2020-12-25 Christmas at Bitter Lake Near Roswell

Scaled Quail - Callipepla squamata
I sat quietly near the feeder at the visitor center until the neighborhood quail gained confidence to come in. 

In April 2020, as I was ending my first Texas birding adventure, I called my friend Jerry in Albuquerque and told him I was headed his way via Roswell. He suggested I visit the Bitter Lake NWR, and I’m so glad he did. Cassin’s Sparrows and Scaled Quail were the highlights for me on that first visit. In fact, the quail meetings were my first for the species. It being April, the quail and the sparrows were performing their spring rituals, which added a dimension to the encounters. With my time in New Mexico winding down on this December trip, I wanted to pay another visit to this reserve. I left Bosque del Apache and headed for Texas, looking forward to another visit to Bitter Lake and to meeting its winter wildlife.

The refuge’s Visitor Center is six miles east of Roswell perched on a bluff overlooking the wetlands in the Pecos River Valley below. On arriving there early Christmas morning, I wandered the perimeter path around the building. It did not surprise me there was no one in attendance. During my April visit I found the center similarly quiet, but it was the pandemic, not the holiday that closed these doors. I kicked up a few quail as I completed my walk around the center and found an empty feeder hanging near the entrance, and I thought it a shame there was no food for the birds on this sunny holiday morning.

Leaving the Visitor Center, there is a three-mile dirt track loop for self-guided tours of the wetlands, and I launched an exploratory clockwise trip to see what wildlife I could find. I saw 1200 Sandhill Cranes isolated at a great distance and later learned there had been 12,000 earlier in the year. There were lots of Snow Geese, but other forms of waterfowl were more difficult to see. I enjoyed watching meadowlarks and shorebirds foraging on the thin ice at the edges of the wetlands. I saw sparrows, pipits and quail as they scurried to avoid my approaching vehicle. Several harriers performed their lazy flights as they patrolled the grounds, looking for feeding opportunities.

Snow Goose - Anser caerulescens
Wintering Snow Geese numbers were high during my visit. I first visited Bitterlake NWR outside of Roswell New Mexico in April 2020. This visit was a winter sampling of the reserve’s wildlife.

On completing the tour loop in the morning, I returned to the visitor center to find a husband and wife volunteer team attending feeding duties for the birds and fish under their care. Jerry asked me to look up his friend Steve Alvarez, a staff biologist he’d worked with during their Dragonfly Festivals in past years. I learned from these volunteers he was away because of the holiday. I found out these two folks worked for Steve and knew him well. I had a lovely, socially distant visit with the volunteers from Minnesota, before they carried on with their tasks. I mentioned my April visit and the quails I met, and they told me they struggled to get pictures at their camp, even though there were feeders outside. I suggested that rather than opening their doors or windows after the birds appeared, to try sitting still and waiting for the birds to come in. I’m not sure if the message sunk in. But it is a strategy I’ve had some success with.

Their next mission was putting up signs for the hunters, directing them to the locations south of the protected wetlands where their gunning was permitted. Sunday was one of the several days in the week allowed for hunting on the reserve. With that news, I decided this visit at Bitter Lake would be a one-day affair. After they left to post their signs, I followed my own advice. With the feeder filled, birds flew in to feed on the fresh supplies. I collected my camera gear and found a position to sit on my small folding stool and blended in as best I could so I could gather images of the hungry birds. I saw White-Crowned Sparrows, House Sparrows and House Finches coming in, but after a while the quail came through and let hunger override their shyness and I got some worthwhile images despite the backlighting and shadiness of the scene.

After my time at the feeder, I executed a second round through the wetlands below. When I finished, I’d gathered images of American Pipits, Greater Yellowlegs, House Finches, Least Sandpipers, Savannah Sparrows, Scaled Quail, Snow Geese, Western Meadowlarks, and White-Crowned Sparrows.

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