Ark of the Continent: Big Thicket National Preserve

When people think of Texas, many think of dusty, windblown plains, rodeos, and cowboys. Rarely do they envision towering pine trees, creeks winding through a maze of cypress sloughs, or bogs with carnivorous plants. In other words, they rarely think about Big Thicket National Preserve.

Ark of the Continent: Big Thicket National Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Ark of the Continent: Big Thicket National Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Commonly known as the “Ark of the Continent”, The Big Thicket region is home to an impressive array of approximately 1,300 species of trees, shrubs, vines, and grasses. By virtue of its diverse habitats, which range from sand hills to swamps, Big Thicket hosts a wide array of wildlife. About 60 mammal species are found in the preserve, in addition to almost 90 reptile amphibian species, more than 1,800 invertebrate species, almost 100 fish species, and 175 bird species.

Big Thicket National Preserve consists of 15 units covering 112,250 acres of land and water spread over seven counties in southeast Texas. While public roads connect the units of the preserve, few roads lead into it; the best way to explore and experience this area is by foot or by boat.

Approximately 40 miles of hiking trails and countless miles of creeks, bayous, and 9 miles of the Neches River wind through the Big Thicket. Most visitors come to hike, birdwatch, canoe, and kayak. The Big Thicket is a place of discovery, a place to wander and explore, and a place to marvel at the richness of nature.

Ark of the Continent: Big Thicket National Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Ark of the Continent: Big Thicket National Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best place to start your visit is at the Big Thicket National Preserve Visitor Center. View Big Thicket: America’s First National Preserve, the 16-minute orientation film on the cultural and natural history of the Big Thicket area, browse the many educational displays and exhibits, and examine hands-on items in the Discovery Room. Preserve rangers are also available to help you plan your visit and answer questions.

The visitor center is located seven miles north of Kountze, on US Highway 69 at the junction of FM 420.

Village Creek and the Neches River provide many paddling options for canoeists and kayakers, ranging from just a few hours to several days. The preserve includes two Texas State Paddling Trails: the 21-mile Village Creek Paddling Trail and the 5-mile Cooks Lake Paddling Trail. Local outfitters can provide equipment and shuttle services.

Ark of the Continent: Big Thicket National Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Ark of the Continent: Big Thicket National Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are no developed campgrounds or campsites in the Preserve, but primitive camping is allowed in many areas. The visitor center issues free camping permits.

Life of all types abounds in the Big Thicket. This national preserve protects the incredible diversity of life found where multiple habitats converge in southeast Texas. Hiking trails and waterways meander through nine different ecosystems, from longleaf pine forests to cypress-lined bayous. Hiking trails range from a 0.3-mile boardwalk loop to 15 miles.

Big Thicket National Preserve lies in the path of two major migratory bird flyways. Bird migration peaks between March and early May. Approximately 185 bird species either live in the Preserve or migrate through it. The more sought-after birds are the red-cockaded woodpecker, brown-headed nuthatch, and Bachman’s sparrow. The Sundew Trail tends to be a good place to see nutchatches, woodpeckers, and other bird species. The visitor center sells a checklist of birds found in Big Thicket National Preserve; alternately, the checklist can be downloaded from the NPS website.

Ark of the Continent: Big Thicket National Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Ark of the Continent: Big Thicket National Preserve © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is no shortage of land and water to explore, with tracks offering the chance to study overlapping ecosystems including ancient forests, Southern upland plains, and coastal drainage areas. Defined by the presence of swamps, birds, and bugs, it is a place that might inspire followers of naturalists, Henry Thoreau and John James Audubon, as opposed to the Frederic Remington, painter and sculptor of the Wild West.

Big Thicket National Preserve was established on October 11, 1974, to protect its rich biological diversity.

On December 15, 1981, the Preserve was designated an International Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Man and the Biosphere Program. On July 26, 2001, the American Bird Conservancy recognized the Preserve as a Globally Important Bird Area joining thousands of others around the world

Big Thicket National Preserve does not charge entrance fees or user fees.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

We can never have enough of nature.

—Henry David Thoreau

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Top 3 Birding Hotspots in Southeastern Arizona

Southeastern Arizona is an ecological crossroads, where the Sierra Madre of Mexico, the Rocky Mountains, and the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts all come together.

Whitewater Draw, a 1500-acre wildlife area about 28 miles southeast of Tombstone, attracts many species of birds including snow geese and sandhill cranes. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Whitewater Draw, a 1500-acre wildlife area about 28 miles southeast of Tombstone, attracts many species of birds including snow geese and sandhill cranes. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The abrupt rise of mountains like the Huachucas from the surrounding arid grasslands creates “sky islands” harboring rare species and communities of plants and animals.

