Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Melrose Woods: A cultural battleground

Most of New Mexico's hard-core birdwatchers would agree that Melrose Woods is either the best single birdwatching spot in the state, or at least way up there. However, since it is also beloved of dove hunters, it is the locus of the occasional skirmish in our beloved American culture wars.

This bit of state trust land contains a few acres of poplars, some quite large. It is the only big patch of wooded land for many miles, in the middle of a huge sea of grasslands. During migrations, especially in May and September, there are generally numbers of migrant birds resting and feeding there. Moreover, it has been the location of a number of amazing records, such as Fan-tailed Warbler and Gray Silky-flycatcher, that are hard to find anywhere in North America. Located near mile marker 354 on US-60, on the north side of the highway, west of Melrose (and around 30 miles west of Clovis, NM), the highway gate is at 34°25'54"N, 103°48'07"W. There is a chain but no lock. Be sure to leave the gate closed.

Here is a quotation from my online field notes of September 4, 2004:

Drove into Melrose Trap to find five truckloads of dove hunters staring dourly at me. I can't imagine why I didn't blend right in, being a good old boy from southeast NM from way back. Maybe it was the giant camera rig, the binoculars, or the shorts and Birkenstock sandals. They were blasting away with shotguns right next to the trucks, probably to see if they could make me jump (they didn't).

My field notes didn't record the social interaction. I looked around at the hunters and focused on one who was considerably older, sort of the patriarch of the group. “Did y'all do any good?” I asked, which is a polite way in this culture to inquire about success in hunting and fishing. He nodded deeply. “Excellent. Glad to hear it,” I said, and continued on into the woods. When I returned they had left. Dove hunting is an early-morning activity; I didn't expect they'd linger.

Growing up in Hobbs, I was really quite comfortable around hunters. You have to be. When deer season opened, over half the male population of the public schools would be gone.

Last weekend, I spent all of one day and pieces of two more working Melrose for interesting records and what bird photos I could get. Saturday the 5th I was there for a couple of hours but left at 5pm. I noticed that the birdwatchers had hung a couple of hummingbird feeders in the woods, the better to get looks at the migrant hummingbirds.

Sometime after I left and before dawn the next morning, party or parties unknown blew one of the feeders to bits with a shotgun, and left a note: “You are fucking gay bitches!”

This didn't particularly surprise me. I knew a few intolerant yahoos in Hobbs, along with every other kind of people.

However, next day I was out there by myself around mid-day and a couple of youths showed up in a loud, purple pickup. I was sitting a little ways into the woods and came out to see what all the noise was. I did not converse with the gentlemen, but I did see at one point one of them holding what might have been a long gun, or maybe he just brought out a broom with an extra-long handle—I could only see it in silhouette. They climbed around on some of the old buildings and walls; they didn't approach me and I didn't approach them. I sat down and continued watching birds, with one eye on my car. After a while I ate lunch at the car, then left for a while, hoping they'd leave. They were gone 45 minutes later when I came back.

I have no idea whether they were involved in the destruction of the hummingbird feeder or the angry note.

Sorry if you were expecting a slam-bang ending. They can't all be Pulitzer material. Call it just an observation of life in these times.

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