Desert on a Wing
Birding is wonderful in the southwest at any time of year. As the meeting ground of important northern and southern ecosystems, something is always happening among the winged set. But things get especially lively in springtime. Three birds the roadrunner, the sage grouse, and the elegant trogon offer a view of life in the desert during that temperate period between winter's nip and summer's scorch.
The roadrunner is the one bird most visitors to the Southwest hope to see. Some simply want firm evidence that the critter really exists in the wild and not just on the Saturday morning cartoons, while others are intrigued by stories of its comical and daring ways. In an assertion that would seem unnecessary to Southwesterners, who encounter the bird daily, the roadrunner does exist; and it is an unusual character, inquisitive and lively and very often quite comfortable around humans. In Mexico it's called paisano "countryman" a fitting name for the Southwest's most endearing bird.
As the name suggests, sage grouse are found in sage land, the vast, rolling plains that dominate huge areas of the West. They feed almost exclusively on the buds and leaves of various species of the abundant sage, moving downslope in winter if need be to find stands of brush free of snow. Thus, in contrast to most other animals, when spring arrives, the birds are fairly healthy and well-fed, ready to begin the mating ritual that has been called everything from Druidic to comedic. It is, without a doubt, fascinating.
Heard but not seen to invert a phrase is often the lament of bird-watchers seeking the elegant trogon, the most spectacular bird in the Southwest's most spectacular birding region. Indeed, there are a handful of locations in southeastern Arizona where from late spring to midsummer it is fairly certain the trogon will be heard calling. And while seeing it isn't quite as difficult as some birders would hold assuming one searches in the right places the trogon's solitary ways make a glimpse of it one of the rarest and most desirable prizes for an American birder.
The roadrunner is markedly different from most other desert-dwelling birds, who tend to be small, avoid the heat of day and fly off quickly at any hint of danger. In contrast, roadrunners are large birds, almost 2 feet long (half of that is tail), remain active throughout the broiling desert day and almost always run rapidly rather than fly, which is a ground-hugging, brief undertaking for them anyway. They are odd-looking but only vaguely resemble their cartoon representative. In real life, roadrunners have a scruffy and streaked, black-and-white appearance, with long legs, tail and bill, a crest on the back of the head and a curious dash of blue and red by the eye. Because two of its toes point forward and the other two point backward, the roadrunner leaves a sort of mirror-image track in the shape of a cross, making it difficult to tell if the bird was coming or going. No matter which direction it's headed, the roadrunner can run quickly 15 miles per hour or more and its dashes into shrubs to nab lizards are quick and deft.
Legends about the roadrunner abound. Some Mexican Indians believed that eating roadrunner meat would help them to become swift runners, while one of the New Mexico Pueblo groups felt that tracing the roadrunner's inscrutable tracks around a deceased person would confuse nearby evil spirits. The most widely circulated, and believed, of all stories, though, is one claiming that roadrunners pen sleeping rattlesnakes within a cactus fence, peck the snake sharply to roust it, then watch as it starts up quickly and impales itself on the surrounding cactus spines. Interesting, but untrue. The way a roadrunner really kills a rattlesnake may be just as remarkable, however. When it spots an appetizing-looking snake, the roadrunner circles it warily, occasionally dropping its wings to give the appearance of docility. If and when the rattler strikes, the roadrunner quickly leaps back, then jumps forward to grab the snake in its bill and quickly fling it into the air. After it lands, the roadrunner bites the unfortunate creature on the head and proceeds to beat it to death against a nearby rock. Lizards are usually captured with less danger, and insects, rodents and small birds virtually anything the desert has to offer are all acceptable fare for the roadrunner.
Spring is the time to hear the male roadrunner's mating song, a gentle cooing that he uses to attract females. Perched on a rock or fence post, the male lowers his head, then begins to raise it up as he sings. It is an unexpectedly tender sound loud, but dovelike. A willing female may come forward, and if she does, the male offers her a bit of food as a gift before mating. Nests are usually made in cholla cactus, a place few predators care to enter.
Roadrunners are best seen from early morning to early afternoon. One curious habit they have is their morning"sunbathing" ritual. Able to lower their body temperatures by more than 5°F during the night to conserve energy, roadrunners warm up in the morning by turning their backs to the sun and ruffling their feathers. This exposes the black skin near their backbones which quickly soaks up heat. Warmed and ready, the desert speedster, the killer of snakes, the paisano is ready for another day.
