A jewel of a cienaga, among New Mexico's finest, may be found on one of the big private ranches in the Animas Valley. The cienaga's waters originate in the Peloncillo Mountains just to the west and flow underground through the alluvium until just here, where an impervious layer of clay brings the water to the surface. Then a wide flood of water flows gently through the grasses, some of it captured in ponds which were dug by ranchers a half-century ago, some of it revitalizing Animas Creek and soaking the valley floor.
Our region has been bone-dry since the failure of the 2009 monsoon, and the effects of drought are obvious: "no grass seed" translates into almost no grassland sparrows, Horned Larks, Chestnut-collared Longspurs or mice. "No prey base" translates into almost no Northern Harriers, falcons, or accipiters. Even the ponds of the cienaga, which store water through most years, have been mostly dry––until now!
Alan and I take a long day's drive through the Animas Valley and up Geronimo Trail to Douglas. The valley stretches perhaps 40 miles through New Mexico's bootheel, then fades to the distant south, reaching deep into Mexico. Today the valley seems virtually bird-free, except for Loggerhead Shrikes and Red-tailed Hawks––how do they manage?––until we reach Clanton Cienaga.
Here's our first clue to what lies ahead: near ranch headquarters, Animas Creek is flowing across the county road. The cienaga, fed by this winter's heavy rain, is renewed. We ford the creek, then find that the lowest pond is brimful of water for the first time in years. Ring-necked Ducks have returned for the winter. A pair of alert Mexican Ducks suspects our motives, but doesn't flush as our car eases past.
Waters of Clanton Cienaga (Photo by Narca)
In another mile, we see the cienaga in something like its original form: before us stretches a wide flood of shallow waters, flowing gently through the grasses and the brown skeletons of a past year's sunflowers. And here the birds congregate. American Robins bathe. In a sudden blaze of blue, dozens of Mountain and Western Bluebirds forage in the wet grasses. Interestingly, the two bluebird species stay apart. The Mountains are in the slightly more open valley floor, while only a hundred yards away, the Westerns forage in the slightly more wooded stretch.
Life returns with the waters.