As with plants, what you see depends on where you are on the mountain slopes. And you’ll have to look very carefully, because a lot of the animals that have survived this long in dry, harsh New Mexico are the sort that have blended in with their surroundings—in short, there are a lot of brown critters.
In the open, low-elevation areas on Albuquerque’s fringes (and sometimes in the occasional vacant urban lot), look for prairie dogs, which live in huge communities of underground warrens. If you’re camping, the first little creatures you’ll meet are squirrels and chipmunks—at higher elevations, look out for Aber’s squirrel, with its tufted ears and particularly fluffy tail. Long-haunched, clever, and highly adaptable, coyotes roam the lower elevations and are not shy about nosing around backyards; they make a barking yelp at night. On the plains just south of Santa Fe, you may see pronghorns (often called pronghorn antelopes, though they are not true antelopes) springing through the grasses, while hefty mule deer flourish in mountain forests, such as the Pecos Wilderness area. Herds of even larger elk live in the high valleys; Rocky Mountain elk are common, thanks to an aggressive reintroduction effort in the early 20th century to make up for overhunting. A group of the largest variety, Roosevelt elk, whose fanlike antlers are the stuff of dreams for trophy hunters, roams in Valles Caldera. Bighorn sheep live in the mountains around Taos.
Black bears crash around the forests, though their name is misleading—at any given time, they can also be brown, cinnamon-red, or even nearly blond. Smokey Bear, the mascot of the National Forest Service, was from New Mexico, a cub rescued from a forest fire in Capitan. Drought has on many occasions driven the omnivorous beasts into suburban trash cans to forage, with tragic results; if you’re camping, take thorough measures to keep your food away from your camp and out of reach of animals.
And then there’s the elusive jackalope, a jackrabbit hare sporting elaborate antlers. Alas, it seems now to appear only on postcards, although you may occasionally see a taxidermied head in a curio shop.
New Mexico’s state bird is the roadrunner, which can grow to be up to two feet long; it lives in the lower desertlike elevations (Coronado State Monument, north of Albuquerque, is home to a few), nesting in the ground and feeding on insects and even rattlesnakes. Blue-and-black Steller’s jays and raucous all-blue piñon jays are some of the most common birds in the foothills and farther up in the mountains, where you can also see bluebirds, black-masked mountain chickadees, and Clark’s nutcrackers, which hoard great stashes of piñon nuts for winter. Also look around for varieties of woodpeckers, including the three-toed variety, which lives at higher elevations. On the very highest peaks are white-tailed ptarmigans, which blend in with their snowy environment. But you can’t miss the bright-yellow-and-red Western tanager, a shot of tropical-looking delight in the Transition zone forests.
In the late summer, keep an eye out for tiny, red-throated Rufous hummingbirds on their way to Mexico for the winter. The Sandia Mountains are part of the migratory corridor for red-tailed hawks, eagles, and other raptors—they’re especially numerous in the springtime.
With more than 450 species spotted in New Mexico, this list is only scraping the surface. If you’re a dedicated birder, first contact the Randall Davey Audubon Center (505/983-4609, nm.audubon.org) in Santa Fe, which leads bird walks, or the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park in Albuquerque. Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, south of Albuquerque, is a must-visit, especially in the winter when thousands of sandhill cranes—and even the occasional rare whooping crane—rest in the wetlands. You may want to take a trip with Jim West of WingsWest Birding (800/583-6928, http://home.earth link.net/~wingswestnm), who has been leading groups around New Mexico, from the Pecos to Las Vegas, since 1996. He offers four-hour, eight-hour, and full dusk-till-dawn outings to some of the best spots all over the state, and he’s also willing to take people out for several days at a stretch.
Trout are the major endemic fish, found in the cold waters of the Rio Grande as well as the Chama River, the Pecos River, and the Rio Chiquito and Rio Pueblo around Taos. The cutthroat is particularly beloved in New Mexico—the only variety of trout that was originally found on the eastern side of the Continental Divide, whereas the more aggressive rainbow and brown trout are interlopers. The Rio Grande cutthroat, the official state fish, is now quite uncommon. Another local fish in jeopardy is the Rio Grande silvery minnow, listed as endangered since 2004. The last of the Rio Grande’s five native fish, it’s in such a dire state that biologists are scooping them out of the water individually during bad dry spells and taking them to the Albuquerque Aquarium for safekeeping. The hope is that they will breed and be able to be returned to their original habitat during wetter conditions.
One can’t step foot in the desert without thinking of rattlesnakes, and New Mexico has plenty of them, usually hidden away under rocks and brush, but very occasionally sunning themselves in full view, much to hikers’ alarm. The New Mexico ridgenose variety is an endangered species, while the predominant species in the Rio Grande Valley, the Western diamondback, can grow to be seven feet long. Although its venom is relatively weak, it has an impressive striking distance of almost three feet. Around Taos and Santa Fe, the main species is the prairie rattlesnake, which is only about four feet long at most.
More benign cold-blooded critters include all manner of lizards, including the short-horned lizard (a.k.a. horny toad), a miniature dinosaur, in effect, about as big as your palm—you’ll see them primarily in the scrubby foothills.
Insects and Arachnids
Because it’s so dry, New Mexico isn’t too infested with bugs. The ones that are there, however, can be a bit off-putting to a visitor, particularly if you chance upon the springtime tarantula migration, usually in May around Albuquerque—it’s not a true seasonal relocation, just all of the male tarantulas coming out of their dens to go on the prowl for mates. The fist-size spiders move in huge waves, hundreds at a time, and occasionally roads are closed to let them pass. Though they’re big and hairy, they’re not poisonous.
© Zora O'Neill from Moon Santa Fe, Taos & Albuquerque, 2nd edition