Places: Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Sandhill Cranes and geese head south

Sunrise at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Roswell, New Mexico

The alarm goes off at 5 a.m. It’s cold, but I resist the urge to roll over and go back to sleep. I want to photograph Sandhill Cranes today, and they fly at dawn. I load up my camera gear and head for the Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge about 10 miles northeast of Roswell, New Mexico.

It’s a chilly 23F as I arrive, but the birds aren’t sleeping in either. As the sky brightens, they stir, murmuring and honking softly to each other. There are hundreds of Sandhill Cranes and thousands of Snow and Ross’s Geese in the shallow ponds of the refuge. Northern Shovelers, elegant Northern Pintails, and Mallard ducks disappear into the reeds as I stop to watch the sun come up.

The Sandhill Cranes and the geese take off, groups of birds bursting into flight all at once. They rise quickly into the air, to form V-shaped skeins as they head south.


Joseph R. Skeen Visitor Center overlooks wetlands

History of the Bitter Lake NWR

The Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge consists of 24,609 acres of wetlands along the Pecos River. Sinkholes, playa and oxbow lakes, freshwater springs, marshes, and man-made impoundments create a variety of aquatic habitats. Water in the desert is precious and tends to concentrate a broad range of species. Here, the wetlands support over 350 species of birds, 28 types of fish, and 110 dragonfly and damselfly species.

The refuge was established in 1937, three years after the passing of the Migratory Bird Conservation Act. The Act gave the federal government authority to purchase land for wildlife refuges. Although the refuge system was designed to protect upland game, mammals, and song, insectivorous, and ornamental birds; in the early years, waterfowl was clearly the focus.

By 1937, the region had suffered through 3 years of severe drought. Crops didn’t grow. The soil, no longer held in place by prairie grasses and forbs, blew away in billowing clouds. The once productive farmlands of the plains became known as the Dust Bowl. Waterfowl were hit hard by the drought, although overharvest by unregulated hunting and the draining of the wetlands to create farmland also took their toll. Early conservationists “Ding” Darling, Thomas Beck, and Aldo Leopold declared that waterfowl were in a state of crisis and called for an aggressive plan to create federal wildlife refuges.

Bitter Lake was chosen as one of the first wildlife refuges because of its location along the Central Flyway. The flyway—a great migratory route that cuts a swath across the middle of North America—is home to most of North America’s ducks and geese. Tens of thousands of birds move along the Flyway each year, flying north to breed in the summer and south for the winter.

Today, the refuge is known as much for its incredible diversity of dragonflies and damselflies as it is for its birds. The refuge also protects rare species including tiny snails the size of a glass seed bead, that cling to decaying leaves in the ponds. Shrimp-like amphipods—about the size of a lima bean—scoot across the bottom of sinkholes, and small fish dart for cover when a shadow crosses the pond surface. Many of these creatures can be found nowhere else in the world.


Exhibits explain this unique oasis in the desert.

The Joseph R. Skeen Visitor Center and Refuge Trails

Start your visit at the Joseph R. Skeen Visitor Center. There’s a 15-minute orientation film about the natural history of the refuge, beautiful interpretive exhibits, and even a tank of rare fish.

The back porch overlooks a large pond. With a pair of binoculars, you could sit out there all day and watch the American Coots and ducks going about their business. But to get the most from the refuge, jump back into your car and drive the Auto Tour or go for a hike.

Bitter Lake and the northern part of the refuge are closed to visitors, but the 6.5 mile Auto Tour loops around the ponds at the southern end of the refuge. The well-maintained dirt road is easily accessible by car. Along the loop,  several pull-offs guide you to overlooks where you can set up a scope and get a good look at the bird activity.

If you’d like to hike, five short hiking trails branch off from the Auto Tour road.  The trails lead into the uplands, around an oxbow lake, or out to observation blinds. They range in length from about 2 miles for the Oxbow Loop Trail to a short 0.2-mile butterfly trail.