If you are a birder, Southeastern Arizona is the place to go. Birding enthusiast are attracted to this unique region with many arriving in recreational vehicles.

The following are our suggestions for where to find the best birding spots. Generally, they are located along streams and rivers or in forested mountain canyons. Some will have nearby RV parks or forestry campgrounds but will require a drive in your toad/tow vehicle.

3. Whitewater Draw

The Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area is in the southwestern part of Sulphur Springs Valley, west of the Chiricahua Mountains between Bisbee and Douglas to the south and Willcox to the north.

The valley’s highways and back roads offer access to a variety of habitats, including grassland, desert scrub, playa lake, and farm fields.

Nearly half of the Wildlife Area falls within a floodplain. Over 600 acres of the area is intermittently flooded wetland with two small patches of riparian habitat. The surrounding agricultural community of the valley enhances feeding opportunities for wintering birds.

This is a playa that fills with shallow water during the wet seasons and attracts many types of waterfowl, including migrating snow geese, sandhill cranes, and many kinds of ducks, herons, egrets, shorebirds, gulls, and terns. Hunting in the grasslands or soaring overhead are prairie and peregrine falcons and wintering hawks. Spring and fall are good times to spot migratory birds. Surrounding grasslands nurture a wealth of quail, doves, sparrows, and songbirds throughout the year.

Ramsey Canyon Preserve is renowned for its outstanding scenic beauty and the diversity of its plant and animal life, 15, species of humming birds, scrub jays, and acorn woodpeckers (pictured above). © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Ramsey Canyon Preserve is renowned for its outstanding scenic beauty and the diversity of its plant and animal life, 15, species of humming birds, scrub jays, and acorn woodpeckers (pictured above). © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While hardly luxurious, this area does have some useful amenities including restrooms, RV access and parking, walking trails and interpretive signs, and viewing platforms with binoculars.

In the wet season, the ground can be soft and muddy. Take precautions. If you will be exploring in a vehicle away from the parking area, a 4-wheel drive is recommended.

Whitewater Draw is a 1500-acre wildlife area about 28 miles southeast of Tombstone.

To read more on Whitewater Draw, click here.

2. Ramsey Canyon Preserve

Managed by the Nature Conservancy, 380-acre Ramsey Canyon Preserve, located within the Upper San Pedro River Basin in southeastern Arizona, is renowned for its outstanding scenic beauty and the diversity of its plant and animal life.

Known worldwide as a birding hotspot, it is home to more than 400 species of plants and more than 170 species of birds.

The featured jewels of this pristine habitat are the 14 species of hummingbirds that congregate here from spring through autumn.

The diverse wildlife and habitats of Ramsey Canyon may be viewed from the Hamburg Trail. This open-ended route parallels Ramsey Creek through the preserve before climbing 500 feet in a half-mile series of steep switchbacks. These lead to a scenic overlook in the Coronado National Forest one mile from the preserve headquarters. From the overlook, the trail continues upstream and enters the Miller Peak Wilderness Area where it joins other trails.

Ramsey Canyon Preserve is about six miles south of Sierra Vista.

To read more on Ramsey Canyon Preserve, click here.

1. San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area

San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (SPRNCA) encompasses 56,000 acres and some 40 miles of the meandering Upper San Pedro River between the Mexican border and St. David.

The word riparian refers to an area where plants and animals thrive because of an availability of water, either at or near the soil surface. This riparian corridor supports one of the Southwest’s last remaining desert riparian ecosystems.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages this area. Designated a Globally Important Bird Area in 1996, this 56,000-acre preserve is home to over 100 species of breeding birds and invaluable habitat for over 250 migrant and wintering birds.

Designated a Globally Important Birding Area, San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, is home to over 250 species of birds including the lesser goldfinch. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Designated an Important Birding Area, San Pedro National Conservation Area, is home to over 250 species of birds including the lesser goldfinch. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A good way to visit is to go to San Pedro House, seven miles east of Sierra Vista off Route 90. Located on the site of an old cattle ranch, the visitor center is in the old ranch house beneath the umbrella of two gigantic cottonwood trees. One of these great patriarchs has lived over 130 years. This tree alone is worth a visit. Here you will find informative exhibits, numerous birds, a guided walk along the river, and a charming bookstore run by The Friends of the San Pedro River.

Adjacent to the San Pedro House are ramadas, interpretative exhibits, picnic tables, and bird feeders for close-up encounters with the tiny travelers.

