Las Vegas Hideaway Offers Great Fall Wildlife Viewing Opportunities Adventure


It can take years to see what makes a place special, even if it is in your own backyard.

For Ted Winston, the prairies and wetlands just outside of Las Vegas, New Mexico, where the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the west meet the high plains in the east, have grown from an area that ‘he took for granted in his youth to an area he now wakes up before sunrise to visit her on many of his days off.

He said he remembers his parents taking his siblings to the Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge when it was established as a refuge in 1965. When Winston’s older brother was in high school and had chores of babysitting, he would sometimes drive Winston and their sister, Anne, to the shelter, and the younger siblings would wait in the car while the older brother visited his girlfriend.

It was a place he had been brought to that he didn’t think much of. Now it’s an escape that’s constantly on her mind, especially during the fall months.

“I see all these birds that I never thought I’d grow up to,” Winston said. “I just didn’t pay attention.

“It’s really amazing to see all of this happening, and it’s just outside of town. You know, it’s amazing how many people don’t know where the refuge is that come from Las Vegas, and it’s only five miles away. They grew up in Las Vegas, and they don’t know anything about it.

Sandhill cranes take off from a field during the golden hour of the Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge.

Now that Winston knows more about himself, he wants to spread this knowledge and appreciation of the refuge to others.

He and his sister, Anne Sanders, are both active members of the Friends of the Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge, a more than 100 member non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing the resources of the 8 672 acres. The Friends also promote conservation and support educational opportunities to help people of all ages learn about local wildlife and habitats.

Fall is a great time to visit the refuge for wildlife enthusiasts and photographers. The area is a stop for sandhill cranes and other migratory birds as they head south to warmer areas for the winter. It’s also elk rutting season, when the male elk bugle can be heard across the country and herds can sometimes be seen in and around the refuge.


A ferruginous hawk perches on a tree branch in Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge.

Visitors have special access to view wildlife every Sunday in November. From 8 a.m. to noon, the Friends group and the refuge host their annual fall flying festival, opening 4 ½ miles of secondary roads normally closed to the public to allow visitors to discover a handful of ponds and wetlands that they would normally be. forbidden to drive nearby.

The festival was canceled last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, and it was toned down this year for health reasons. There aren’t the usual expert lectures and demonstrations. However, volunteer itinerant naturalists are available to help visitors identify and learn about the different species of birds.

Bird watching is not as spectacular here as it is at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge near Socorro, where many species overwinter in large numbers. Still, there are plenty of opportunities to make memorable encounters.

“On the weekends, I go out here at sunrise, especially this time of year when the cranes are out, to see them take off from the ponds when there are a few thousand sitting on a pond,” said Winston, a land surveyor who became passionate about wildlife photography.

“We don’t have the number of cranes or snow geese they get in Bosque del Apache, but you don’t have to fight all the crowds. You can just park along the road here and watch. It is an incredible sight to see.

Several dozen species of birds can be found in the refuge in the fall in addition to cranes.

Bald eagles can sometimes be seen perched in trees overlooking wetlands. White-throated and red-eyed grebes dive into ponds in search of food. Canada geese and mallards fly in formation past the distant granite cliffs of Hermit Peak to the west. Falcons fly and spin regularly. And gulls and pelicans seem out of place on the high plains on their way to larger bodies of water.

Debbie Pike is the Visitor Services Manager for the US Fish and Wildlife Service which assists in programs and operations within the Northern New Mexico National Wildlife Refuge Complex which includes the Las Vegas, Rio Mora and Maxwell National Wildlife Sanctuaries. She said the sites, in a 90-mile stretch along Interstate 25, all provide feeding and roosting places for migrating birds.

“All of these refuges that are in the flyways were specifically acquired to feed these birds during migration,” Pike said. “They’re like these little postage stamps along the different flyways, and we’re in the central flyway.

“The birds go to a refuge, eat a little while, and when it’s cold, they push further south to the next one.”


Sandhill cranes fly over the Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge.

Pike said triticale, a type of fast-growing wheat and rye hybrid, has been grown on more than 400 acres at the Las Vegas refuge to help feed the birds during the trips. Many birds feed in fields during the day and roost in wetlands in the early morning and evening.

In addition to migrating birds, Winston was delighted to once again be able to interact with humans drawn to the refuge.

For the Fall Flight Festival, he and other members of Friends greet those who drive with snacks, facts, and tips as they arrive near the visitor’s center (which is closed for renovations).

Some he recognizes as regulars. He hopes others will have an experience that will reveal to them why this place is a local treasure.

“It’s nice to come back here now and see people coming from all over the state, and some that we’ve seen coming every year for a long time,” said Winston. “They can’t wait to do it. They’re happy.

“People like to come here and drive, see what’s out there.”

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