Super National Wildlife Refuge Drives

To really explore a national wildlife refuge, of course, you’ll want to get out of your vehicle. But when time is limited or you want to get the lay of the land before you set out on a trail, a scenic drive should be considered.

For all us ‘let’s-check-it-out-first’ types, here’s a sampling of some super national wildlife refuge drives to whet your appetite for further exploration.

6. Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, Delaware

Stretching eight miles along Delaware Bay and covering 16,251 acres, Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge provides habitat for wildlife. (Credit: USFWS)
Stretching eight miles along Delaware Bay and covering 16,251 acres, Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge provides habitat for wildlife. (Credit: USFWS)

Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge protects one of the largest remaining expanses of tidal salt marsh in the mid-Atlantic region. The refuge, located along the coast of Delaware, is mostly marsh, but also includes freshwater impoundments and upland habitats that are managed for other wildlife.

A 12-mile wildlife drive cuts across man-made pools, salt marshes, mudflats, woodlands, and upland fields. Spring brings migrating waterfowl, wood warblers, and shorebirds. Summer draws herons, egrets, avocets, black-necked stilts, and terns. Fall and winter months provide resting and wintering grounds for Canada geese, snow geese, and a mix of waterfowl. Birds of prey are seen all year long.

The wildlife drive passes five short walking trails, three with 30-foot-high observation towers.

Wildlife to Observe: Snow geese, northern pintails, warblers, dunlins, dowitchers, avocets, black-necked stilts, yellow warblers, purple martins, red tailed hawks, and bald eagles.

Phone: (302) 653-9345

Website: fws.gov/refuge/Bombay_Hook

Friends of Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge: friendsofbombayhook.org

7. Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

Four short (less than 0.5 miles each) and two longer (1.5 – 4 miles) hiking trails are available adjacent to the wildlife drive or Refuge headquarters. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Four short (less than 0.5 miles each) and two longer (1.5 – 4 miles) hiking trails are available adjacent to the wildlife drive or Refuge headquarters. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Straddling the Pecos River, Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge is a wetland oasis inhabited by a diversity of wildlife. Located where the Chihuahuan Desert meets the Southern Plains, Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge is one of the more biologically significant wetland areas of the Pecos River watershed system.

The eight-mile Wildlife Drive/Auto Tour Loop is one of the better ways to observe wildlife.

Four short trails and two longer hiking trails are available adjacent to the Refuge Headquarters and Wildlife Drive.

Organized by the Friends of the Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, the 2013 Dragonfly Festival will take place on September 7.

Wildlife to Observe: Take advantage of the overlooks for great views of flocks of sandhill cranes and Ross’ and snow geese, or to spot the coyotes and red-tail hawks criss-crossing the wetlands. Drive slowly and watch for basking spiny softshell turtles, coachwhip snakes, and checkered whiptail lizards. More than 100 species of dragonflies and damselflies (Odonates) have been documented.

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Phone: (575) 622-6755

Website: fws.gov/refuge/Bitter_Lake

Friends of Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge: friendsofbitterlake.com

Dragonfly Festival: friendsofbitterlake.com/2013-dragonfly-festival

8. National Bison Range, Montana

The largest North American land mammal in existence, American bison were a key species of the Great Plains—their grazing habits helped establish the distribution of grasslands in the Plains. The current bison herd is maintained at approximately 350 animals. (Credit: USFWS)
The largest North American land mammal in existence, American bison were a key species of the Great Plains—their grazing habits helped establish the distribution of grasslands in the Plains. The current bison herd is maintained at approximately 350 animals. (Credit: USFWS)

Follow the one-way steep and winding 19-mile gravel road up Red Sleep Mountain for stunning grassland views with herds of bison, antelope, elk, big horn sheep, and deer. From the top, see the Mission Mountain range of the Rockies and enjoy panoramic views of Mission Valley. You can also access two short walks. In general, the Red Sleep Mountain Drive is open from mid-May to early October.

