On Hope, Birds, and Tacos

Touring the last great wetland of the Colorado River Delta.

Recently, our Audubon Western Water team traveled across the Mexican border to visit the Colorado River Delta and what remains of Aldo Leopold’s green lagoons at the Ciénega de Santa Clara – a birder’s paradise less than 50 miles from the U.S. border. Some 75 percent of the endangered Yuma Ridgway’s Rail (among other species) rely on the Cienega de Santa Clara for food, nesting, and their life cycle.

We crossed at San Luis, Ariz. and were pleased to find that the bombast and hype around this border didn’t seem to phase folks living there. As with many international borders, there’s a sister town on each side that links families, friends and economies.

We toured with our local partners from Pronatura Noroeste, and learned about successful restoration efforts on the Rio Colorado. In just a few short years, native cottonwoods and willows planted and watered by local workers have taken hold in the restored river channels and wetlands. They created mini nurseries in this arid land to grow native plants and bring back wildlife. Walking through the rows and rows of irrigated trees, the Yellow-rumped Warblers, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and Gila Woodpecker were a delight.

We toured another Colorado River site, called Chausse, where partners Restauremos el Colorado worked similar restoration magic—a birder’s Big Day was taking shape when we saw the OspreyBelted KingfisherAmerican KestrelNorthern Harrier HawkSpotted Sandpiper, and Red-winged Blackbird. Under the shade of some old remnant cottonwoods on the banks of the river, our partners wowed us with a cookout feast of grilled carne asada tacos, roasted chilis and onions, and guacamole. Heaven.

I didn’t think our trip could get any better, but then we found ourselves at the Ciénega de Santa Clara at sunset. This 40,000 acre wetland sits in the Colorado River’s abandoned deltaic floodplain, close to the Sea of Cortez—and it's full of bird life. From the little dock, the turquoise boat, and up on the nearby watch tower, we spotted White-faced Ibis, American Avocets, American Coots, Common Gallinules, American White Pelicans, Great Blue Herons, and more. With our Mexican birding friends, we had a good laugh at the American naming emphasis for so many of these birds. Perhaps the most memorable bird was the Least Bittern—they called for hours eluding our binoculars and then flushed through the cattails right in front of us as we turned to leave.

The Ciénega de Santa Clara is alive and needs our help to protect it for future generations. There’s more work to be done in the Colorado River Delta, but we are witnessing the positive change envisioned years ago that is bringing back the river and birds that depend on these riparian and wetland habitats. Maybe next trip you’ll join us birding, eat some tacos, and find inspiration too. I returned back to my desk with my head and heart full of hope for our future.