Roadrunners are found throughout much of New Mexico and Arizona in lower elevations, the mesquite and scrubland regions especially. Remember that roadrunners are most frequently seen dashing across the less-traveled back roads. New Mexico has several outstanding spots where the roadrunner will be found. It is, after all, the state bird. The road into Oliver Lee Memorial State Park, 4 paved miles passing through creosote flats, is ideal roadrunner habitat. This state park, at the foot of the Sacramento Mountains just outside of Alamogordo, has a perennial stream and plenty of cottonwoods and ash trees. Known as "Dog Canyon," this is one of the few oasis areas for miles around, though trails leading up into the canyon can be scorching hot by midday. You needn't go as far as the state park and trail areas if all you hope to see are roadrunners and a few other desert species such as cactus wrens, pyrrhuloxia, crissal thrashers and verdin. Take US 54 south out of Alamogordo 8.5 miles from where it branches off from US 70/82. Look for a sign indicating Oliver Lee State Park on your left, and turn east. This road, 3.9 miles long, is flat, perfect for roadrunners. You may see several, and the towering Sacramento Mountains just ahead are an equally attractive sight.
Due west of here about 80 miles lies Percha Dam State Park, the premier birding spot in the 75-mile region between the towns of Truth or Consequences and Las Cruces. Roadrunners are frequently seen along the road just before the entrance to the park, though the park grounds are equally productive for a variety of birds, including black phoebes, northern orioles, western kingbirds and black-headed grosbeaks. A low dam helps divert some of the Rio Grande's swiftly flowing water for irrigation here, and lining the river are stands of cottonwood, mesquite and salt cedar. A stroll through the park and along the river may reveal twenty or thirty species fairly easily, though again, just as at Oliver Lee State Park, you may avoid the $3 entrance fee if all you care to see are the roadrunners on the drive leading into the park. More so than Oliver Lee, however, this state park is well worth investigating for birds. To reach Percha Dam State Park, take I-25 south from Truth or Consequences for about 18 miles and get off at Exit 59 (look for the sign that reads "Caballo and Percha Dam State Parks"). Once you get off the interstate, a sign directs you to the right west to Percha Dam. A sign 0.8 mile ahead will put you on a dirt road to the left. Follow this road, staying to the right at a fork 0.4 mile ahead, for a total of 1.2 miles. Look for roadrunners along this road, particularly as you get closer to the little bridge right before the park entrance.
At Dripping Springs, look for roadrunners all along the gravel road from Las Cruces leading up to the visitor center. At Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, roadrunners are always about, particularly on the west side of the North Tour Loop. And at El Malpais National Monument , look for roadrunners anywhere along State Road 117 in the region of the Sandstone Bluffs Overlook past La Ventana Arch.
In Arizona, the ArizonaSonora Desert Museum has plenty of roadrunners that will, at times, walk boldly in the parking areas and on the museum grounds. The same is true at Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, one of the most popular places in the Tucson area. Packed on weekends and busy during the rest of the week by midday, Sabino Canyon is Tucson's nearest riparian area. A perennial stream, thick with cottonwoods, plunges through an idyllic canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains , with saguaro-sprinkled slopes above and steep cliff walls higher still. Although roads lead 4 miles up the canyon and down into the lower canyon areas, you may not drive them in your own vehicle. Instead you can either take a shuttle bus (departure 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily; fee of $3 or $5 depending on where you go) or walk. Next to the large parking lot there is a visitor and information center to help orient you, and booths to buy tickets for the shuttle. Here is the best place to see roadrunners, as several enjoy scampering through the crowds preparing to board the buses. Take a walk up the canyon, too. The first accessible streamside spot lies about a mile up the road in Upper Sabino Canyon. Be sure to visit the dam at Lower Sabino also, early in the morning if possible. The cottonwood area behind the dam is considered the best birding spot in Sabino. To reach Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, take Speedway Boulevard east from Stone Avenue in Tucson. Travel 6.5 miles to Wilmot Road, turn north and watch for the Tanque Verde Road that veers to the right just ahead. Take Tanque Verde 1.1 miles, then turn left onto Sabino Canyon Road. This winds for 4.5 miles to the parking area.
Catalina State Park is another area near Tucson where roadrunners are easily seen.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication