Out and About
Birding on the Bosque
Coyotes, hawks and quail, oh my! Tagging along
on the Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park's weekly walks.
by Karen Ray
Looking for a new adventure, Dorothy? The Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park has, not a yellow brick road leading to the Emerald City, but instead over two miles of nature paths, native plants and a beautiful visitor's center. It's a great opportunity to become acquainted with the flora and fauna of both the Bosque and the Chihuahuan Desert, which "come together within the park to form what is known as an ecotone — an area rich in its variety of plant and animal life from both ecological communities," according to a park brochure.
Bird-watching tour on the Upland Trail at the
Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park. (Photo by Karen Ray)
In 2008 the Bosque became the 34th addition to New Mexico's state park system, hosting many different activities and events. Located on the southwest corner of Mesilla, across Hwy. 70, the park offers 1.4 miles of developed trails, educational programs, picnicking, wildlife and bird viewing. You'll also find an amphitheater, gardens, a visitor center with exhibits, and wildlife viewing blinds. Groups are easily accommodated with a picnic shelter, meeting room, and private event and party facilities. Last fall the park hosted 400-500 people for its first annual Native American Market.
Every Saturday morning there is a bird-walk led by a Mesilla Valley Audubon Society member. These small groups provide lots of chances for interaction. Visitors can borrow a set of binoculars from the visitor center, so don't be dismayed if you don't own a pair. Plant identification courses led by Forensic Botanist Ranger Andy Caven are also offered. Every Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. there are ranger-led hikes where you can learn more about the native plants and wildlife in our area.
Last year I made a brief visit to the park and have anticipated a more thorough exploration ever since. I got my chance on a crisp Saturday morning in February and arrived ready for my first-ever birding walk. I have learned the proper names of many birds over the years and was ready to learn more.
A perching verdin. (Photo by Dale Dombrowski)
The tour was led by Nancy Stotz, a regular guide with the Mesilla Valley Audubon Society. The park hosts a birding walk every Saturday and she typically leads two of these per month. Our small group, many visiting here to escape the cold northern winters, gathered in the brick courtyard of the visitor's center next to a second group led by Ranger Dale Dombrowski.
We started off down the path leading through a garden with various labeled plant specimens, including willow and catclaw acacia (which is a "good anti-inflammatory for the stomach and esophagus... and is good for sore throat and mouth inflammations as well as dry raspy coughing," according to medplant.nmsu.edu). Even in late winter the structural beauty of the plants was evident. By late April the park will be starting to green up; I'll be sure to go back at different seasons just to enjoy the varied foliage and blooms.
Stotz was well equipped with a spotting scope mounted on a tripod as she led us through the bright sunshine along the well-maintained Upland Trail, about a half-mile long. A visitor from Minnesota stopped to look through the scope at a bird perched in the top of a cottonwood framed by the Organ Mountains in the background. A flock of white-winged doves skimmed across the trail and Stotz noted that they "first appeared in the 1960s.... We now lead the nation and during the Christmas count we typically have somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000."
Stopping periodically to set up the scope and point out different bird species, she spoke from abundant experience and showed us more details in her well-loved copy of the Sibley Field Guide, the birders' bible. We took turns viewing the birds she pointed out and asking many questions, not just about birds but other natural things we observed. The soft sand of the trail had been brushed clean by the previous day's strong winds, leaving a clean slate for today's tracks.
Later, our bird-watching group came upon Ranger Andy Caven, who had a spotting scope set up near a curved-bill thrasher, a species related to mockingbirds. Caven admiringly explained, "These birds can sing 200 different calls. It's one of the smartest birds around — it's showing off."
Directions to the Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park
April-October, 7 a.m.-4 p.m. November-March, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Open year-round except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. $5 per car, $40 annual state park pass.
We continued quietly along the trail and Stotz pointed out a northern harrier hawk circling in the fringe of the brush at the meadow's edge. This hawk, also called a marsh hawk, is "one of our more regular raptors in winter.... They hunt by flying very low to flush prey up," she explained. As this hawk buzzed the bushes, mirroring a Navy training flight that took off over the valley, she provided more detail on the beautiful bird: They "have an owl-like facial disk that helps them hunt for rodents and they use that facial disk to focus sound into their ears. They have really fine-tuned hearing."
During the bird watch Stotz pointed out an area that looked as if it had been frequented by errant plumbers. She explained that the PVC pipes protruding from the hillside are "artificial burrows to try to get some burrowing owls in the park.... They often have to relocate owls because of constructions projects and this may be one of the sites that they move owls to."
Ranger Dombrowski, also a journalism professor, has been with the Parks Service for many years and works as an educational program liaison for three organizations: the Bosque School in Albuquerque, the Audubon Society and the state parks system. The Mesilla Valley Bosque is one of 28 Bosque Ecosystem Management Program (BEMP) sites. "This allows grade-school kids to do on-site monitoring and analyzing of pit fall traps, leaf litter collection bins and ground water monitoring," he explained. The BEMP program "collaborates with K-12 students and their teachers to track long-term environmental change in the Middle Rio Grande riparian forest, or 'bosque.'" Students learn to monitor the "historically important and now greatly altered ecosystem" of the Rio Grande. This data is made available to the community to help determine the impact of a variety of factors on the Bosque.
Dombrowski presents educational programming in the schools and will be working with seven or eight local schools in connection with the Bosque. He said most of the educational work is with middle-school students, but there are some grade-school classes involved also. He wants to develop tracking programs for kids, as there are many stories in nature that can be deciphered by an observant person willing to figure out the tale. In addition to birds, numerous mammal species frequent the park, including javelinas, skunks, bobcat, raccoons, rabbits and coyotes. He also leads photography classes on the "Art of Photographic Composition." Educators interested in programs offered through the Mesilla Valley Bosque can contact either Dale Dombrowski or Janet Kirwan, park superintendent, at (575) 523-4398.
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