Outside, you can nab a walking stick and explore several miles of trails that lead through sparrow-laden sacaton grasslands, along the cottonwood- and willow-strung riverbank, and beside cattail-lined ponds.

Other San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area access points include St. David Holy Trinity Monastery, St. David Cienega, Charleston, Hereford, and Fairbank Historic Townsite where you can peer into a restored schoolhouse, view an 1882 Mercantile building, and walk the trails to the river.

To read more about San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (SPRNCA), click here.

Please Note: This is Part 2 of a 2-part series on Southeastern Arizona Birding Hotspots

Part 1: Top 6 Birding Hotspots in Southeastern Arizona

The journey continues…

A traveler without observation is a bird without wings.

Worth Pondering…
Legends say that hummingbirds float free of time, carrying our hopes for love, joy, and celebration. The hummingbird’s delicate grace reminds us that life is rich, beauty is everywhere, every personal connection has meaning and that laughter is life’s sweetest creation.

—Papyrus

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Top 10 National Wildlife Refuges Scenic 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.

10. Seney National Wildlife Refuge, Michigan

Photographers do a wonderful job at capturing the beauty of Seney National Wildlife Refuge. (Credit: fws.gov/Dawn Kopp)
Photographers do a wonderful job at capturing the beauty of Seney National Wildlife Refuge. (Credit: fws.gov/Dawn Kopp)

Seney National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1935 as a refuge and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife.

The refuge is located in the east-central portion of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, halfway between Lake Superior and Lake Michigan.

A seven-mile ride along Marshland Wildlife Drive leads past wetlands and open water and through deciduous and coniferous forests in the Great Manistique Swamp, an old lumbering area. The road passes three wheelchair-accessible observation decks with viewing scopes.

The tour route is open during daylight hours from May 15 through October 15. The route does not accommodate large recreational vehicles. Bicycles are permitted on the auto tour route.

Wildlife to Observe: Beaver, river otters, bald eagles, osprey, common loons, Canada geese, sandhill cranes, trumpeter swans, black bear, turtles, and songbirds.

Phone: (906) 586-9851

Website: fws.gov/refuge/seney

9. Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge, North Dakota

The diverse habitat types found on Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge—mixed grass prairie, river valley, marshes, sandhills, and woodlands—support an abundant variety of wildlife. (Credit: USFWS/Marlene Welstad)
The diverse habitat types found on Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge—mixed grass prairie, river valley, marshes, sandhills, and woodlands—support an abundant variety of wildlife. (Credit: USFWS/Marlene Welstad)

The 19-mile Refuge Backway follows the gently rolling hills of upland prairie, offering excellent views of the wooded draws of the Des Lacs Valley with great scenery and wildlife viewing opportunities. More than 250 species of birds, including waterfowl, raptors, and many other migrants, have been seen there, along with deer, moose, and other mammals.

Also along the Backway is the trailhead for Munch’s Coulee National Recreation Trail, a mile-long loop with a universally accessible section; the trail provides panoramic views and opportunities to see wildlife close-up.

Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge was officially named one of America’s top 500 Globally Important Bird Areas (IBA) by the national non-profit organization, American Bird Conservancy (ABC), in recognition of its significance in the ongoing effort to conserve wild birds and their habitats.

Wildlife to see: Mergansers and snow geese in the spring and fall, several species of grebes in summer, as well as wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, and moose.

Phone: (701) 385-4046

Website: fws.gov/jclarksalyer/deslacs

Details

National Wildlife Refuge System

The 2013 Federal Duck Stamp. Robert Steiner, an artist from San Francisco, Calif., is the winner of the 2012 Federal Duck Stamp Art Contest. (Credit: fws.gov)
The 2013 Federal Duck Stamp. Robert Steiner, an artist from San Francisco, Calif., is the winner of the 2012 Federal Duck Stamp Art Contest. (Credit: fws.gov)

The National Wildlife Refuge System protects wildlife and wildlife habitat on more than 150 million acres of land and water from the Caribbean to the Pacific, Maine to Alaska.

National wildlife refuges provide habitat for more than 700 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, 250 reptile and amphibian species, and more than 1,000 species of fish. More than 380 threatened or endangered plants or animals are protected on wildlife refuges.

Each year, millions of migrating birds use refuges as stepping stones while they fly thousands of miles between their summer and winter homes.

The Refuge System is a division of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service within the Department of the Interior.

