Birdwatching at national wildlife refuges: Western US

By | August 13, 2017

This is the third of three posts on birdwatching in the national wildlife refuges. The first post covered the eastern US, and the second post covered the central US. Among the NWRs, more than 200 were founded to provide brief stopover spots or winter habitat for migratory birds. This post discusses four NWRs in the western US that are great destinations for birdwatchers.

Photograph of many geese rising into the air from a pond just after sunrise at Bosque del Apache NWR. Photograph by John Fowler; shared under a Creative Commons license.

Geese rising into the air just after sunrise at Bosque del Apache NWR. Photograph by John Fowler; shared under a Creative Commons license.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge lies along the Rio Grande in central New Mexico. A large part of the refuge consists of Rio Grande floodplain. In its natural state, the river used to flood annually, and this area was something of a wooded, watered oasis in the desert (the name means “woods of the Apache”). These days, the floodplain is irrigated. The refuge also encompasses wetlands and irrigated farms, and even some Chihuahuan Desert habitat. The floodplain and wetlands attract shorebirds, waterfowl, and raptors; the bird populations and diversity are particularly high in late fall and spring, as migrating birds come and go. During the winter, sunset and sunrise are good times to see flocks of wintering waterfowl taking off or landing en masse. The Rocky Mountain population of sandhill cranes is the largest group of birds that winters at the refuge, but you can see many other birds here, including roadrunners in the spring and hummingbirds in the summer (see the Seasons of Wildlife page for more information). There are free guided tours on Saturday mornings, and you can explore the refuge by bicycle or on foot on trails covering its various types of habitat; one of the newest trails winds through a desert arboretum. In addition, the Friends of Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge offer programs and events. The Festival of the Cranes is held every year the week before Thanksgiving, and you can volunteer to help with the Christmas bird count from mid-December into January.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, in southeastern Oregon, was originally designated by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 and later expanded. It was established as a way to protect native birds, who were being killed so that their plumes could be used to decorate women’s hats, but it’s also a stop on the Pacific Flyway for migratory birds. The refuge is irrigated by the Donner und Blitzen River to create an artificial wetland; the river flows into Malheur Lake, and the refuge contains two other lakes, Mud and Harney. The refuge is an oasis in the surrounding high desert, and the open water is a draw for birds. (The river is not named for Santa’s reindeer; the name is German for “thunder and lightning” and apparently describes stormy weather encountered by early explorers.) Malheur and Mud lakes are essentially freshwater marshes (among the largest inland marshes in the country), and in addition to other wetlands, there are sagebrush lowland, sagebrush steppe, and even some dunes. The best time to see a wide variety of birds is from late winter through May, but you can always find birds here (see Seasons of Wildlife). You can learn more about the refuge at the Visitor Center and at Benson Memorial Museum in the refuge headquarters (which contains taxidermy mounts that allow you to get a close look at some of the birds that you can see at the refuge). Hiking trails take you to various types of habitat where you can see birds as well as butterflies and other wildlife, and also learn about the geological history of this region. An auto tour route (42 miles one way) takes you through the Donner und Blitzen River valley and showcases all the types of habitat in the refuge.

Photograph of a Wilson's Snipe, San Luis NWR

Wilson’s Snipe, San Luis NWR. Photographed by Jason Crotty and shared under a Creative Commons license.

San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, in the northern San Joaquin Valley of central California, is an important stopover location or winter habitat for migratory water birds; it also provides habitat for a rich variety of wildlife, including tule elk, which are found only in California. The refuge contains all of the habitats that are typical of this area, including wetlands, grasslands, and dry upland areas. Migratory ducks, teal, and other waterfowl and shorebirds visit the wetlands, and songbirds can be found in the grasslands. The drier uplands provide habitat for raptors. In addition to permanent wetlands, the refuge also has seasonal vernal pools, which fill with water only during fall and winter and then dry up through evaporation by late spring. The Seasons of Wildlife page describes the birds, wildflowers, and wildlife that you can expect to see month by month, depending on the state of the wetlands and the migration patterns and life cycles of the birds and animals. The Visitor Center has an exhibit hall; you can explore the refuge on three auto tour routes and eight nature trails.

Photograph of a long-billed curlew at Tijuana Slough NWR.

Long-billed curlew at Tijuana Slough NWR. Photographed by Rinus Baak/USFWS and shared by US Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters under a Creative Commons license.

Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge, near San Diego, consists of a wetland in the Tijuana River estuary, where the river flows into the Pacific. (It’s part of a larger research reserve on the estuary.) This refuge protects one of the largest remaining relatively undisturbed salt marshes in this area, which provides habitat for native birds as well as migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. Lying between San Diego to the north and Tijuana to the south, this region is an oasis of natural habitat in a highly developed landscape. As with many of these refuges, some of the birds it protects are endangered and/or unique to this type of environment. The refuge has four miles of trails, some of which connect to trails on the research reserve. In addition, the Visitor Center has interpretive exhibits and a native plant garden. The research reserve offers guided nature walks and bird walks, along with other events and programs. This NWR, given its location so close to San Diego, is an especially good one for field trips. Nearby San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge is also a good birdwatching spot.

To learn more, visit the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Birding in the Refuge system, which has tons of information on birding in National Wildlife Refuges, including a list of birding festivals and events in or near refuges and information for kids and families.

To learn more about bird migration, you might like The Migration of Birds: Seasons on the Wing by Janice Hughes (find in a library) or Atlas of Bird Migration: Tracing the Great Journeys of the World’s Birds by Jonathan Elphick (find in a library).