A Closer Look – Desert Wildlife in the Winter

At first glance the landscape appears drab. The early morning temperature is still below freezing as I wind my way among the Fourwing Saltbushes, their papery seed pods still clinging tenaciously to the barren branches. An occasional One-seed Juniper, Creosote Bush or Cholla Cactus breaks up the monotony. Only the green branches of the Snakeweed are a reminder of more vibrant seasons. The dried seed heads of various grasses catch in my socks as I walk my quadrant on this stop of the Christmas Bird Count at the Sevilleta Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico.

I watch the ground as I pick my way across the terrain and focus on the different types of animal and bird tracks in the sand. I can trace the path of a myriad of chicken-like feet letting me know that a covey of Scaled Quail has made its way through this area. Small pellets of scat indicate the presence of Desert Cottontails and other rodents, such as the Kangaroo Rat. The single file tracks of a fox are embedded in the mud that remains from melting snow.

I am relieved that the rattlesnakes that roam this terrain during the warmer months are safely tucked into their burrows for the winter.

Two Western Meadowlarks rise up and chatter as they fly overhead. As I continued to explore, a Sage Sparrow pops up on a Fourwing Saltbush, dips its tail and then flies off.

Further along the road we spot a Golden Eagle sitting sentinel on the crest of a rock outcropping. A Red-tailed Hawk peruses the area from the top of a power pole. A Prairie Falcon careens by.

I stop to ponder the inter-relationship of the plants and animals in this winter landscape and revel in the wonder of migration.

The Sage Sparrow must leave its breeding grounds in the interior West before the grass seeds that comprise its food supply become covered with snow. At the Sevilleta Wildlife Refuge, it will consume dried grass seed, as well as scatter it to assure its propagation next spring. By the end of the day our team will count 73 Sage Sparrows in our segment of the refuge.

The eagle and hawk feed on the small mammals whose tracks and scat I observed. The Sage Sparrow and the Scaled Quail may become food for the Prairie Falcon, which switches from mammals to birds during the winter.

The tangled branches of the Fourwing Saltbush look stark; however, it provides protection for the sparrows. The mounds of grass will continue to provide shelter for the meadowlark. The Creosote Bush provides cover for the quail, and the Cactus Wren uses its gauzy nest of spun weeds in the Cholla Cactus year round.

The orioles and warblers that summer on the refuge and enliven the landscape with their vivid colors are now in Mexico and Central America. The insects they depend upon for their food have finished their life cycle; their eggs nestled safely for the winter.

This northern tip of the Chihuahuan Desert no longer seems drab. It is alive with hidden treasures that cannot be seen driving down the freeway.

I am grateful for the chance to be a citizen scientist, but am even more grateful for the opportunity to take a closer look and appreciate desert wildlife in the winter.

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