Due to the steepness of roads and tightness of switchbacks, no vehicles over 30 feet in length are allowed on Red Sleep Mountain Drive. They may access the shorter West Loop, Prairie Drive, and Winter Drive. No trailers of any kind may travel Red Sleep Mountain Drive.

Wildlife to Observe: Antelope, elk, mule deer, bison, mountain sheep, eagles.

Phone: (406) 644-2211

Website: fws.gov/refuge/national_bison_range

Please Note: This is Part 2 of a 4 Part Series on National Wildlife Refuges Scenic Drives

Part 1: Top 10 National Wildlife Refuges Scenic Drives

Part 3: Great Scenic Drives On National Wildlife Refuges

Part 4: Top 3 National Wildlife Refuges Scenic Drives

Worth Pondering…

A bird does not sing because it has an answer.  It sings because it has a song.

—Chinese Proverb

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Dragonflies Habitat: Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, NM

With its wide variety of habitats ranging from the Pecos River and saline sinkholes, to ponds, Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge is an ideal place to find dragonflies.

Four short (less than 0.5 miles each) and two longer (1.5 – 4 miles) hiking trails are available adjacent to the wildlife drive or Refuge headquarters. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Its location in eastern New Mexico puts the Refuge within the range of many eastern, western, and southern dragonfly species.

There are close to 100 species at the Refuge, but most are uncommon or only found in areas that are not open to the public.

The visitor center has a guide available to assist in identifying the dragonflies that are found along the Refuge tour route. The species included are those that are common and easy to find.

Many dragonflies can be approached at close range. Since dragonflies are small, you may wish to use binoculars to see some field marks.

If a dragonfly flies off before you can identify it, don’t worry. Generally, if there is one individual of a species, there will be more in the area. Also, since most dragonflies have small territories and it probably will show up again nearby.

Plan to attend the Dragonfly Festival, September 7-9, 2012. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best time to observe dragonflies at Bitter Lake is on sunny and hot days. They do not like cool temperatures or rain, and even clouds will make some species take cover in bushes. During the summer the best time of day is usually mid-to-late morning before the typical afternoon winds pick up. Since the temperature can be over 100 degrees, be sure to wear a hat, sun screen and LOTS of water—and remember to drink it!

Friends of Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge

The Friends of Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge sponsor an annual Dragonfly Festival the first weekend following Labor Day (September 7-9, in 2012). This year’s festival marks New Mexico’s centennial and the 75th anniversary of Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

Photo Tips

The refuge offers excellent nature photography and wildlife viewing opportunities. The eight-mile wildlife drive is one of the best ways to observe wildlife. If you enjoy dragonfly watching, try taking the short Dragonfly Trail within the first one mile on the auto drive.

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Details

Operating Hours: Open year-round; visitors center open 8:00 a.m.-4:00 p.m. Monday-Saturday; tour loop open 1 hour before sunrise-1 hour after sunset

Location: From Roswell, east on Highway 380 about three miles, north on Red Bridge Road, and east on Pine Ridge Road to refuge, following directional signs; OR north on Highway 285, and east on Pine Lodge Road to Refuge, following directional signs
Please be aware that using a GPS to locate the entrance to Bitter Lake NWR will take you to a dead end road

Admission: Non-fee area

Primary Wildlife: Migratory waterfowl and sandhill cranes—primarily a winter resting and feeding area, great variety of wildlife

Habitat: 24,520 acres on the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert changing to grass and shrub community and includes playa lakes, marshes, man-made lakes, and 700 acres of cultivated crop land

Straddling the Pecos River, Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge is truly a jewel, a wetland oasis inhabitated by a diverse abundance of wildlife species. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Address: 4067 Bitter Lake Road, Roswell, NM 88201

Contact: (575) 622-6755

Website: fws.gov/southwest

Friends of Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Website: friendsofbitterlake.com

Dragonfly Festival: September 7-9, 2012

Please Note: This is Part 2 of a 2-part series on Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Part 1: Birding Hotspot: Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, NM

Worth Pondering…
A happy life is not built up of tours abroad and pleasant holidays, but of little clumps of violets noticed by the roadside, hidden away almost so that only those can see them who have God’s peace and love in their hearts; in one long continuous chain of little joys, little whispers from the spiritual world, and little gleams of sunshine on our daily work.

