BIRDING & CAMPING IN NEW MEXICO
The June drought stretched into July, as if the summer monsoon would ever come. It was hot and dry, one dusty sun scorched day following another. Finally, the low pressure and high pressure areas arranged themselves in such a way that moisture fell on us. Monsoon rains scoured the dirt road outside my home. The little ravine ran with water under the suddenly useful footbridge outside my front door. Several “gully washers” caused minor flooding and ensuing travel delays. One momentary giant of a storm prevented some of our friends from reaching our house for a breakfast reading group.
As drought loosened its grip on our town, all the creatures of the desert seemed to breathe easier. Rabbits bounced through the grassland evidencing in their numbers the bounty brought by the rains. Coyotes had an easier life. One coyote with an injured foot has survived for four months. Orioles come to our feeders into the end of September as I write. A volunteer native plant, commonly called Indian Pipe, flourishes along the side of our swimming pool.
As much as I enjoyed the summer, I longed to sit by a stream, sleep out in our tent, and get out of town. Jon and I decided to take a few days during the middle of the week and head out to New Mexico. We drove to Silver City, had a lovely meal of great Mexican food, stopped by the local sporting goods store to pick up a few fishing supplies, and headed north through Pinos Altos to Gila Hot Springs.
If you’ve never visited this area, it is worth the four hour drive to reach the place where three forks of the Gila River run together. There is one general store and hot springs in the middle of the “village.” At the end of the road is an easy mile hike to experience some of the best preserved cliff dwellings in the southwest. Along the river, impressive sandstone towers carved out by wind and water, add to the scenic impact of the landscape.
The middle fork of the river has two campgrounds right along the river. The riparian habitat is rich in bird life. The forest service sponsors two primitive camping areas, FREE of charge, but also free of tables. The only “amenities” are very clean and not stinky outhouses.
After managing to get the 4X4 pickup stuck in sand along the river and digging ourselves out in less than half an hour with the help and watermelon of the only, but friendly and kind fellow camper, we found a spot right along the river with a rocky “beach” and the shade of tall ash trees to keep us cool all day long. Painted redstarts greeted us. These lovely little warblers are easy to identify. Their bright red bellies and bold white wing patches are unmistakable. They frequent pine oak woodlands, and pinyon-juniper forests, like Madera Canyon here in Arizona. The redstarts were not at all concerned that we were there. They flitted in the trees, flashing white outer tail feathers whenever they spread their tails. No matter what we did - set up camp, made meals, read books, and splashed in the creek- none of it spooked these plucky birds. One landed about two feet from our feet as we cooked up some blueberry pancakes on our propane stove for breakfast one morning.
On the other side of the river, a grouping of oak, cottonwood and ash trees provided great places for birds to hunt for food and find cover. Between two cottonwoods, a stand of still blooming wild sunflowers sported many heads with seeds. Soon enough we caught sight of Lesser goldfinches, both green backed and black backed forms, feeding on the seed heads. Black phoebes darted out to catch bugs from low slung branches over the stream. Ash-throated flycatchers perched a bit higher and incessantly hawked insects. Mr. and Mrs. Summer tanager added more color to the trees. Wilson’s and Audubon’s Warblers came nearly as close as the redstarts. One morning some mallards came up the river. Another morning Common mergansers swam and waded their way upstream. Some very noisy Steller’s jays caused us to catch sight of two marauding coatimundi lumbering through the thicket of vegetation under the trees.
At night, we heard the eerie howling of a wolf. While we were relaxing mid-day with a book, we looked up at the cliffs above our campsite. For only a brief moment, we caught sight of a Mexican gray wolf. The reintroduction of the wolf into New Mexico, although controversial, is proceeding with measured success. The wolves can make it, as the Gila wilderness area is vast, but unfortunately some people feel it necessary to shoot the wolves. Every campground we visited posted a warning that it is illegal to shoot the wolves, but those people that feel threatened or feel their livestock is threatened can and do kill them.
On the way home, we decided to stop by Lake Roberts, a small manmade lake just south of Gila Hot Springs. There we were treated to the hunting prowess of Ospreys. From tall perches in pines around the lake, an osprey took flight and circled above the water, scanning the lake for fish. When it located a fish, it dropped straight down into the lake, submerged under the water, and emerged with dinner. It flew back up to a perch in a large snag, and devoured its meal.
With some regret at not having more time to spend with the fauna and flora of New Mexico, we headed home – renewed by the simple outdoor living of camping along the Gila River.
Following is our bird list for this camping trip, September 19 through September 25, 2005.