Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge: A Birding Hotspot


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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.

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

An 8-mile, self-guided auto tour around the lakes starts at the visitor center near refuge headquarters. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An 8-mile, self-guided auto tour around the lakes starts at the visitor center near refuge headquarters. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 middle unit at Bitter Lake Refuge features refuge headquarters and the auto tour, which winds among lakes, wetlands, croplands, and desert uplands. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved`

The middle unit at Bitter Lake Refuge features refuge headquarters and the auto tour, which winds among lakes, wetlands, croplands, and desert uplands. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

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.

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge is designated by the American Bird Conservancy as a Globally Important Bird Area. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge is designated by the American Bird Conservancy as a Globally Important Bird Area. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

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

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

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.

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

The middle unit at Bitter Lake Refuge features refuge headquarters and the auto tour, which winds among lakes, wetlands, croplands, and desert uplands. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The middle unit at Bitter Lake Refuge features refuge headquarters and the auto tour, which winds among lakes, wetlands, croplands, and desert uplands. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

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

—Charles Lindbergh

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