Fall Birding in Roswell: Kenneth Smith Bird Sanctuary and Bitter Lake NWR

It was late afternoon when I joined several other members of the Audubon New Mexico board to tour the J. Kenneth Smith Bird Sanctuary with Steve Smith. The sanctuary is a joint project of the City of Roswell Parks Department, the J. Kenneth Smith Foundation and the United Field Ornithologists (UFO) of Roswell.

Entrance to Kenneth Smith Bird Sanctuary

Entrance to Kenneth Smith Bird Sanctuary

“In the spring and summer the area on either side of the bridge attracts a lot of warblers,” Steve told us as we walked past a foot bridge that led over a creek. Today we saw White-crowned Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos in the dry shrubs.

Beyond that was a large pond. On the far side was a bare tree laden with birds – White-winged Doves.

“There are two flickers in the tree next to it,” someone alerted the others, and we focused our bins on them, busy high in the bare branches.

Northern (Red-shafted) Flicker

Northern (Red-shafted) Flicker

As we continued along the path to the second pond, we noticed that the sanctuary backed up to a golf course, extending the natural environment.

“See the bare area on the far side of the pond?” Steve pointed. “That is where Burrowing Owls have nested in the past. They didn’t return this year, so our UFO members are going to build artificial burrows in the bank. A local company has donated the pipe and buckets and the parks department will excavate the holes for us.”

A Cooper’s Hawk was perched in the shade on top of the fence that separated the sanctuary from the golf course – waiting patiently.

Ruth spotted a Yellow-rumped Warbler.

The sun was dropping behind the White Mountains as we made our way back to our cars.

We met outside the Visitor Center at Bitter Lake NWR the following morning for a tour of the refuge before our meeting began. The refuge, an Important Bird Area, has also been designated as a Wetland of International Importance under Ramsar, a treaty that promotes wetland conservation throughout the world.

As we drove along the refuge road between two of the impoundments, we were struck with how many American Coots were bobbing in the ponds and wondered whether they were there for the winter or resting before migrating further.

While we had seen flock after flock of Sandhill Cranes flying off as we drove to the refuge, there was still a large group hovered together at the base of Crane Lookout.

Ruth and I were following the rest of the group in the refuge van. Further south both vehicles stopped and everyone got out.


I took the opportunity to ask the manager about the sign I had seen at the entrance to the Visitor Center asking hunters to sign in. He explained that hunting for waterfowl and cranes is allowed on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

A western Meadowlark was singing nearby. Carl located it perched on top of one of the refuge signs. Looking west, we could see Capitan Peak.

wetlands with Capitan Peak in the distance

wetlands with Capitan Peak in the distance

Carol spotted a Loggerhead Shrike perched on some dry cattails and focused her scope on it so everyone could get a good look.

There was a small flock of White Pelicans grooming in one of the ponds. A single Ring-billed Gull rested at their feet. Nearby was an abundance of American Wigeons and Ruddy Ducks.

American White Pelicans, American Wigeons, Ruddy Duck

American White Pelicans, American Wigeons, Ruddy Duck

The manager then led us into one of the back roads that is closed to the public. Northern Harriers were patrolling the wetlands. As we rounded a corner, I noticed something that looked like a branch sticking up out of the grasses. As we got closer, I realized it was an American Bittern. While we got good looks, it flew off before I got close enough to get a photo. It was a year bird for me.

All too soon it was time to return to the Visitor Center for our meeting. We were energized from our hour and a half of birding, even more cognizant of our mission – “to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, wildlife and habitats for the benefit of humanity and the Earth’s biological diversity.”


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