US Army Corps of Engineers
Albuquerque District

Birds of Paradise

New Mexico Magazine
Published Oct. 31, 2014

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Nov. 2014 issue of New Mexico Magazine. Click here to view the article there.  We share it here because it mentions some of the work the Albuquerque District does in environmental restoration along the Rio Grande.

 

AT SUNSET one November day, I stood entranced on a wide sandbar of the Río Grande, my mind boggled by the uncountable crows swirling across the mauve sky in raucous cacophony. My family and I call it the “crow commute,” and we had strolled through the dense woods of the Corrales Bosque Preserve to marvel at the spectacle.

Earlier that day, some of these clever birds had pilfered pecans from our backyard tree, fluttered to a perch high in a nearby cottonwood, and cracked the shells with their chisel-like beaks. Others had spent the day feeding and cawing to one another in the fields and orchards of Corrales and the backyards of Río Rancho and Albuquerque. Now all 10,000 or so were headed for nighttime roosts along the riverbanks of this secluded natural enclave in the midst of a busy urban corridor, just a five-minute drive from the state’s biggest mall.

I realize people racking up the bird-watcher’s “big year” don’t cross the country to spot the American crow along the Río Grande, but these birds illustrate one of the main reasons that area birders flock to the Corrales bosque: the abundance. In addition to crows, more than 250 avian species live in or pass through the preserve’s 662 acres, according to U.S. Geological Survey research ornithologist Janet Ruth. The species range from bald eagles to splashy and noisy sandhill cranes, from near-fluorescent tanagers to the skulking hermit thrush and the rare yellow-billed cuckoo. And many of those species flock here in record numbers. For example, the avian conservation group Hawks Aloft has documented one of the world’s highest concentrations of Cooper’s hawks, that wily and agile nemesis of smaller songbirds, in Corrales.

Locals have long known that these riverside woods deliver terrific birding. “We think the Corrales bosque is unique,” Ruth says. “It’s a particularly valuable place across the seasons, for breeding, migration, and wintering.” This spring, thanks to Ruth’s nomination, the Audubon Society of New Mexico recognized the bosque under the Important Bird Areas program, a global effort to identify and protect places that are key to birds’ long-term survival. It was the latest in a series of steps to nurture this oasis in the high desert, which has become a birder’s paradise.

TENDING THE GARDEN
Corrales has been protecting the bosque on a local level since 1978, limiting human intrusions largely to travel by foot, bike, or horse. By keeping the woods wild, the preserve has afforded fine living to a wide range of animals, including raccoons, turkeys, coyotes, porcupines, and even the occasional bear passing through in search of tasty apples.

“It’s pretty unique from a biodiversity standpoint,” Ruth says of the bosque, which benefits from its “many habitat types and vertical and horizontal structure, like cottonwood gallery forest with grasses beneath, or cottonwoods with an understory of native shrubs like New Mexico olives and silver buffalo berry, or willow swales, or small grassy clearings.” The extensive riparian habitat stands out in the Southwest, where such environments are rare, and often “really disturbed,” she says. Corrales isn’t original, untouched bosque, “but it’s in better shape than most of the rest of the Middle Río Grande stretch.”

In the past few years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has worked to improve the habitat at the southern end of the preserve. The project involves clearing out non-native shrubs, planting willows, terracing the riverbank, and creating swales and backwaters that draw water into the bosque, mimicking the long-lost natural flowing action of the river, according to Corps ecologist Ondrea Hummel. Gail Garber, who frequents the bosque for research as the executive director of Hawks Aloft, says the result has been a boon to birds, attracting declining species such as the indigo bunting. “It’s the most amazing habitat. I call it the Corps’ Amazing Garden.”

A BIRDER’S BOUNTY
Thanks in part to the restoration and conservation efforts, the bosque serves as an important migration corridor for birds like warblers, flycatchers, and tanagers. It’s also a waypoint and even a wintering spot for migrating waterfowl such as Canada geese, cackling geese, and various species of ducks, along with waterbirds such as sandhill cranes and various species of gulls. They make Corrales a lively spot from October to March, as the big birds coast low over homes and settle by the hundreds in harvested cornfields and pastures around the village during the day.

Both the north and south ends of the bosque offer prime birding this time of year. When Janet Ruth headed into the bosque from the north one October day, several miles from the restoration area, she counted 42 bird species—among them crows and cranes by the hundreds, of course, but also a solitary Bewick’s wren, a killdeer, a Lincoln’s sparrow, and a black-billed magpie, an uncommon sight south of Santa Fe. On a winter outing, she counted 700 cedar waxwings “just dripping off New Mexican olive trees.”

For a November visit, Gail Garber suggests entering at the south end, where you can park in the large lot along Alameda. A few hundred steps east and you’re along the water. From there, you can wander north to your heart’s content and hide among the shrubs along the bank to watch the birds along the water. In addition to the migrating waterfowl, you’re likely to see such big, charismatic species as bald eagles and occasional snow geese. “You want to be right on the river,” she says. Since you’ll be on the west bank, come in the late afternoon for the best light, she advises, whether you’re taking photos or just observing.

“I take my guests down there even when I’m not working,” Garber says. “It’s my favorite place to go birding.”