Ugly mugs lure birdwatchers to Bitter Lake Visitor Center

January 16, 2011 • Local News

Sandhill Cranes take flight during the Landing of the Sandhill Cranes and Ugly Mug Contest event held [auth] at Bitter Lake Wildlife Refuge, Saturday. (Mark Wilson Photo)

The promise of hot cranberry punch and cocoa served in an ugly mug was all it took to draw a crowd to the Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, early Saturday evening. At least 50 people showed up for the first annual “ugly mug” contest and to watch cranes fly overhead into the ponds of the refuge.

The Friends of Bitter Lake NWR, a nonprofit organization, hosted the family-friendly event to promote public awareness of the refuge and to increase membership.

“Some folks haven’t been out here in years, or at all,” Jimmy Masters, a board member of the nonprofit and a volunteer at the refuge, said. “So we wanted to let them know we have a national wildlife refuge in their own backyard.”

Masters added that at least four people signed up to be a member of the Friends nonprofit.
“That’s four more than we had before,” he said.

Participants were served a hot beverage and then watched an orientation video about the refuge’s unique environment called “Oasis in the Desert.” A winner of the ugly mug contest — the mug was a dark blue with a black dog on it — was awarded a NWR mug and Starbucks coffee and cocoa. Then, the bird-watchers drove out onto the tour loop to watch seven to 8,000 Lesser Sandhill Cranes fly in for the evening.

“They’re so wild,” Jeanne Jordan, 89, of Roswell, said. She came to watch the birds roost with her son and daughter-in-law.

It was Anna Lane’s first time coming to the refuge.

“This is my first time out here, and I’ve lived in the area for 86 years,” Lane, 86, said.

The cranes began to fly over by 4:15 p.m. Each winter, beginning in November, thousands of cranes migrate from western Alaska and Siberia to Mexico, stopping at various refuges, including Bitter Lake, on their natural migratory route called the Central Flyway of North America.

Established in 1937, the 24,536-acre refuge serves as an important breeding and wintering ground for various birds, fowl and geese.

When the birds fly over, Bitter Lake NWR public use officer Steve Alvarez said, it’s a sight to see.

“It’s a natural spectacular phenomenon that occurs every fall,” he said.

Alvarez noted that the birds flew over in record numbers this season. A team of bird surveyors count the birds by sight, he said.

“We counted 28,000 cranes in one day,” earlier this year, he said.

The Lesser Sandhill Cranes migration ends in February. Nesting Shorebirds will begin to arrive in late spring, and hummingbirds, songbirds and dragonflies will begin to appear over the summer.

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