Birding at Santa Ana NWR
by Keith Hackland
published January 2016
No doubt many Valley residents already
have heard of the top Valley birding hot spots,
twenty to thirty of them. At the head of the list
is Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, with
2,088 acres, just south of Alamo, along several
miles of the winding Rio Grande encircling
two sides of the refuge. It was the first National
Wildlife Refuge in the Valley, having been purchased
Santa Ana N.W.R. offers 12 miles of hiking
trails, three Resaca (oxbow lake) clusters, a
great visitors center, picnic tables, bird feeders
and ponds. It has a photo blind, a forty
foot fire tower (with 73 steps to reach the top),
and a suspended rope walk twenty feet off the
ground. Its habitat is comprised of thorn brush,
mowed meadows, wetlands, and riparian (river)
forest with its hanging clusters of Spanish
moss that looks like an old man's grey beard.
We have experienced many years of drought
during the last two decades. During this time
at Santa Ana the dryland thornbrush does well
while the rich riparian forest recedes. Then
during years of good rainfall the riparian forest
expands again. Since the Rio Grande now
rarely floods, the Resacas at Santa Ana N.W.R.
are filled each fall by management to simulate
the fall floods that filled them in centuries past.
Then during summer
they dry out again, and
some of the special animals
that live in them,
like crawfish and frogs,
burrow into the muddy
earth as they dry out and
hibernate until there is
again standing water in the Resacas. These Resacas
also help sustain the valuable Riparian
Wintering birds love Santa Ana N.W.R. They
fill the Resacas with their calls, paddling across
the water and stalking through the shallows.
Ducks and shorebirds are common here during
our cool season. The trees attract song birds,
residents and migrants, and butterflies flit
through the dappled light and shade. Raptors
sail overhead or roost atop vantage points.
Volunteers lead nature walks and stake out
spots at Willow Lake to help visitors locate,
identify, and enjoy the birds and butterflies.
Bob cats, armadillos, and javelina are common,
even cougar are spotted on rare occassions.
Spring and Summer are also rich birding
times here. If one adds the number of
bird species to the number of butterfly species,
and compares this figure to all the other
550 national wildlife refuges in the United States, it turns out that Santa
Ana has the highest
species count of any
of them, making Santa
Ana the Jewel in the
Crown of the National
Wildlife Refuge System.
The best part is we here
in the Valley can visit
Santa Ana N.W.R. any
day of the week between
dawn and dusk, and it is
We are so fortunate compared to the thousands
of visitors who fly in from across the U.S. and
Canada, and from overseas countries, to experience
this amazing refuge. Plan to spend some
time in the very interesting visitor center, ask
to see a video about the refuge in the theatre,
and take a tram tour around the refuge to hear
about some of its natural history from interpreters.
Our children should all become familiar
with Santa Ana, because it and our other
great refuges and parks here represent the rich
natural heritage of our Valley.