Phone: (800) 344-WILD (9453)

Website: fws.gov/refuges

Please Note: This is Part 1 of a 4 Part Series on National Wildlife Refuges Scenic Drives

Part 2: Super National Wildlife Refuge Drives

Part 3: Great Scenic Drives On National Wildlife Refuges

Part 4: Top 3 National Wildlife Refuges Scenic Drives

Worth Pondering…

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

—Alfred, Lord Tennyson, The Eagle

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Great Birding Destinations

For great birding destinations, you can’t beat national wildlife refuges.

Scenic Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is open an hour before dawn and closes an hour after dusk, to enable visitors to be on hand when the birds begin and conclude their daily activities. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Scenic Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is open an hour before dawn and closes an hour after dusk, to enable visitors to be on hand when the birds begin and conclude their daily activities. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Refuges situated along the country’s four main flyways—Atlantic, Mississippi, Central, and Pacific—are natural bird magnets. Some refuges have been designated Globally Important Birding Areas—sites that provide essential habitat for one or more bird species.

Which refuges are best for birding? The answer depends on where you RV and the species of birds you wish to see.

Following are five of our favorite national wildlife refuges.

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas

Mild winters, bay waters, and abundant food draw more than 400 bird species to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast. Among them: the whooping crane, one of North America’s rarest birds. The only wild flock of whooping cranes makes Aransas Refuge its winter home. You can hear the birds trumpet across the marsh.

In winter, many other birds feed on fish, blue crab, and shellfish in the coastal marsh. The refuge’s oak hills provide important habitat for neotropical birds, such as orioles, grosbeaks, and buntings, migrating between North and Central America.

For Aransas National Wildlife Refuge bird checklist, click here.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

Scenic Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge thrills birders in late fall and winter when sandhill cranes, snow geese, and Arctic geese arrive by the tens of thousands.

At dawn, hushed visitors gather to watch geese and cranes lift off as one from their marsh roosts. At dusk, visitors gather to watch the birds return.

Visitors to Santa Ana are often greeted with the raucous cry of the drab brown, scrawny-looking, turkey-like bird called a plain chachalaca, a bird that reaches its northern limits in the Valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Visitors to Santa Ana are often greeted with the raucous cry of the drab brown, scrawny-looking, turkey-like bird called a plain chachalaca, a bird that reaches its northern limits in the Valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The annual Festival of the Cranes (this year’s event is November 19-24, 2013) features many birding tours, talks and wildlife experiences for all levels of experience.

For Scenic Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge bird checklist, click here.

… Continue reading →

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge on the southernmost stretch of the Rio Grande is a top birding destination, home to species such as green jays, chachalacas, and great kiskadees.

The refuge is important habitat for birds from the Central and Mississippi flyways that funnel through the area on their way to and from Central and South America. Other bird species, like the groove-billed ani, reach the northern limit of their range in this area.

Hundreds of thousands of migrating raptors—including broadwing hawks, northern harriers, and peregrine falcons—fly over the refuge in spring and fall. Santa Ana Refuge’s rarest raptors, the hook-billed kite and gray hawk, are seen occasionally.

Abundant spring warblers include: golden-winged warbler, magnolia warbler, northern and tropical parula, American redstart, palm warbler, and yellow-breasted chat.

An ebird Trail Tracker station shows visitors what birds are being seen when and where.

For Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge species list, click here.

… Continue reading →

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas

Hundreds of bird species, migrating to and from Central and South America, funnel through Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, at the southern tip of Texas, making this Central Flyway starting point one of North America’s most biologically diverse regions.

Many bird species also reach their northernmost range here along the Rio Grande. More than 250,000 ducks use the refuge in peak season in November; an estimated 80 percent of the North American population of redhead ducks winter in the area.

The colorful green jay is usually seen in brushy areas and dense woods in the lower Rio Grande Valley.. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The colorful green jay is usually seen in brushy areas and dense woods in the lower Rio Grande Valley.. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The refuge is a vital stopover for migrating neotropical songbirds, such as painted buntings, Bullock’s oriole, and various warblers and hummingbirds.

The refuge is also well known for its raptors, including migrating peregrine falcons in the spring and fall. The once-rare aplomado falcon can be seen hunting the refuge’s grasslands.

For Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge bird checklist, click here.

… Continue reading →

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, on Florida’s east east coast near Cape Canaveral, is world-famous as a birding destination. More than 320 species have been documented here.

From December to February, hundreds of thousands of migratory birds use the refuge as a rest stop or winter in refuge impoundments. During warmer months, resident wading birds, shore birds, songbirds and raptors forage in refuge marshes, open waters and forests.

