Stuff I Wrote Elsewhere: Ryan and the black-necked stilt

Everywhere I went on my road trip over the last week up the Lower Colorado River, it seemed like the black-necked stilts were following me. I saw them Monday night in the East Yuma Wetlands, a great little habitat restoration project laced with trails on a bend in what’s left of the Colorado River, just upstream from the railroad crossing. I saw one Tuesday dart up from a canal as I drove down the levee road along the limitrophe, the stretch of Colorado River that separates Arizona from Mexico. And I saw one at the Las Vegas Wash Thursday afternoon.

Black-necked stilt, Belen Marsh, April 2010, by Dean Hanson, copyright Albuquerque Journal

Black-necked stilt, Belen Marsh, April 2010, by Dean Hanson, copyright Albuquerque Journal

While I was gone, readers also saw this lovely photo by my colleague Dean Hanson on the front page of the Albuquerque Journal. Dean and I spent some time out at the Taco Bell marsh in Belen, New Mexico. Belen’s one of the river valley towns south of Albuquerque, and the marsh is a low spot left behind when dirt was removed for a nearby construction project. Water seeped in, nature followed, etc. You know the story.

But the story of the marsh is also entwined with what I called “the bright life and sad death of Ryan Beaulieu”, a teenage birdwatcher who died in a traffic accident in 2005, when he and a friend were out birdwatching. From the paper (sub/ad req):

As nearly as I could piece together the story, it was Ryan, a teenage bird-watcher of extraordinary energy and gifts, who first noticed the marsh’s potential.

As his friend Raymond VanBuskirk remembers it, Ryan spotted a stilt out by the Belen Wal-Mart.

“Why is that here?” Ryan thought to himself. Stilts are not unheard-of in the Albuquerque area. But they need marshes, shallow mud flats with reeds to nest in, and we don’t have much of that.

You can find stilts down at the Bosque del Apache, where federal money and human energy have built the necessary environment, as well as at a few other spots in the Middle Rio Grande Valley. But in the middle of the town?

Ryan started looking for an explanation. He found his way across the highway, to this 16.5-acre accidental bit of nature out behind the Taco Bell, wedged between an irrigation canal and a neighborhood street, within a short train whistle’s distance of the railroad tracks.

Ryan would head out to the marsh after school, birdwatching until it was time to come home for dinner.

Ryan’s mom is working with other local bird folk to help preserve the marsh, and she joined Dean and Judy Liddell and I for a delightful morning at the marsh. There was a moment near the end of our walk that made me smile, and about made me cry:

As his mother and I circled the marsh looking for birds, I spotted a turkey vulture soaring high over the nearby neighborhood.

Turkey vultures are one of my favorite birds. One of our largest birds, with a wingspan over 5 feet, they soar with an elegant grace.

Eileen told me she, too, loved turkey vultures, though Ryan hadn’t shared her fondness.

But when the family retrieved Ryan’s camera after the accident, the last pictures he took before he died had been of vultures.

“I know he took them for me,” she said.

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  1. Pingback: The Belen Marsh « Photo Feathers

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