migrants from the northern tundra, woods, and prairies. Sandhill Crane, Tundra Swan, and numerous waterfowl fill the wetlands and ponds throughout the refuge. Look for Snow and Canada Geese, Common Goldeneye, Northern Pintail, Gadwall, Mallard, Bufflehead, Lesser Scaup, and Ruddy Duck, as well as Clark's, Western, Eared, and Pied-billed Grebes.
Also watch for shorebirds in early autumn, including Greater Yellowlegs, Western, Spotted, and Least Sandpipers, Long-billed Dowitcher, Wilson's Phalarope, and Killdeer. Less common shorebirds are Black-bellied and Semipalmated Plovers, American Avocet, Black-necked Stilt, Red-necked Phalarope, Baird's and Stilt Sandpiper, Willet, and Wilson's Snipe.
As autumn fades into winter, the prairie grasses turn to golden and reddish browns, and mountaintops whiten with the first snows. Winter bird populations build, as some of the earlier migrants move farther south. Except for snipe and a few Killdeer, the shorebirds leave for warmer climes. Snow and Canada Geese numbers peak, and Greater White-fronted Goose arrives.
Most of the ducks stay for the winter, but only a few of each grebe species stay. Sandhill Crane is abundant, and raptor numbers remain high. Swainson's Hawk is long gone, but you can see Bald and Golden Eagles, kestrel, Merlin, Prairie Falcon, and Sharp-shinned, Ferruginous, and Red-tailed Hawks.
Look for sparrows and towhees along fence lines. American Tree, Fox, White-crowned, and Savannah Sparrows are fairly common in winter. Five races of Dark-eyed Junco occur, presenting a challenge for birders to locate. You can also see three towhees in winter (Canyon, Spotted, and Green-tailed), but only Canyon is common.
A special treat for birders happens every Sunday in November when an additional wildlife drive is opened. It allows you to get close sightings of numerous waterfowl and cranes. The drive starts at the refuge headquarters off the main loop road and winds through prairie and past wetlands. Blue-green hues of the mountains to the west offer a stunning backdrop to the scene. Like everything else about Las Vegas NWR, the drive is unforgettable.
David Dvorak Jr. is a freelance writer and photographer based in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. He wrote about Colorado's Pawnee National Grassland in our August 1998 issue, and he is the author and illustrator of a children's book, A Sea of Grass: The Tallgrass Prairie (Simon & Schuster, 1994).
|If you go...|
How to get there: The town of Las Vegas is 65 miles east of Santa Fe on Interstate 25. To reach the refuge, take interstate exit 345, go east on Highway 104 for 1.5 miles, and then turn right (south) on Highway 281. Travel 4 miles to the entrance.
Wildlife loop: The refuge's wildlife drive makes a loop with Highway 281 and County Road 23. The state-owned McAllister Lake Waterfowl Management Area forms the southern end of the tour loop. The road at McAllister Lake is unpaved, and in the rare event of wet weather, you'll need a four-wheel or all-wheel drive vehicle.
Besides birds, what you will see: The remains of rock homes built by settlers around 1920 are the last remnants of early-20th-century life in the area. As for other wildlife, keep an eye out for toads, salamanders, rabbits, gophers, butterflies, and more.
What you should wear: In summer, be prepared for highs in the 80s as well as thundershowers. High temperatures vary throughout the rest of the year from the 60s to below freezing.
Where you can stay: Las Vegas has good lodging and restaurants. My favorite place to stay is the Inn on the Santa Fe Trail, (505) 425-6791. It is home to the excellent Blackjack's Grill restaurant. Camping is available in nearby Storrie Lake State Park and Santa Fe National Forest.
For more information: Call the refuge office at (505) 425-3581. The refuge is open from dawn to dusk, seven days a week. The office is open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Visit the refuge website.