New Mexico’s Belen Marsh in Jeopardy

As I turn onto Don Felipe Road next to the Taco Bell in Belen, the first thing that catches my eye is the mound of dirt that had been pushed right up to the edge of the first pond. Then my eye drops and I see a Black-necked Stilt and an American Avocet sitting on their nests on the edge of the pond. My heart stops. Would the large equipment operator know there are nests in the path of the bulldozer?

As I drive down the street I notice that the dead tree has been knocked down. It served as an evening roosting spot for Cattle and Snowy Egrets,

It is hard to believe that in two weeks so much damage has been done and that the wetland really is in peril.

More stilts and avocets are sitting on nests at various spots adjacent to the main pond. I pull my car over to the edge of the road and pull out my binoculars. The low light of the early evening casts a golden hue. Barn and Rough-winged Swallows careened and swooped over the pond.

Three Long-billed Dowitchers probe in the mud on a sandbar that juts into the large pond. Most of the dowitchers I had seen this spring as they migrated through New Mexico were still in their nondescript winter plumage. These are in fresh breeding plumage. Their breast feathers have molted to a rufous color, to blend in with the arctic grasses where they will begin nesting in about three to four weeks.

On the far shore several female Mallards rest in the weeds along side their growing hatchlings. Just beyond them is evidence of debris pushed beyond the bulldozed dirt.

American Coots normally ply this pond and I had looked forward to seeing the mothers swimming with their striped-headed chicks. There are no coots today, nor had they been two weeks ago when I visited. Evidently sensing danger, they had moved to a safer location.

Normally the marsh reeds would be full of territorial Red-winged Blackbirds. Tonight I only spot a few. Since they use a new nest for each of their broods, I can only hope that the first brood has hatched and the males and their harems have moved on. The marsh seems subdued without the calling Red-winged Blackbirds.

Snowy and Cattle Egrets begin to fly in and land on the sandbar, and then went about their business of feeding and preening. I wonder where they are roosting since the snag is knocked over. Timothy Mandeville’s wonderful photo of the egrets is above.

I chat with Julie and Timothy Mandeville who are taking photographs of the birds. “Did you know that they are going to fill this in?” Julie asked me. “A car stopped and asked us if we were for it or against it.”

“I am affiliated with Central New Mexico Audubon,” I tell her. “We are concerned and want to see this important habitat preserved. Would you take some photos that will help people see what is happening?”

Habitat loss is a major threat to shorebirds world wide. According to The Shorebird Guide (O’Brien, Crossley and Karlson), about 50 percent of natural wetlands have been filled or drained and an additional 35 square miles of wetland are lost each year. Will this critical stopover and nesting area be added to the total?

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