Birds of a Feather
by Dave G. Houser
October 27, 2016
Filed under Destinations
New Mexico’s 57,000-acre Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is a seasonal home to sandhill cranes and snow geese that take off en masse in the early hours of daylight
It is a chilly November morning at New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge where a friend and I have joined dozens of ardent wildlife photographers, lined up tripod-to-tripod, ready and waiting for the action to begin. We’re standing on an observation platform called Flight Deck overlooking
a network of fields and marshes teeming with thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese that pause here to feed and rest during their annual migration south along the Central Flyway.
Situated on the Rio Grande just a few miles off Interstate 25 south of Socorro (between Albuquerque and Las Cruces) in the tiny town of San Antonio, New Mexico, the 57,000-acre refuge was established in the 1930s to protect the sandhill crane. The majestic 4-foot-tall crane had nearly vanished along the Intermountain West Corridor, a vital north-south flyway for migratory waterfowl and many other birds.
Bosque del Apache NWR stands out as one of the country’s most accessible and popular preserves — for wildlife and human visitors alike — providing a seasonal home, November through March, for up to 12,000 sandhill cranes, 32,000 snow geese, nearly 40,000 ducks and even a few bald eagles. Many thousands of bird watchers, photographers and nature lovers from around the nation and beyond follow them here.
“They could go any minute now,” says the photographer next to us, his breath propelling puffs of vapor from somewhere behind a fleece-lined hood. Brian is an amateur wildlife photographer from Florida, here as a member of a photo tour group. “They take off all at once…thousands of them,” he adds, “and it’s really unbelievable.”
For instinctive reasons known only to the birds, a sunrise “fly out” en masse is a daily routine. As is a “fly in” at sunset when the flocks return to the shallow marshes after a day of feeding on corn and grain crops farmed on more than 1,300 acres, mostly at the northern end of the refuge.
We watch and wait, nervously fidgeting with camera settings, as the sun inches above the horizon, illuminating a wispy fog rising from the marsh a couple of hundred yards distant. Then, without any discernible signal, it happens. In unison, thousands of snow geese erupt in a noisy blur, flashing and swirling skyward. They are trailed by the larger cranes, which lift off more slowly and gracefully.
Nothing we’ve ever seen in nature can compare to it — except, perhaps, the great wildebeest migration across Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve — and it takes our breath away. It is a scene so stunning that we nearly forget to man our cameras.
The spectacular sunrise has also made us forget for a time the near-freezing chill on this abnormally brisk morning, and we retreat to the warmth of our RVs. A 12-mile gravel road loops through the heart of the refuge, affording infinite viewing possibilities.
Bosque del Apache is Spanish for “forest of the Apache,” and there’s ample historical evidence that this area of lush riparian forest flanking the Rio Grande was a popular campsite among roaming bands of Apaches during much of the 19th century. Even prior to that, archaeologists say, Pueblo people occupied the area for centuries before Spanish explorers established the Camino Real, the Royal Road from Mexico City to Santa Fe. The Camino Real ran right through the present-day refuge.
In 1862, both Union and Confederate troops marched through the area during engagement in the little-known Battle of Valverde, which took place just a few miles south of the refuge. We find it extremely interesting that a wildlife preserve would also attest to so much human history.
Once warmed up, we continue around the loop road, which is divided into marsh and farm sections. From the Farm Deck, another of the seven observation platforms strategically located around the loop, we watch with some amusement as a wily coyote, literally crawling on its haunches, tries to sneak up on a flock of snow geese foraging among some corn stalks. Wise the whole while to its presence, the geese waddle nonchalantly away from the predator, carefully maintaining a safe distance and visibly frustrating the hungry but hapless coyote.
Near Chupadera Deck on the farm loop, a row of stately cottonwoods has gained the title of Eagle Row. Sure enough, we spot a couple of bald eagles roosting high up in the trees and attentively eyeing the scene below. We take up positions here for the sunset fly in.
The birds approach from the north — cranes trumpeting and geese honking — filling the dusk sky. They swoop down to field and marsh, gliding like fighter jets landing on a carrier deck. It is not so much breathtaking as it is ethereal. We are in a trance.
During a visit to the Bosque many Novembers ago, the late, great CBS newsman Charles Kuralt was similarly stirred by the scene. Following a flight of cranes gliding south on a thermal above the Rio Grande, Kuralt noted, “Their effortless flight and their brassy music got into my soul.”
Festival of the Cranes
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is open year-round from one hour before sunrise until one hour after sunset. The one-day entry fee is $5 per vehicle including all occupants. Golden Age and other federal passes are accepted. The refuge hosts a number of special events, including the annual Festival of the Cranes, staged during the height of the fall migration. The 2016 event, which features tours, lectures and special exhibits, is set for November 15 through 20.
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge
575-835-1828 | www.fws.gov/refuge/bosque_del_apache