—Edward Wilson

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Birding Hotspot: Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, NM

UFO sightings may have put Roswell, New Mexico, on the map, but at nearby Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, strange creatures are more than visitors.

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge offers a variety of outdoor recreational opportunities. Visitor Center can be seen in the distance. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

They inhabit odd sinkholes, playa lakes, seeps, and gypsum springs fed by an underground river.

Straddling the Pecos River the Refuge consists of an assortment of water habitats. Numerous seeps and free-flowing springs, oxbow lakes, marshes and shallow water impoundments, water-filled sinkholes, and the refuge namesake, Bitter Lake, make up these unique environments.

Scattered across the land are over 70 natural sinkholes of different shapes and sizes. Created by groundwater erosion these water habitats form isolated communities of fish, invertebrate, amphibians, and other wildlife.

Located where the Chihuahuan Desert meets the Southern Plains, Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge is one of the more biologically significant wetland areas of the Pecos River watershed system. Established in 1937 to provide wintering habitat for migratory birds, the Refuge plays a crucial role in the conservation of wetlands in the desert southwest.

The Refuge falls into three distinct areas along the Pecos River:

  • The 9,620-acre Salt Creek Wilderness to the north protects native grasses, sand dunes, and brush bottomlands.
  • The middle unit features refuge headquarters and the auto tour, which winds among lakes, wetlands, croplands, and desert uplands.
  • The southern part of the refuge belongs exclusively to wildlife and is closed to all public access. Here refuge croplands support tremendous flocks of wintering birds.
Solitude and contentment that is Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About 10 miles northeast of Roswell, Bitter Lake is truly a jewel, a wetland oasis providing habitat for thousands of migrating sandhill cranes, Ross’s and snow geese, and about twenty duck species such as pintails, mallards, canvasback, gadwall, shovelers, and teal.

Arriving in November, most sandhill cranes, snow geese, and other waterfowl depart in late February for their long flight to breeding grounds in the north.

An 8-mile, self-guided auto tour around the lakes starts at the visitor center near refuge headquarters.

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge is designated by the American Bird Conservancy as a Globally Important Bird Area.

At first glance, you might see only the 10,000 or so wintering sandhill cranes and 20,000 snow geese. But take a deeper look.

The Refuge also protects and provides habitat for some of New Mexico’s rarest and unusual creatures such as the least shrew, Noel’s amphipod, least tern, and Roswell spring snail.

Barking frogs nestle in limestone crevices or burrow in gypsum soils. Their yapping chorus can be heard in June and July. These odd frogs, found in New Mexico only in Chaves, Eddy, and Otero counties, join other wildlife, some of which are relics from millions of years ago when the refuge was once a Permian shallow sea.

Within the sinkholes and springs, tiny native fish thrive, like the Pecos pupfish, green-throat darter, and the endangered Pecos gambusia.

Pecos pupfish males change from dull brown to iridescent blue in breeding season.

Courting greenthroat darter males rival them in brilliance, transforming from olive to emerald green with reddish fins.

The White-faced Ibis is one of more than 350 species of birds that inhabit Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most of the Refuge’s 24 fish species are native to the Pecos River drainage waters.

In summer, the interior least tern nests on refuge salt flats, the only place this endangered species breeds in New Mexico. Snowy plovers, killdeer, avocets, and black-necked stilts raise their chicks as well.

Please Note: This is Part 1 of a 2-part series on Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Part 2: Dragonflies Habitat: Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, NM

Worth Pondering…
I realized that if I had to choose, I would rather heave birds than airplanes.

—Charles Lindbergh

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