One of the country’s 588 national wildlife refuges (seven of which are in New Mexico), Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is just east of Roswell, New Mexico, and is home to birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and several endangered species like the Koster’s springsnail. For anyone interested in nature, a visit to Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge is a must when in the Roswell area.
We visited as part of a long weekend road trip from Las Cruces to Roswell. As an avid birder and nature lover, Bitter Lake was high on my list of places to spend one of our days in the area. Fortunately, the chosen day in late January was bright and beautiful, below freezing in the morning and warming nicely by early afternoon. Let’s explore Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge.
Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge Geology and History
Bitter Lake NWR was first established in 1935 as Carlsbad Bird Refuge and renamed Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge in 1937. It was created as a breeding and wintering ground for migrating birds, but it also preserves habitat for many other animals and plants. It is on the boundary between the Chihuahuan Desert and a short-grass prairie and has a gypsum substratum, limestone terrain, and an underground water supply. Although the Pecos River flows nearby, it is not the water source for the refuge. In fact, the springs eventually feed the Pecos.
National wildlife refuges were first established when waterfowl hunters encouraged the government to establish hunting regulations and wildlife conservation, with funds raised to purchase land for the refuges coming in part through the Federal Duck Stamp program. All but two cents of each dollar spent on the stamps is invested in wetland conservation. Hunters are required to purchase them, but even if you don’t hunt, you can purchase a $25 Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp to support the wildlife refuges. The stamp gets you free admission to any refuges that charge an entry fee.
Plants and Animals at Bitter Lake NWR
While some migratory birds only reside or stop over at Bitter Lake seasonally, other animals, and of course plants, live there year-round. Coots, hawks, bobcats, coyotes, reptiles, amphibians, and other animals stay at the refuge.
Bitter Lake NWR is renowned for the large numbers of dragonflies and damselflies that spend most of their lives underwater as nymphs, then during the final stage as dragonflies, which only lasts about a month, flit about the wetlands in search of mates. Bitter Lake is home to more than 100 dragonfly and damselfly species, and the friends group even holds a popular free Dragonfly Festival each September with events for young naturalists and van tours of the refuge. Butterflies such as Monarchs also visit the refuge.
Fall brings migrating lesser sandhill cranes, Ross’s and snow geese, and a variety of ducks like northern shovelers, northern pintails, buffleheads, redheads, teals, and ruddy ducks. Many stay through the winter while others keep moving to other locations along the Central Flyway. The peak time for cranes at this refuge is November. By spring, they’ve moved north to their breeding grounds and thousands of migrating shorebirds take their place. Summer heat brings the dragonflies and endangered interior least terns who nest at the refuge.
Other threatened and endangered species found at Bitter Lake NWR include fish such as the Pecos bluntnose shiner, Pecos assiminea snail, Pecos gambusia, and the greenthroat darter. Some endangered species can only be found at this special place, including Noel’s amphipod, Koster’s springsnail, and Roswell springsnail. You can see some of them in tanks at the visitor center.
In 2023 there was a very successful effort to rescue Koster’s springsnails when the few spring-fed sinkholes where these tiny snails live were drying up due to lack of monsoonal rain. A team moved 1,500 snails out of the sinkholes and springs to save them and the program was so successful that they were able to return 2,700 snails to Bitter Creek plus 300 to a tank at the visitor center (there’s a magnifying glass to help visitors spot these snails, which look like little dots). Despite their diminutive size, they are an important part of the ecosystem.
Another success story at the refuge is the threatened Pecos puzzle sunflower, which blooms on the refuge in summer. This sunflower can only survive in desert wetlands areas, which are decreasing in number and area.
In all, the refuge is home, at least part of the year, to more than 360 species of birds, 55 mammals, 50 reptiles and amphibians, and 28 fish species. It is listed in the National Geographic Guide to Birding Hotspots of the United States, which notes that spring, late summer, and fall are peak times for shorebird variety, including migrants such as greater and lesser yellowlegs and a variety of sandpipers. Snowy plovers, black-necked stilts, and American avocets nest there, as do the least tern.
Visiting Bitter Lake
Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge is on the eastern outskirts of Roswell at 4200 East Pine Lodge Road. It is open during daylight hours and for those who want to see the refuge at dusk, you can stay past sunset as long as you enter before then (you’ll exit through an automated gate). There is no fee to visit the refuge.
The refuge features a 6.5-mile auto tour loop that takes you by many overlook areas. We found the best luck at Goose Hill Overlook, where we parked, ate our lunch, and observed hundreds if not thousands, of snow and Ross’s geese in the water below and coming in for landings. We found the most ducks at Units 15 and 16, plus an egret, a greater yellowlegs, a flock of gulls, and lots of coots. There’s a permanent outdoor spotting scope there you can use to get a better view of the birds on the lakes. We spotted harriers and red-tailed hawks throughout the refuge.
There’s a handicap-accessible bird blind just .2 miles from the road. It overlooks another large area of water where we, unfortunately, didn’t see any birds but found evidence of a successful hunt by one of the raptors.
Leashed dogs are allowed to visit the refuge, so our little dog was able to spend the day with us.
The refuge has three trails, a two-mile hike/bike trail on the north section of the refuge, the Butterfly Trail, which is just .2 of a mile, the 2-mile Oxbow Loop, and the .3-mile Oxbow Trail at the southern end of the refuge. Unfortunately, when we visited, it was the end of hunting season, and the Oxbow section was off-limits to hikers until 1 p.m. when hunting in that area was supposed to cease for the day. We decided not to chance being within range of any hunters who didn’t watch their clocks, so we skipped the trails. Some hunting is allowed in season in both the North Tract and parts of the Middle Tract. Check with the visitor center for details.
Bitter Lake NWR has a very nice visitor center with displays, spotting scopes trained over a pond, informative videos about the refuge and dragonflies, and a gift shop. Friendly volunteers are happy to answer your questions and show you the areas of the refuge on a large map. They keep a monthly list of bird counts to help you know what might be seen while you are there. There are restrooms at the visitor center and pit toilets on the south end of the driving loop. The visitor center is open Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and closed Sundays and federal holidays.
We camped at nearby Bottomless Lakes State Park when we visited, which is just about 14 miles from the refuge.
Story and photography by Cheryl Fallstead
Cheryl Fallstead loves exploring the outdoors and nature while visiting new places. She often travels with her husband, Brian, and little dog, Penny.
Posted by LasCruces.com