Carlsbad: Beyond the Cave

Butterfly_RattlesnakeSprings-NM_LAH_8611-001Rattlesnake Springs is an oasis in the middle of the desert. Located 27 miles south of Carlsbad, New Mexico, it’s owned by the Nature Conservancy. You can take in the entire place in one glance—a small pond surrounded by mowed grasses and some weeds. Further back some small trees and thick brush take advantage of the water. (There’s also a caretaker’s private residence, and some off-limits desert.)

Situated as it is at the juncture of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, the species list for spring migration is awe-inspiring. Unfortunately, we were there well past that season. Well, you go when you can.

We arrived early in the morning, before the temperatures could climb into the 100’s. There’s a state park just down the road, so Pete grabbed a book and settled in at a picnic table in the shade of some huge cottonwoods. I loaded up my camera gear and headed to the pond.

RattlesnakeSprings-NM_LAH_8583I was planning to bird but immediately got distracted by a patch of tall weeds covered with gorgeous, photogenic butterflies (above). Mixed with the butterflies were huge tarantula hawks, a kind of spider wasp (right). I knew they lay their eggs in the bodies of tarantulas they have stung and paralyzed. I didn’t know they also enjoyed nectar. It was only after I got home and looked them up that I learned they have the second most painful sting in the insect world. (Apparently, the bullet ant is worse.) Happily, I missed that memorable experience.

Vermilion Flycatcher_RattlesnakeSprings-NM_LAH_8598-001I finally convinced myself that the insects would keep, and I needed to pay attention to the birds. Flycatchers ruled. Bright streaks of red turned out to be Vermilion Flycatchers darting out to nab the numerous mosquitoes. The an abundance of juveniles told me they had successfully nested in the area. Black Phoebes had claimed one side of the pond, taking advantage of the bugs hovering over the water. Western Kingbirds lined the nearby fence rails.

Summer Tanager_RattlesnakeSprings-NM_LAH_8679-002Next I noticed another red bird skulking in the branches—a Summer Tanager. I grabbed a quick shot while he briefly posed before heading back into the tangled branches.

A noisy flock of Northern Mockingbirds stuck to the mesquite across the road. I added Lesser Goldfinches, Bronzed Cowbirds, Mourning Doves, and White-winged Doves to my list. A lone turkey wandered by. A flash of bright colors caught my eye—Painted Bunting! That’s a bird we don’t see in Colorado. Sadly, he didn’t get close enough for a good photo (below).

RattlesnakeSprings-NM_LAH_8804I walked around the edge of the pond to watch fish grab dragonflies out of midair, then daringly ventured a little ways into the surrounding bushes . We’d been warned about snakes and I didn’t want to meet the locale’s namesake—at least not close up! I poked my tripod into the weeds before every step, and tried to step hard enough to alert any rattlers of my presence so they could slither in the opposite direction.

The heat finally sent the birds into the shade to nap, and we decided to do likewise.

Blue Grosbeak_CarlsbadNP-NM_LAH_8189-001A few hours later, as the afternoon wound down, we headed back to Carlsbad National Park to check out a small pullout on the road to the cave. There was a small creek down in the canyon, but most of the water was underground this late in the season. However, here a short trail led down to a pool, and an interpretive sign explained that Native Americans had once camped under an adjacent overhang. We had briefly stopped here the day before and discovered a pair of Blue Grosbeaks. I wanted to see if they were still there so I could get a better photo.

Lizard_CarlsbadNP-NM_LAH_8179-001The Grosbeaks were gone, but a pair of Canyon Wrens had taken their place. They disappeared into a crack in the sandstone cliff, and I suspected a nest. Cave Swallows circled overhead, then swooped down to skim the surface of the water. Lizards scurried off the trail as I approached. It was a beautiful spot, and while cars rushed by on their way up the hill, no one else stopped.

Sadly, we had to head home the next day. This would be an incredible spot to visit in late April or early May—when migration is at its peak and the temperatures are a bit more tolerable. There’s always next year.

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