The Scrub Ridge and Pine Flatwoods trails offer your best bets for seeing the Florida scrub jay, a species found only in Florida. The Oak Hammock and Palm Hammock trails provide great viewing for a variety of songbirds and raptors. Two other hiking trails—Cruickshank and Wild Birds trail—provide wildlife viewing platforms and photography blinds.

For Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge bird checklist, click here.

Worth Pondering…

Have you ever observed a hummingbird moving about in an aerial dance among the flowers—a living prismatic gem…. it is a creature of such fairy-like loveliness as to mock all description.

—W.H. Hudson, Green Mansion

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National Parks without the Crowds

RVers love national parks.

Visitors can explore Congaree National Park by canoe, kayak, or on foot by using the over 25 miles of hiking trails and 2.4 miles of the Boardwalk Loop Trail.  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Visitors can explore Congaree National Park by canoe, kayak, or on foot by using the over 25 miles of hiking trails and 2.4 miles of the Boardwalk Loop Trail. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From snow-capped glacial peaks to meandering coastal shorelines and from white sand deserts to steep gorges and canyons, some of America’s most awe-inspiring natural attractions are found within its extensive national park system.

Most people know about the popular and most-visited parks including Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Great Smoky Mountains, and Zion.

Coping with crowds at national parks can get tiresome, especially during peak travel seasons. America is jam packed with national parks but the problem is that the most popular are just that—popular. They’re often crowded with loud tourists, littered with garbage people simply can’t seem to take home with them, or slowed down by traffic jams as tourists stop to take pictures of wildlife or search for a parking spot.

If you want to escape from the herd, or just take a breather from the hustle and bustle of the big name attractions, the US has numerous other, lesser-known parks each with their own unique attractions. And as an added bonus they’re usually much less crowded in the peak travel seasons making the visit more relaxing and enjoyable.

Add an extra element of exploration to your summer travel plans by including a more remote or lesser known national park in your RV travel plans.

Following are two parks that fall into that category.

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Astonishing biodiversity exists in Congaree National Park, the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Astonishing biodiversity exists in Congaree National Park, the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Preserving the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the US, Congaree National Park is a designated wilderness area, an International Biosphere Reserve, and a Globally Important Bird Area.

This 24,000-acre park is located in central South Carolina about 20 miles southeast of Columbia along the north side of the Congaree River.

Visitors can explore the natural wonderland by canoe, kayak, or on foot by using the over 25 miles of hiking trails and 2.4 miles of the Boardwalk Loop Trail. This park is a great place for animal watching, as it provides an ample habitat for mammals (bobcats, deer, river otters, and coyotes) and amphibians (turtles, snakes, and alligators).

Tent camping is allowed in the park with a free camping permit required; overnight vehicle camping with the use of a trailer, camper, or RV is not permitted.

Did You Know?

Many trees in the park have Spanish moss growing on them. Spanish moss absorbs water and food from the air and is in the same family as the pineapple.

Directions: From I-77, take Exit 5 southeast on SR 48 (Bluff Road) toward Gadsden for approximately 12 miles, following the brown and white Congaree National Park directional signs

Address: 100 National Park Road, Hopkins, SC 29061-9118

Phone: (803) 776-4396

Website: nps.gov/cong

Appomattox Court House National Historic Park, Virginia

The surrender site, the McLean House, a three-story structure is furnished with mid-nineteenth century furnishings.  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The surrender site, the McLean House, a three-story structure is furnished with mid-nineteenth century furnishings. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Walk the old country lanes where Robert E. Lee, Commanding General of the Army of Northern Virginia, surrendered his men to Ulysses Grant, General-in-Chief of all United States forces, on April 9, 1865.

Imagine the events that signaled the end of the Southern States’ attempt to create a separate nation. You cannot stand there and not be moved.

The National Park encompasses approximately 1,700 acres of rolling hills in rural central Virginia. The site includes the McLean home (surrender site) and the village of Appomattox Court House, the former county seat for Appomattox County. The site also has the home and burial place of Joel Sweeney—the popularizer of the modern five string banjo. There are twenty seven original 19th century structures on the site.

Location: 2 miles northeast of the town of Appomattox on SR 24

Address: Hwy. 24, P.O. Box 218, Appomattox, VA 24522

Phone: (434) 352-8987

Website: nps.gov/apco

Please Note: This is Part 1 of a 3-Part series on lesser known National Parks

Part 2: Lesser Known National Park Gems

Part 3: National Parks Nobody Knows

Worth Pondering…

The nation behaves well when it treats the natural resources as assets, which it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired in value.

