A SWAINSON’S HAWK LIFTED FROM THE CANYON rim and dropped below my own perch, 1,000 feet above the Canadian River. A light breeze hissed over the grasses. The hawk caught the wind, turned into a thermal, and shot straight up into the blue.
I shouldered my camera and followed a bright red bird down the narrow road leading into Mills Canyon. But it wasn’t just one bird. It was several. A blue one. Then an orange one.
Mills Canyon appears out of nowhere. The shortgrass prairie spreads, unbroken, to the horizon east of Springer in New Mexico’s northeastern corner. Well, almost unbroken. Just west of the ghost town of Mills, the Canadian River cuts through forested Cretaceous cliffs and down through Jurassic and Triassic sandstone to a lush river bottom teeming with wildlife.
Near the water, I crouched behind a leaning cottonwood, scanning for the red and blue birds. For several minutes, nothing. I sat down to wait. It wasn’t too long before a hepatic tanager appeared, studying me from a willow. A summer tanager turned up. Then a blue grosbeak. The longer I waited, the more I saw.
Mills Canyon owes its abundance to elevation change. On the rim of the canyon, the ecosystem is montane forest. The canyon bottom is a purely desert environment, ribboned by the jungle-like riparian forest lining the muddy river. This landscape diversity creates the perfect conditions for a multitude of ecosystems. Five hundred or more species of plants and animals have been documented in the canyon, not to mention the mind-blowing diversity of birds.
I counted nearly 40 species: vireos, tanagers, grosbeaks, wrens, orioles, woodpeckers, sparrows, swifts, swallows, a screech owl, and a yellow-breasted chat.
As I settled into my sleeping bag, a moonless sky filled with stars. I lost track of shooting stars at five, my tired eyes refusing to stay open. Just as I drifted off, the owl called, somewhere up the canyon.