It was still 34 degrees when the Belen Marsh clean-up volunteers headed along Don Felipe Rd. with their gloves and black plastic bags to pick up trash. The group was a mix of local neighbors and the Belen Marsh Committee members. Jerah Cordova, newly elected Belen City Councilperson and long-time supporter of preserving the marsh, was among the volunteers.The air resonated with the calls of Black-necked Stilts, excited to be back at the marsh. When I stopped by two weeks ago, only one had arrived. Today I counted 18.
My plastic bag started filling – scraps of plastic bags, fast food wrappers and beverage cups – and lots and lots of beer bottles. While the plastic bags and fast food containers might have been blown into the marsh by the spring winds, the bottles definitely had been thrown.
I headed into the grass. Parts of it were spongy, like walking on tundra. In other spots, the surface had dried and was caked with alkaline salts – remnants of the high water table. I was shocked to see evidence of fresh tire tracks where someone had driven across the area – despite the No Trespassing signs posted by the Valencia County Fair Association.
It was good we had chosen this weekend for the clean-up. The red and yellow epaulets of the Red-winged Blackbirds glistened as they staked out breeding territories on the reeds. The ends of the reeds swayed with the weight of Great-tailed Grackles as they also sought space in the tall marsh grasses. Before long the Black-necked Stilts and Avocets would begin nesting along the shore of the pond.
As I rounded the back of an inlet, a flock of Cattle Egrets were nestled between the reeds before they took off to forage in the fields. They too nest in the marsh area. Six Long-billed Dowitchers probed the edges of the pond in search of crustaceans to eat while on their long journey from their wintering grounds in Mexico to their nesting grounds on the northern tip of Alaska. It was disturbing to see the water they depend upon contaminated by trash which I could not reach.
As the air warmed, Northern Rough-winged Swallows darted and dove over the water in search of insects.
A variety of waterfowl plied the waters: Green-winged and Cinnamon Teal, Ruddy Ducks whose bills have now turned bright blue, a Lesser Scaup, a few lingering Northern Shovelers, Pied-billed Grebe, American Coots, and of course Mallards. I was disturbed to see three domestic waterfowl, which had probably been dropped off there.
With the 20 species of avian companions at the marsh, the time flew by.
Amber West explained the professional renderings that showed various options for preserving the land, as well as meeting the needs of the Valencia Fair Association.
Beth Hurst-Waitz, president of Central New Mexico Audubon introduced Will Widener who will conduct a plant census as part of a Collaborative Grant from New Mexico Audubon.
Eileen Beaulieu, the organizing force behind the preservation efforts, shared information about the economic benefits of a prime birding location, such as the marsh.
The group lingered after the presentation, abuzz with ideas to continue preserving and improving the marsh area.