2020-05-12: The Road to Bosque del Apache

Pine Siskin - Spinus pinus
After driving from Roswell, New Mexico all day, I spent a couple of hours in the desert garden at Bosque del Apache, where birds, bugs and flowers captured my attention. I did not expect to find these mountain loving Pine Siskins here.

Tuesday morning May 12th, after a few extra hours with the birds at Bitter Lake NWR outside of Roswell New Mexico, I drove a circuitous, winding route through Ruidoso. A more direct road would have been to stay on US-380 all the way to San Antonio, but at Hondo I veered left on US-70 and stayed on it for 29 miles until I reached NM-48 at Ruidoso Downs. I found myself on the “Billy The Kid Trail” until I reached Angus, where I made a left turn on NM-37, which ultimately brought me back to US-380. My destination was Bosque del Apache, eight miles south of San Antonio in the Rio Grande Valley.

A man in a hurry might not have enjoyed travelling such rural, winding roads as I found here, but I was not that guy! Enjoying the scenery outweighs any need to “get there”, and the scenery was great! I’ve mentioned in past blogs how I use Google Maps to navigate while travelling, and how sometimes their instructions can be unreliable. I try to have paper maps on hand to better see the big picture before I begin the day’s journey. On this day I allowed Google to lead me down some sketchy routes, not minding when the suggested road wasn’t the most direct or efficient.

For being in such a seemingly remote area of New Mexico, Ruidoso seemed to be more upscale than I expected to find here. The town smelled like money!

In contrast to the rolling flatlands I travelled in western Texas and eastern New Mexico, this part of New Mexico had mountains. These did not seem to be high mountains when compared to some places in the west, but some of their peaks were nearly 12,000 feet high. Here in Ruidoso grew conifers, and also here were riparian streams. As the road left the town center, the population thinned, yet homes were still spread over the landscape, because that’s what people do! We find beautiful places and we want to BE there. So we carve out a flat place and erect elaborate boxes, then lather-rinse-repeat until the area loses most of the beauty that first brought us to these places. Such is the way of humans.

Another insult to the landscape I observed on the drive was caused by a more natural process. Some of the hillsides I drove through had been burned in recent years, yet I could see the recovery process was in action. Many of the trees survived, though their density was greatly reduced, making way for grass and shrubs to prosper, no doubt providing feeding opportunities for the grazers and seed eaters to exploit. The trees should eventually return, if we don’t interfere.

Black-Throated Sparrow - Amphispiza bilineata
I hiked the Canyon Trail at Bosque del Apache on this Wednesday morning in New Mexico and met birds like these Black-Throated Sparrows.

I finally reached San Antonio late that afternoon and reserved a space in the Chupadera Mountain View RV Park, five and a half miles north of Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, where I learned the auto tour road through the premier section of the reserve was closed. I found this unbelievable! What better way to maintain social distancing than by staying in your car and enjoying nature? This was clearly the bad (or lazy) decision of the refuge manager, claiming adherence to “national policy”, but I know better. I read on other refuge websites such as Laguna Atascosa NWR that the national directive was to keep open spaces on public lands available for the public to use! I agree that enclosed spaces such as the Visitor Centers should close to protect both the staff and the public, but the auto tour roads harbored no such threat.

I learned that three sections of the reserve were available for public exploration: the Arboretum (or Cactus Garden) adjacent to the Visitor Center, the Chupadera Trail, and the Canyon Trail. All these locations subject visitors to close-proximity contact with each other on narrow sections of the trails, so the decision to close the auto tour road was even more illogical and confusing. Volunteers (bless them) still worked to maintain the gardens, and were subjected to close contact with visitors, so there seems to be a measure of hypocrisy in the decision to close the auto tour road.

With limited options and only a little time, I tried to make the most of my visit. I drove to the arboretum after checking in at the RV park to see what birds might be present. The best bird encounter I had was with a small flock of Pine Siskins at a thistle feeder in the cactus garden. My first glimpse was not a careful one and I assumed the birds were Lesser Goldfinches, but a closer look revealed their true identity. I don’t know a lot about Pine Siskin migration movements, but they nest in conifers. Mountains both east and west of the Rio Grande fit the bill, but their presence on the valley floor suggested they were moving between the higher elevation locations in search of better feeding or nesting opportunities.

Ash-Throated Flycatcher - Myiarchus cinerascens
I hiked the Canyon Trail at Bosque del Apache on this Wednesday morning in New Mexico and met birds like these Ash-Throated Flycatchers. I must admit some regrets about carrying my heavy camera gear on this long dry trail. It wore me out.

Wednesday morning I broke camp and drove south to the Canyon Trailhead, where it was suggested I might meet nesting Peregrine Falcons. I took a liter of water and my usual heavy camera gear with me and went out to meet the day. Ash-Throated Flycatchers and Black-Throated Sparrows sang from the highest perches on the low brush of the valley floor, and Rock Wrens from the sandstone cliffs above. The loop trail is only 2.2 miles round-trip, but carrying my heavy gear and covering the required elevation gain was a challenge for this old man. I didn’t do myself any favors when I went off trail for part of the hike to inspect the cliffs, but I lived to tell the story. I found the site the falcons had used for nesting, but the birds had flown the coop! Once the young birds fledge, the family mobilizes and looks for the best feeding opportunities they can find, and then teach the next generation how to catch their own dinners. Sometimes that can take a while.

Later, I turned north and headed to Albuquerque to stay with my friend, the amazing and always interesting Jerry Goffe, who hosted me until it was time for me to resume by trek westward, passing through Arizona and seeing old friends along the way.

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