Hundreds of Sandhill Cranes gather in the shallow ponds for the night.

Sandhill Cranes Gather For the Night

There’s something special at the refuge every season, but I was there in winter and specifically looking for the Sandhill Cranes and waterfowl that overwinter in this part of the Chihuahuan Desert. The Sandhill Cranes and light geese (a mix of Snow and Ross’s geese) leave the refuge at dawn to spend the day in nearby farm fields. At dusk, they return to the refuge to roost for the night in the shallow pond water where they’re protected from predators.

After my morning visit, I return to Bitter Lake NWR about dusk. I immediately hear the bugles of hundreds of Sandhills gathered on the far side of the pond. I was disappointed, afraid that I had missed the fly-in. But as I took photographs, I heard another flock coming in from the west. They flew straight overhead, dropping in altitude to land—kicking their feet outward to make space. Over the next few minutes, more and more birds arrived, adding to the controlled mayhem of the evening roost.

I was surprised that I was the only photographer there that day. I’ve been to see the Sandhill Cranes at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge several times. Nearly due west and over the Capitan Mountains, the Bosque del Apache NWR is located on the Rio Grande and is a mecca for wildlife photographers. You stand tripod to tripod, vying for that “pristine nature” shot. But here, at the Bitter Lake NWR, I’m alone.

What I didn’t realize was that I saw something quite extraordinary. There are two subspecies of Sandhill Cranes that overwinter in New Mexico. The Greater Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis tabida) spends the winter on the Rio Grande at the Bosque del Apache NWR. The Lesser Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis canadensis) congregates at the Bitter Lake NWR on the Pecos River.

In the spring, the Greater Sandhill Cranes migrate to their breeding grounds in the Rocky Mountain region while the Lessers keep flying northwest, headed for western Alaska and Siberia.


During the day, Sandhill Cranes forage in tilled fields.

Sandhill Cranes Forage for Waste Grains and Bugs in Farm Fields

I watch the Sandhill Cranes take off at sunrise, flying south along the river. “Where do they go?” I asked Bill Flynt, the Visitor Center volunteer. “Head out the Old Dexter Highway,” he told me. “You’ll find them in the farm fields out there.”

I followed the birds south and, just as predicted, found them feeding in a tilled field. Sandhill Cranes feed on seeds, grains, grasshoppers, and pillbugs. I suspect that before the conversion of grasslands to farm fields and desert scrubland, the Sandhills lived primarily on grass seeds and grasshoppers. But these days, they’re dependent on domestic crops such as waste grain or corn left in the fields after harvesting.  They’ll also eat sorghum and sprouting alfalfa which can be a problem for the farmers.

As the local dairy industry grows, the traditional corn and grain crops are replaced by alfalfa, causing a decline in the overwintering populations of Lesser Sandhill Cranes at the Bitter Lake NWR. Refuge scientists believe that the birds are simply moving on as they deplete their local food resources.

Black silhouettes against the evening sky, Sandhill Cranes return for the night.

The Evening Fly-In

My last evening at the refuge, I watch as the Sandhill Cranes begin to fly in. Their loud bugles can be heard for miles. Sometimes I hear them coming long before I can spot them in the sky. This time, they settle far out in the middle of the ponds. I can see them, I can hear them, but I can’t photograph them. That’s okay. It’s time just to sit and watch this amazing wonder of nature.

This entry was posted in Birds, Chihuahuan Desert, New Mexico and tagged , , .


  1. Carol Ann February 10, 2016 at 8:26 am #

    Very nice! Dietmar and I spent an afternoon at Bosque del Apache – Dietmar said, “This is like a symphony from Heaven” on hearing the bugling of thousands of cranes. We couldn’t leave for there was always one more group coming in!

  2. Cathryn Hoyt February 10, 2016 at 1:41 pm #

    “Symphony from Heaven.” I like that! I think everyone should experience the fly-in at least once in their lifetime. It’s such an amazing event.

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