—Franklin Delano Roosevelt

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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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Drought Affects Migrating Birds

From nesting grounds in Alaska and Northern Canada, thousands of sandhill cranes, snow geese, and other migratory birds are winging their way south to their traditional winter watering holes in the American Southwest.

Sandhill cranes start to walk. Others lower their heads, long necks stretched out in front of them, almost off-balance. This signal is followed by quick steps, the awkward first wing flaps and flight. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The problem is a year of drought has ravaged wetlands and crops throughout Texas and New Mexico, forcing the birds to fly off course in search of water and food, reports The Associated Press.

In the Texas Panhandle, there’s no standing water in any of the playas and officials at Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge haven’t seen many birds. It’s just as dry at Texas’ oldest national refuge in Muleshoe, where 27,000 birds have moved through so far this fall.

“I don’t know where our birds are going,” said refuge manager Jude Smith. “It’s not just the cranes, but the geese and the ducks.”

That’s why managers at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in south-central New Mexico are bracing for record numbers this fall and winter. With nearly 13,000 acres of wetlands, the refuge is one of the country’s best known spots for observing migrating waterfowl.

The shallow ponds at Bosque del Apache and the adjacent Rio Grande are havens for the weary birds as they search for a resting place following their long journey.

“The birds will go where the water is first and where the food is second. They’ll follow those two all the way south,” said Jose Viramontes, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The best times to see the birds fly in their massive formations are dawn and dusk. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bosque del Apache is managed specifically to provide habitat and protection for migrating birds and other endangered species. When farmers upstream finish irrigating for the season, water from the Rio Grande fills the refuge’s impoundments, providing a place where birds can roost overnight without having to worry about coyotes or other predators.

But Bosque del Apache wasn’t completely immune from the effects of the drought. This year’s corn crop that managers depend on to feed the birds throughout the winter was decimated by a lack of rain, according to The Associated Press.

To keep the birds fed, the refuge plans to spread 500,000 pounds of barley donated by a Colorado brewer.

“If we didn’t have that, the birds would go elsewhere, and we know that they’re safe here so we prefer to keep them here,” said Robyn Harrison, coordinator of the crane festival. “And honestly by the time they get here, they’re not interested in flying any further for a while.”

It can take up to three days for a crane to recover from its migration, she said.

At Bosque, the early mornings are spectacular. That’s when the birds wake up and begin to stretch their wings and legs. A big racket ensues as they all take off in search of food.

The yodeling call of the crane is distinctive and their long wings are captivating, Harrison added.

“Just a slow easy flap and they take off in large Vs. It’s just an incredible sight,” she said.

Harrison has been organizing the festival for the past four years and it never gets old.

The refuge is open an hour before dawn and closes an hour after dusk, to enable visitors to be on hand when the birds begin and conclude their daily activities. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Roswell, manager Floyd Truetken said twice as many cranes have passed through the Pecos Valley this year and he suspects some of those birds changed course after finding it too dry in Texas.

While late summer rains took the edge off of what has been one of the driest and warmest years on record for New Mexico, Truetken said lake levels at the refuge are still far below normal.

Biologists at refuges around the Southwest have been busy sharing anecdotal evidence of the drought’s effects on the birds’ flight patterns. However, they will have to wait to model any shifts in the flyway, given that wintering populations usually peak in December and January depending on the species.

Related

Worth Pondering…

I saw them first many Novembers ago and heard their triumphant trumpet calls, a hundred or more sandhill cranes riding south on a thermal above the Rio Grande Valley, and that day their effortless flight and their brassy music got into my soul.

—Charles Kuralt

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Festival of Cranes: Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

The Fly-Out in the morning and the Fly-In in the evening are memorable events. That’s part of the mystique, why the cranes get top billing here, why the organizers call this event The Festival of Cranes.

The refuge is open an hour before dawn and closes an hour after dusk, to enable visitors to be on hand when the birds begin and conclude their daily activities. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A week before Thanksgiving (November 15-20, in 2011), Bosque officials celebrate the birds’ arrival with six days of birding tours, field seminars, and formal lectures.

You’ll learn that these are ancient, ancient birds, and the sound they make is ancient and has never been imitated. It has echoed across geological time. They have seen mountains and rivers come and go. They have survived and adapted to everything.

Divided into two species—the lesser and the greater—sandhill cranes follow the seasons, the former summering as far away as Siberia and the latter in a refuge in southeastern Idaho.

Standing 4 feet tall on long, thin legs, with boat-shaped bodies, grayish plumage, featherless red caps, and ever-wary amber eyes, they are transformed by flight, fast becoming long, sleek, and sensual, powered by 6-foot wingspans.

