One of Roswell’s best-kept secrets is the J. Kenneth Smith Bird Sanctuary and Nature Center located at the west end of town at 401 N. Sycamore Ave. between Second and Eighth streets.
The trail head and parking lot is well-marked and the public is welcome. Benches can be found at several locations along the all-weather trail that undulates with the natural topography, following an irregular boundary along the west end of the Nancy Lopez Golf Course at Spring River. The city of Roswell owns and maintains the sanctuary, which was funded by the Smith family. Assistance is provided by the United Field Ornithologists of Roswell, with which the Smiths are associated.
If you are looking for a nearby adventure site for the whole family, the sanctuary is a great option. Many kinds of birds can be seen and many more are bound to take up residence in the years to come as future bird-friendly accommodations are added.
The walkway is all-weather and fully traversable by foot and wheel-chair for most of the year.
The site has been richly landscaped with trees and shrubs that appeal not only to visitors but to the many species of bird visitors as well, such as warblers, jays, doves and more. In keeping with the prevailing Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem that surrounds Roswell, some cactus plants have been provided, including clumps of the attractive Claret Cup Barrel, which in the spring is festooned with crimson flowers.
Natural springs, for which Roswell and the nearby Capitan Mountains were famous, have been drying up for decades, intensifying the scarcity of life-sustaining water. To expand on this need, a wetland has been stabilized in the sanctuary’s shallow arroyo between the walkway of the sanctuary and the golf course. Quite likely, the wetland with its aerators will be a permanent fixture for decades to come, serving the needs of many kinds of wildlife including present and future bird species plus three kinds of skunks, small rodents, Jackrabbits, Grey fox and other species, all of which are essential to a healthy avian mini-ecosystem.
As a companion to the dragonfly-friendly Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge nearby, the sanctuary wetland can be expected to attract dragonflies of its own that would reproduce in the quiet waters. Importantly, aquatic dragonfly nymphs will feed on the smaller mosquito larvae since both will occur in the same wetland which, in the end, provides comfort not only for golfers but sanctuary visitors as well. Moreover, the wetland will provide some relief for those birds that are suffering from “peck order” (pun intended) pressures and need a brief vacation at Bitter Lake to recharge themselves.
A permanent “blind” has been constructed near the entrance where visitors can find shade during a sunny day and observe birds that stop for a quick drink at a small recirculating creek.
In fact, a pause for a refreshing drink by visitors is encouraged as well. Be sure to pack along a bottle of water, particularly when the weather is sunny and hot as may be the case during any month of the year, especially at mid-day in mid-summer. Stay on the path, bring along a close-focusing pair of binoculars and look for quarry, both the conspicuous and the elusive that lurk everywhere. Look for all kinds of living creatures from insects to birds and the occasional mammal, any of which may be seen on the ground, in bushes, in flight, at the feeders and in the wetland.
With so many habitats to choose from, birds might be anywhere. We can start with a favorite, the roadrunner. Like most bird species, the presence of roadrunners tend to fluctuate in numbers from year to year. Factors that enter into a roadrunner’s relative abundance include the availability of potential nest sites and food. The roadrunner is the largest member of the cuckoo family and like all cuckoos, they are sloppy nest-builders to the extent that a recently laid egg will occasionally fall through to break on the ground below. Furtive and seldom-seen, roadrunners are the velociraptors of the bird world, devouring anything they can hammer with their pointed beak and stuff down their throats. As a small lizard population increases in the sanctuary vicinity, roadrunners may occasionally appear momentarily when it grabs a quick meal. They will snatch up a small rattlesnake if they find one and will even grab an unwary hummingbird that might take a sip of nectar from a flower next to where a vigilant Roadrunner lurks.
Hummingbirds or Colibris, are quite abundant in the Roswell area with the bold Black-chinned and “zinging” Broad-tailed species returning when some of the first blossoms appear in the spring. The smaller and brighter Rufous species arrive later in July. A wide range of hummingbirds and butterfly-friendly bushes suitable for Roswell’s climate, such as penstomons, mimosas, azaleas, and others are suitable and need to be selected on the basis of providing an uninterrupted succession of flowers through spring, summer and fall. The sugar-loaded nectar in the flower is not food; it is the vitally important fuel that powers the Hummingbirds as they search for small insects to feed on. Fortunately, both are often available in a single blossom.
The seasonal migration of birds is a case of avian “musical chairs” which provides sanctuary visitors with a rotation of species that may be seen during any given month. In winter, robins will move south from Canada (the Canadian forms have white eye-rings), and flickers will appear. When one species moves on, others appear, filling whatever vacuum was created. To predict exactly which out of more than 100 species will appear and during what week is a toss-up. Part of the fun of coming to the sanctuary is to see exactly what species has shown up and when. There will always be surprises.
Birds migrate for many reasons, the least important being temperature. Birds are warm-blooded, well insulated fliers and most are adept at dealing with quite cool temperatures.
A more important driver is food availability. The tropics, which is the destination of many bird species in winter, is typically a challenging place to make a living since hunting for food is limited to only 12 hours of daylight. Although the number of tropical insect species is enormous, they are relatively scarce. In short, the tropics will sustain migrants on a temporary basis and provide a suitable stop-over for insect and seed-eating birds during the winter, although foraging is limited. However, in the spring when large numbers of bird species go to nest, they need to satisfy an enormous demand for insect food for a large quantity of many species of hungry hatchlings at the same time. Because such a demand would far outstrip the steady-state productivity of a tropical habitat, it’s the temperate-zone that meets this need with its extended daylight hunting period, which coincides with the emergence of hordes of insects.
Even most seed-eating hatchlings require insects for food and with so many hungry little mouths to feed in the region, adult birds need all of the daylight hours and insects they can find.
When summer tapers off, the successions of insect emergences will have run their course and the days will begin growing short. Fledglings have been brought off the nests and bird parents will have been going berserk trying to satisfy the bottomless gullets of their insatiable offspring. As a side note, some fledglings will have become spoiled by overly-protective, frazzled parents due to their laziness about finding their own food. Additionally, summer molting times are approaching. Old feathers are discarded and replaced with a new crop just in time for their southbound migration. While most birds can accommodate brief periods of cold, searching for the occasional insect in a warm climate for 12 hours a day is preferable to looking for scant food in a sometimes-icy climate for a mere eight hours per day.
If you have not yet visited the J. Kenneth Smith Bird Sanctuary you should put this destination on your calendar. As the word spreads throughout the bird community and as accommodations diversify, the number and variety of birds will continue to expand in the sanctuary. Check them out!
Ray Pawley, previously with Chicago’s Lincoln Park and Brookfield zoos and the Field Museum of Natural History, continues to consult for zoos and museums. He resides in Arabela, where his research on animal behavior and physiology is ongoing. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.