Birding Hotspot: Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

As the sun reddens the sky, thousands of snow geese scattered on a big pond begin to waken and disrupt the quiet air with loud honks.

The best times to see the birds fly in their massive formations are dawn and dusk. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors perched on embankments, observation decks, or inside parked vehicles see and hear the communication that eventually gets the flock into the air and headed north to fields where they feed all day.

The snow geese are soon joined in the sky by flocks of sandhill cranes.

Much later in the day near sunset, birders and photographers alike stand under a stream of flyers heading back to the relative safety of the ponds and marshes to roost.

It is the rare human who is not stirred to awe and excitement as thousands of birds soar scarcely 20 feet overhead. This vast haven is Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

If you’ve never witnessed—or heard—the morning fly-out and the evening fly-in of thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese, then you’ll want to head on over to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, located midway between Albuquerque and Las Cruces just south of Socorro. And if you’ve seen it all before, then I don’t have to recommend that you return to see it again—and again.

It is no wonder RVers, birders, photographers, and all lovers of nature and the outdoors are attracted to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese arrive for the winter each November amid a backdrop of purple mountains clothed in autumn colors and bathed in the light of New Mexico’s spectacular sunrises and sunsets.

If, like us, you combine RVing with birding and photography—both natural fits—then a trip to Bosque del Apache is a must.

Along the loop road are spots to stop, get out, and walk to a viewing deck, boardwalk, bird blind, or nature trail. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On the Chihuahuan Desert’s northern edge and straddling the Rio Grande River in Socorro County, Bosque del Apache includes wetlands, farmlands, and riparian forests; and is considered one of the most spectacular refuges in North America and consistently recognized as one of the top birding areas in the United States.

The Preserve’s name means “Woods of the Apache” in Spanish, after the cottonwood forests indigenous to this part of the Rio Grande Valley and the native people the first European explorers often saw camped in the area.

The Bosque (pronounced ‘BOS-keh’) provides habitat to over 300 species of birds and more than 135 different animals, including mammals, amphibians, and reptiles, and is internationally famous for sandhill cranes, snow geese, and Ross’ geese.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is designated by the American Bird Conservancy as a Globally Important Bird Area.

In 1846, when naturalist Lt. James Abert camped there, he observed and reported large flocks of sandhill cranes. These migratory birds followed their ancestral routes south in November and left in February or early March, returning north to breed.

In the 1930s, the population of sandhill cranes severely declined as a result of habitat loss due to land use changes. By 1941 the great migrations had almost ceased with only 17 sandhill cranes returning to the Bosque.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1939 to provide refuge and breeding grounds for migratory birds and other wildlife, and to develop wintering grounds especially for the sandhill cranes.

As sunset approaches sandhill cranes and snow geese head back to the relative safety of the ponds and marshes to roost for the night. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Depending on the weather to the north, the rough honk of sandhill cranes is heard as early as September, when the vanguard flocks first arrive. By mid-to-late-November approximately 12,000 to 17,000 cranes share the 57,191-acre refuge with tens of thousands of migratory snow geese, Ross’s geese, Canada geese, pintails, shovelers, mallards, and a host of other waterfowl.

Note: This is the first of a three-part series on Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

Part 2: Woods of the Apache

Part 3: Festival of Cranes

Worth Pondering…
I saw them first many Novembers ago and heard their triumphant trumpet calls, a hundred or more sandhill cranes riding south on a thermal above the Rio Grande Valley, and that day their effortless flight and their brassy music got into my soul.

—Charles Kuralt

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