Camping

We spent eight memorable days last November celebrating the return of the Cranes to Bosque. Bosque Birdwatchers RV Park, on State Route 1, several miles north of the Refuge, was our convenient home-base during this time. Long pull-through sites with 50/30 amp electricity, water, and sewer are available. Daily rates are $23-26. Weekly and monthly rates are also available.

Photo Tips

Bosque del Apache includes wetlands, farmlands, and riparian forests; and is considered one of the most spectacular refuges in North America and consistently recognized as one of the top birding areas in the United States. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sunrises and sunsets are magical times at Bosque, and often end up involving silhouettes. Silhouettes abstract objects into a two-dimensional shape, eliminating their color and texture.

Merging two cranes into one can either be electrifying or make the birds difficult to comprehend. In most cases, you’ll want to keep the objects in your photo separated and unmerged if you want the viewer to be able to make sense of the image.

For example, in Early Morning Anticipation, I worked not only to keep the four sandhill cranes apart, but I tried to selected moments when their heads and beaks were silhouetted against the water of the pond. Often times, easier said than done. That fourth crane just did not want to cooperate! You’ll require considerable patience and incredible luck—and a long lens that will accomplish this feat.

Details

Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

Operating Hours: Open year-round; Visitors Center: Monday-Friday, 7:30 a.m.-4:00 p.m.; weekends: 8:00 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; Tour Loop: 1 hour before sunrise-1 hour after sunset

Location: From Socorro, 9 miles south in I-25 to exit 139, ¼-mile east on U.S. 380 to the flashing signal in San Antonio, and 9 miles south (turn right) on Old Highway 1 to refuge entrance

Best Times: November-January

Festival of the Cranes: November 15-20, 2011

Admission: $3/vehicle; all federal lands passes accepted

Contact: (575) 835-1828

Address: P.O. Box 340, San Antonio, NM 87832

Website: fws.gov

Friends of the Bosque del Apache NWR (Friends of the Bosque)

The refuge is open an hour before dawn and closes an hour after dusk, to enable visitors to be on hand when the birds begin and conclude their daily activities. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Website: friendsofthebosque.org
Note: This is the last of a three-part series on Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

Part 1: Birding Hotspot

Part 2: Woods of the Apache

Worth Pondering…
A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends to do otherwise.

—Henry David Thoreau

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Woods of the Apache: Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

The Refuge

Sandhill cranes start to walk. Others lower their heads, long necks stretched out in front of them, almost off-balance. This signal is followed by quick steps, the awkward first wing flaps and flight. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A 15-mile one-way loop road offers visitors an opportunity to travel through this drama at their own pace. The refuge’s dirt roads are well maintained and RVs should have no trouble driving on them. If 15 miles sounds too long, you can cut your tour short by taking a two-way cutoff and driving on one section—the 7-mile Marsh Loop or the 7.5-mile Farm Loop.

For some species the best observations will be from your vehicle, which acts as a blind. Waders, shorebirds, great blue herons, hawks, mule deer, and other wildlife can be closely observed and photographed from your toad, tow vehicle, or RV. Bird-watchers will need scopes or binoculars to catch some of the more skittish species.

Along the loop road are spots to stop, get out, and walk to a viewing deck, boardwalk, bird blind, or nature trail. Several of these are accessible to people with disabilities and offer prime viewing.

Seven designated walking trails of various lengths are also available. The longest is a 9.7-mile round trip that covers surrounding desert land. Others are easier and much shorter. They include a trail through cottonwood and willow stands; another with a marsh overlook; and one incorporating a one-quarter-mile boardwalk over a lagoon.

Planning your day

Most birders and photographers start their day before dawn to await the en masse liftoff of thousands of snow geese and sandhill cranes. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best times to see the birds fly in their massive formations are dawn and dusk.

Most birders and photographers start their day before dawn to await the en masse liftoff of thousands of snow geese. Sandhill cranes take off a short time later.

Some cranes start to walk. Others lower their heads, long necks stretched out in front of them, almost off-balance. This signal is followed by quick steps, the awkward first wing flaps and flight. In pairs and threesomes, they take to the air. In one stroke of their wings they accomplish what takes the geese a dozen.

Come early and dress warmly and in layers. Although the mornings can be brutally cold, the afternoons warm up. Gloves are essential until then.

During the day, you can drive the loop road looking for opportunities; in late afternoon, head back for the birds’ return.

Expect numerous RVers, birders, and photographers from mid-November to early December, with numbers tapering off after that.

