Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

Two cranes take flight over the Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo courtesy of USFWS)

Roswell, New Mexico is well known for its unusual history. Most people associate Roswell with UFOs and martians, but there is much more to this southeastern New Mexico town than tales of science fiction. The truly unique sight to be found near Roswell is the Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, a 2000-acre internationally-recognized wetland.

Yes—a wetland—sitting on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert. Great Blue Herons, egrets, and White-faced ibis wade through the shallow, bitter-tasting water that is the only place on Earth where Noel’s amphipod, a tiny freshwater crustacean can survive. A marine alga that is normally found only in lagoons along the edges of the Gulf of Mexico also makes its home here. In addition to this, two endangered snail species, the rare, saltwater-loving Pecos puzzle sunflower, and nearly 500 different species of vertebrates can be found within the boundaries of the refuge.

The wildlife seen within the refuge varies widely with the time of the year. During the winter, tens of thousands of snow geese and sandhill cranes inhabit the wetland, having migrated from colder climates. Autumn and springtime months bring vast flocks of songbirds that stop over for a meal or two on their annual pilgrimages from the north to warmer climates and back again. In the summer, snowy plovers, killdeer, and avocets raise their chicks. And of course, year-round, you’ll find the roadrunner, the state bird of New Mexico, as well as red-winged blackbirds, coyotes, cottontail rabbits, rattlesnakes, and more than 100 species of dragonflies.

Millions of years ago, during the Permian period, a shallow sea covered the area. What remains today is a group of seeps, sinkholes, springs and playa lakes that are fed by an underground river, providing water that can be impossible to find in other parts of the state. Even when severe drought contributed to massive wildfires in 2011, water fowl and a variety of other wildlife found shelter at Bitter Lake.

Since the area around Bitter Lake receives less than 36 cm (14 in.) of rain a year, the availability of water is always a concern, especially since it is one of the most intensively farmed regions in the Roswell basin. Due to this, one of the biggest ecological threats to the refuge includes increased groundwater use and surface water diversion for irrigation. Area residents help the National Park Service fight a constant battle against the presence of the invasive species Tamarix chinensis, commonly known as salt cedar, or Chinese tamarisk. The trees, native to China and Korea, were introduced to the United States as ornamental plants. A single mature tree can absorb up to 200 gallons of water a day, while their stems and leaves secrete salt, which contaminates the soil and kills native plant species. Because each tree can produce hundreds of thousands of seeds each year, these plants pose a major problem within the wildlife refuge.

Bitter Lake’s integral role as a home for a large number of endangered species and as a rest stop for migrating birds has not gone unnoticed. In April 2010, the refuge was recognized as a Wetland of International Importance under Ramsar, a treaty that promotes wetland conservation throughout the world.

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Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge
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Birding at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

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