My friend Debbie and I just returned from a weekend of intense birding at the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge. It’s at the southern end of the San Luis Valley, situated at 7,800 feet in southern Colorado.
Along with Monte Vista and Baca Refuges, Alamosa NWR is part of the San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Baca is in the northeastern part of the valley, about an hour’s drive away. We were told that most of it was currently closed to visitors, to avoid disturbing the Snowy Plovers nesting there. Monte Vista NWR is only 24 miles west of Alamosa, but a broken pump has left its wetlands dry for the last couple of years. Without the water, there are significantly fewer birds. We decided to simply focus on the Alamosa refuge plus the surrounding flooded fields.
At 12,026 acres, Alamosa is the smallest of the three refuges. It runs along the Rio Grande (much less “grande” this far upstream). The San Luis Valley, , is normally quite dry, so birds and other wildlife are attracted to the wetlands (primarily seasonally flooded fields and ditches) and the adjacent riparian corridor.
We made the three-hour drive on Friday afternoon, arriving in time to set up camp and check out the local bird life. Common Grackles stood sentinel on the fence posts. Western Kingbirds and Brewer’s Blackbirds nesting in the trees at our campsite. A Yellow Warbler sang overhead, “Sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet!”
We grabbed a bite to eat in town, then decided to turn in early. I scrunched around in my sleeping bag, trying to get comfortable on my thin backpacking “mattress,” and drifted off to sleep to the accompaniment of the coyotes’ yipping serenade.
The nesting kingbirds woke us well before dawn, so we were up and gone in time to beat the early birds at the refuge. The gate opens one hour before sunrise, and closes one hour after, a birder-friendly schedule. As we drove in along some flooded fields, we were astonished at how much vegetation had grown up in what used to be an open wetland on our previous visits. When we stopped to check out the birds there on Sunday morning, we got a good look at several Wilson’s Snipes patrolling the cattails. But while we heard the distinctive calls of an American Bittern and at least one Sora, we couldn’t find them in the thick vegetation.
We first parked at the visitor center (which remained closed all weekend) for the pit toilets and a good look at the Cliff Swallows nesting under the eaves. Then we headed out on the wildlife drive.
Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds dominated, and the air was full of their squawks and screeches. After a while, I wished for the ability to screen them out, much like turning off a layer on my computer graphics programs, so I could listen for the rest of the bird life.
Then there were the Marsh Wrens, almost as common as the blackbirds. They perched on top of the flimsiest blade of grass or cattail leaf, singing songs so loud and boisterous, it was hard to believe that such noise was coming from such a tiny bird.
The females were harvesting straw, weaving it into their nests, and padding the finished cup with cattail fluff.
As you would expect in a wetland, ducks and other waterfowl abounded: Cinnamon Teal, Blue-winged Teal, Gadwalls, Redheads, Ruddy Ducks, and of course Mallards. A Pied-billed Grebe got into a tiff with an American Coot, and they chased one another around a small pond. We scanned for shorebirds, but the water high at this time of year, too deep on any mudflats for waders.
With all those vertical cattails, we hoped to see some American Bitterns, and sure enough, even with their camouflage, Debbie managed to find several. Most of the time, they were much too far for decent photos, but finally, on our last trip around the wildlife drive on Sunday, we came across one individual standing out in the open! While we both aimed our cameras and clicked away, it posed politely, then slowly took to the air, flapping off into the dry fields in the distance.
We also spent some time driving the roads to the south and east of the refuge, where flooded pastures supported more ducks, a couple of Eared Grebes (right), Wilson’s Phalaropes, and American Avocets, all in their flamboyant breeding plumages.
Well, we didn’t find the Black Terns or Willow Flycatchers we’d hoped to see, but I have no complaints. The extroverted bittern was a delightful surprise, and I got to spend two entire days with a good friend, enjoying nature at her finest. And now we have a good reason to go back!
The answer to last week’s quiz is Green-tailed Towhee.