The refuge is open an hour before dawn and closes an hour after dusk, to enable visitors to be on hand when the birds begin and conclude their daily activities. Drive slowly and stop frequently.

Friends of the Bosque

The Refuge Visitors Center offers exhibits explaining the aims, methods, and successes of the refuge and provides a brief history of the area.

Sandhill cranes in flight. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since 1994, the Friends of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (Friends of the Bosque) have supported the biological, educational, and research activities of the Bosque del Apache NWR. The Friends operate the Bosque Nature Store in the Visitor Center with proceeds benefiting various refuge programs, research efforts, and special events.

Friends of the Bosque volunteers promote Refuge and Friends events, conduct workshops and programs, provide labor for special projects, and support the Refuge in thousands of ways each year.

Note: This is the second of a three-part series on Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

Part 1: Birding Hotspot

Part 3: Festival of Cranes

Worth Pondering…
There is something very special about the natural world, and each trip outdoors is like an unfinished book just waiting for you to write your own chapter.

—Paul Thompson

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Birding Hotspot: Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

As the sun reddens the sky, thousands of snow geese scattered on a big pond begin to waken and disrupt the quiet air with loud honks.

The best times to see the birds fly in their massive formations are dawn and dusk. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors perched on embankments, observation decks, or inside parked vehicles see and hear the communication that eventually gets the flock into the air and headed north to fields where they feed all day.

The snow geese are soon joined in the sky by flocks of sandhill cranes.

Much later in the day near sunset, birders and photographers alike stand under a stream of flyers heading back to the relative safety of the ponds and marshes to roost.

It is the rare human who is not stirred to awe and excitement as thousands of birds soar scarcely 20 feet overhead. This vast haven is Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

If you’ve never witnessed—or heard—the morning fly-out and the evening fly-in of thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese, then you’ll want to head on over to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, located midway between Albuquerque and Las Cruces just south of Socorro. And if you’ve seen it all before, then I don’t have to recommend that you return to see it again—and again.

It is no wonder RVers, birders, photographers, and all lovers of nature and the outdoors are attracted to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese arrive for the winter each November amid a backdrop of purple mountains clothed in autumn colors and bathed in the light of New Mexico’s spectacular sunrises and sunsets.

If, like us, you combine RVing with birding and photography—both natural fits—then a trip to Bosque del Apache is a must.

Along the loop road are spots to stop, get out, and walk to a viewing deck, boardwalk, bird blind, or nature trail. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On the Chihuahuan Desert’s northern edge and straddling the Rio Grande River in Socorro County, Bosque del Apache includes wetlands, farmlands, and riparian forests; and is considered one of the most spectacular refuges in North America and consistently recognized as one of the top birding areas in the United States.

The Preserve’s name means “Woods of the Apache” in Spanish, after the cottonwood forests indigenous to this part of the Rio Grande Valley and the native people the first European explorers often saw camped in the area.

The Bosque (pronounced ‘BOS-keh’) provides habitat to over 300 species of birds and more than 135 different animals, including mammals, amphibians, and reptiles, and is internationally famous for sandhill cranes, snow geese, and Ross’ geese.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is designated by the American Bird Conservancy as a Globally Important Bird Area.

In 1846, when naturalist Lt. James Abert camped there, he observed and reported large flocks of sandhill cranes. These migratory birds followed their ancestral routes south in November and left in February or early March, returning north to breed.

In the 1930s, the population of sandhill cranes severely declined as a result of habitat loss due to land use changes. By 1941 the great migrations had almost ceased with only 17 sandhill cranes returning to the Bosque.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1939 to provide refuge and breeding grounds for migratory birds and other wildlife, and to develop wintering grounds especially for the sandhill cranes.

As sunset approaches sandhill cranes and snow geese head back to the relative safety of the ponds and marshes to roost for the night. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Depending on the weather to the north, the rough honk of sandhill cranes is heard as early as September, when the vanguard flocks first arrive. By mid-to-late-November approximately 12,000 to 17,000 cranes share the 57,191-acre refuge with tens of thousands of migratory snow geese, Ross’s geese, Canada geese, pintails, shovelers, mallards, and a host of other waterfowl.

Note: This is the first of a three-part series on Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

Part 2: Woods of the Apache

Part 3: Festival of Cranes

Worth Pondering…
I saw them first many Novembers ago and heard their triumphant trumpet calls, a hundred or more sandhill cranes riding south on a thermal above the Rio Grande Valley, and that day their effortless flight and their brassy music got into my soul.

—Charles Kuralt

Read More