Volcanic Habitat Provides a Variety of Bird Species at Capulin National Monument

It was 7:30 am when I started east along US 64 out of Raton towards Capulin National Monument in the last few days of June. My friends Tom and Barbara had visited the prior summer and thoroughly recommended the area. It was one of only two National Monuments in New Mexico I had not visited, so planned an extra day on my return from Colorado to explore it.

For the first fifteen to twenty minutes, I passed through short-grass prairie. At a few locations, I pulled over to the shoulder and rolled down the window so I could scan for birds – primarily Lark Sparrows and Western Meadowlarks, who occasionally flew across the road in front of me or whose songs bubbled out of the grasses. I knew the Monument didn’t open until 9 am, so I was able to take my time.

After emerging from the top of a small grade, the terrain turned green and I noticed a large playa (King Lake on Google Maps) to the north and then another saline-appearing playa that looked like it sometimes extended on both sides of the road. I didn’t have my scope with me, and it was too far away to accurately identify the birds plying the water or shoreline. I knew I was getting close. I wondered whether the habitat was perhaps the result of the third lava flow.

Later when I hiked up the Crater Rim Trail and looked southwest, the playa habitat would stand out clearly.


Playa habitat with short-grass prairie behind it

At the town of Capulin, I turned north and soon came to the entrance road.


As I walked towards the entrance of the Visitor Center, I was relieved to see that there was no wait to drive to the top of the crater.


Cinder Volcanoes become narrower towards the top, making for limited parking. On weekends, visitors often have to wait for someone to drive down before they can make their way up.

Before getting back in the car I walked around for a few minutes making note of the birds in the area: A Cassin’s Kingbird called from the nearby residences, along with a Spotted Towhee and an American Robin. Northern Mockingbirds flew through flashing their black and white wing patches, and Chipping and Vesper Sparrows could be heard in the undergrowth. A lone Broad-tailed Hummingbird was visiting the feeders.

The road circled its way around the volcano, rising as it made its way towards the rim – finally arriving at the small parking area.

I was relieved to discover the Crater Rim Trail was paved with asphalt, and left my trekking poles in the car.

Not long after I began ascending, I head a Spotted Towhee singing in the pinon-juniper habitat that covered the slope bordering the trail. It would be one of the most prevalent species I would see while walking the one-mile trail. Further up I heard chickadees and looked to see what kind. I was surprised that they were Black-capped – evidently moving to higher elevations everywhere in the western U.S.

As the trail rounded the bend, I gazed south at the terrain and saw the town of Capulin dwarfed below.


View of town of Capulin, NM

Three Common Ravens were perched on a sign at the top of the trail, but flew off as hikers approached. When I arrived at that location, they were soaring in the thermals below the rim, along with a Turkey Vulture.

I was surprised when I saw a Chimney Swift glided by.

At the top of the trail, halfway around, I looked towards the parking lot and the trail into the vent. There was no doubt I had gained 300 feet in elevation.


Parking lot and Vent Trail from Crater Rim Trail

Capulin has been fortunate to sustain a forested habitat over the many years since its last eruption. Thanks to the presence of lichens on the lava rock and the seeds brought in by birds, Capulin sustains a variety of plants and animals. Interpretive signs provided a variety of information, such as this one about the habitat.


Looking northeast, I could see numerous other smaller nearby cinder cones. Located in the heart of the Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field, Capulin is surrounded by at least 118 other volcanoes, according to its website.


Nearby cinder cone

From the eastern part of the trail, there was a sign that showed me that the mesa I could see in the distance was in Oklahoma.


Mesa in distance in Oklahoma

A trail sign described the swarms of ladybugs that cluster on plants and rocks – often inside the crater, and I made a mental note to look out for them. While I didn’t see any ladybugs, I did see a variety of butterflies, including this tiny Acmon Blue.

Capulin-NM-Acmon Blue butterfly

Acmon Blue butterfly species

Along the north rim, I began to see more grassland birds, including a flock of recently fledged Vesper Sparrows.


Recently fledged Vesper Sparrow

As I listened to another Spotted Towhee, I noticed a Green-tailed Towhee hop onto the trail and then fly to a nearby bush.


Green-tailed Towhee

The trail then descended steeply back to the parking lot.

After rehydrating, I began walking into the crater on the Vent Trail.

The vegetation was denser and Bewick’s Wrens called from the thickets, along with more Spotted Towhees.

It was amazing to stand at the location where the volcano once spewed forth.


Standing on the former vent

As I was walking up the stairs to the parking lot, I encountered a mother with a young daughter who had a pair of plastic binoculars around her neck.

“Have you seen anything interesting with your binoculars” I asked her?

“Ladybugs,” she beamed.

“I didn’t see them,” I responded.

“Neither did I,” replied her mother, “but she is closer to the trail.”

I reluctantly descended the road back down, stopping to enjoy my lunch under the shade of an oak – while being entertained by a Spotted Towhee.


Spotted Towhee

It had been a wonderful morning of both birds and geological wonders.









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