A unique place: Warm-water wetlands draws birds to Pagosa

Photo courtesy Charles Martinez
Pagosa Springs’ warm water wetlands along the Riverwalk downtown attracts a large variety of bird species, including the sora pictured here.

By Jean Zirnhelt
Pagosa Wetland Partners

One hundred and eighty different species of birds in less than 2 miles downtown. That’s the number recorded in the birding hot spot, the San Juan Riverwalk area, on the citizen science tool, eBird.org. 

They include common birds like the house sparrow and crow, winter birds like the goldeneye, summer birds like the warblers and swallows, birds that don’t belong here like the varied thrush, and birds stopping by in migration like the solitary sandpiper.

What attracts so many birds to this area in the middle of town?

Water is the obvious answer. Water to drink and bathe in. Water which attracts insects that provides food for fish and birds. Birds like the charming American dipper that hops into the clear, cold waters of the San Juan to uncover the larvae of insects that lay their eggs in water. Birds like the warblers that, from spring through fall, search every inch of trees and shrubs for insects to eat and feed their young. Birds like the flycatchers that capture insects in the air. Birds of prey like the osprey that swoops down to catch a fish in the river.

But it’s not only insects that attract birds. The plants found in riparian and wetland habitats are an important component of the attraction. Seed-producing plants feed birds like the finches, and flowering plants attract pollinators like hummingbirds and bees. Wetland plants, including reeds and cattails, provide hiding places to raise their young for birds like the Virginia rail and red-winged blackbird. Bottom dwelling plants feed dabblers like the teal and mallard. Plants with cones feed the nuthatches.

Berry-producing plants feed the regal cedar waxwing, and cottonwoods provide perches for the eagle and nest sites for the Bullock’s oriole.

Birds attract photographers and birders of the world. Birds of the Riverwalk open the eyes of students to the beauty of our natural world. Birds give us a reason to get outside and appreciate the beauty of our area. Birds inspire us to be better stewards of the earth.

What makes the Riverwalk area unique and truly special for birds? It’s the warm geothermal waters seeping up through the ground, and flowing into the river and wetlands along the Riverwalk. Warm water keeps parts of the river and ponds here ice-free in winter and allows birds to find food and stay. The same warm water feeds our famous hot springs also feeds the wetlands along the Riverwalk and makes this area a gem deserving of our protection.

So, the next time you boast about our Guinness World Record deep hot springs and our advanced geothermal heating initiatives, don’t forget to mention our special warm-water wetlands. It’s a unique and special place, a place we love in this town that we call home.

Pagosa Wetland Partners is associated with the Weminuche Audubon Society. For information, visit the Pagosa Wetland Partners site on Facebook, or email us at Pagosawetlands@gmail.com.