Birds of a Feather: Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

Talk about a great migration! Every year starting in early November, some 10-15,000 sandhill cranes, 20-30,000 snow geese, and nearly 40,000 ducks migrate to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge near Socorro, New Mexico. This annual event also attracts birders, photographers, and nature lovers of all kinds who also migrate to the Bosque to enjoy this spectacle of nature.

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. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bosque del Apache stands out as one of the most accessible and popular national wildlife refuges—for wildlife and human visitors alike—providing a seasonal home (November through March) for these birds of a feather.

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

Sunrises and sunsets are magical times at Bosque, and often end up involving silhouettes. Silhouettes abstract objects into a two-dimensional shape, eliminating their color and texture.

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.

The refuge is open an hour before dawn and closes an hour after dusk, to enable visitors to be on hand when the birds begin and conclude their daily activities. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The refuge is open an hour before dawn and closes an hour after dusk, to enable visitors to be on hand when the birds begin and conclude their daily activities. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As we watched and waited on a frigid November morning, the sun inched over the eastern horizon. Then, without any discernible signal, it happened. In virtual unison thousands of snow geese erupted in a thunder of wings, and in a blur filled the sky as they flew low over head before soaring north to spend the day feeding in the fields.

They were trailed by the larger sandhill cranes which lifted off in smaller groups. It’s unbelievable how they take off all at once, thousands of them. Nothing we’ve ever seen in nature compares to it. It is the rare human who is not stirred to awe and excitement as thousands of birds soar scarcely 20 feet overhead.

Then in the late afternoon they streak the sky in long wobbly skeins as they return to the water to roost for the night. The afternoon fly-in is almost as much fun as the morning fly-out.

During the daylight hours we drove the 15-mile one-way auto loop road and hiked the trails and saw groups of snow geese and cranes, thousands of ducks of many varieties, hundreds of Canada geese, dozens of hawks, eagles, blackbirds, crows, roadrunners, sparrows, grebes, coots, and other birds along with occasional reptiles, amphibians and mammals, such as mule deer, coyotes, and jackrabbits.

The refuge’s dirt roads are well maintained and RVs should have no trouble driving on them. If 15 miles sounds too long, you can cut your tour short by taking a two-way cutoff and driving on one section—the 7-mile Marsh Loop or the 7.5-mile Farm Loop.

Sandhill cranes start to walk. Others lower their heads, long necks stretched out in front of them, almost off-balance. This signal is followed by quick steps, the awkward first wing flaps and flight. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sandhill cranes start to walk. Others lower their heads, long necks stretched out in front of them, almost off-balance. This signal is followed by quick steps, the awkward first wing flaps and flight. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For the past 28 year this migratory event has been celebrate by the Friends of the Bosque, a group of volunteers who assist the refuge management to safeguard and enhance the habitats necessary for the birds and other wildlife to thrive within the refuge. The Friends, in close cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, sponsor and coordinate the annual Festival of the Cranes celebration during the week before Thanksgiving (November 17-22, in 2015).

The festival boasts three main components: tours of the refuge and the surrounding area, lectures, and exhibits. There are over 100 tours, workshops, socials, and events so there is always something fun and interesting to do.

For 2015, several special events are planned in addition to the birding, photography, and environmentally related seminars. These events include Horseback Adventure, Very Large Array (VLA) Tour, Historic San Miguel Church Tour, Dinner Theatre, and Poetry Writing Workshop.

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

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

The refuge protects  51,331 acres along the Rio Grande, 18 miles south of Socorro, just south of the small town San Antonio. The 15-mile auto-tour loop is the main viewing route through the refuge and provide the best viewing and photography of all the birds and other wildlife. There are numerous observation decks along the Loop Road. A visitor center, gift shop, bird-feeding stations, and a desert arboretum displaying varieties of native cacti round out the refuge’s exceptional facilities.

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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