Drought Affects Migrating Birds

From nesting grounds in Alaska and Northern Canada, thousands of sandhill cranes, snow geese, and other migratory birds are winging their way south to their traditional winter watering holes in the American Southwest.

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

The problem is a year of drought has ravaged wetlands and crops throughout Texas and New Mexico, forcing the birds to fly off course in search of water and food, reports The Associated Press.

In the Texas Panhandle, there’s no standing water in any of the playas and officials at Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge haven’t seen many birds. It’s just as dry at Texas’ oldest national refuge in Muleshoe, where 27,000 birds have moved through so far this fall.

“I don’t know where our birds are going,” said refuge manager Jude Smith. “It’s not just the cranes, but the geese and the ducks.”

That’s why managers at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in south-central New Mexico are bracing for record numbers this fall and winter. With nearly 13,000 acres of wetlands, the refuge is one of the country’s best known spots for observing migrating waterfowl.

The shallow ponds at Bosque del Apache and the adjacent Rio Grande are havens for the weary birds as they search for a resting place following their long journey.

“The birds will go where the water is first and where the food is second. They’ll follow those two all the way south,” said Jose Viramontes, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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

Bosque del Apache is managed specifically to provide habitat and protection for migrating birds and other endangered species. When farmers upstream finish irrigating for the season, water from the Rio Grande fills the refuge’s impoundments, providing a place where birds can roost overnight without having to worry about coyotes or other predators.

But Bosque del Apache wasn’t completely immune from the effects of the drought. This year’s corn crop that managers depend on to feed the birds throughout the winter was decimated by a lack of rain, according to The Associated Press.

To keep the birds fed, the refuge plans to spread 500,000 pounds of barley donated by a Colorado brewer.

“If we didn’t have that, the birds would go elsewhere, and we know that they’re safe here so we prefer to keep them here,” said Robyn Harrison, coordinator of the crane festival. “And honestly by the time they get here, they’re not interested in flying any further for a while.”

It can take up to three days for a crane to recover from its migration, she said.

At Bosque, the early mornings are spectacular. That’s when the birds wake up and begin to stretch their wings and legs. A big racket ensues as they all take off in search of food.

The yodeling call of the crane is distinctive and their long wings are captivating, Harrison added.

“Just a slow easy flap and they take off in large Vs. It’s just an incredible sight,” she said.

Harrison has been organizing the festival for the past four years and it never gets old.

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

At Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Roswell, manager Floyd Truetken said twice as many cranes have passed through the Pecos Valley this year and he suspects some of those birds changed course after finding it too dry in Texas.

While late summer rains took the edge off of what has been one of the driest and warmest years on record for New Mexico, Truetken said lake levels at the refuge are still far below normal.

Biologists at refuges around the Southwest have been busy sharing anecdotal evidence of the drought’s effects on the birds’ flight patterns. However, they will have to wait to model any shifts in the flyway, given that wintering populations usually peak in December and January depending on the species.

Related

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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Festival of Cranes: Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

The Fly-Out in the morning and the Fly-In in the evening are memorable events. That’s part of the mystique, why the cranes get top billing here, why the organizers call this event The Festival of Cranes.

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

A week before Thanksgiving (November 15-20, in 2011), Bosque officials celebrate the birds’ arrival with six days of birding tours, field seminars, and formal lectures.

You’ll learn that these are ancient, ancient birds, and the sound they make is ancient and has never been imitated. It has echoed across geological time. They have seen mountains and rivers come and go. They have survived and adapted to everything.

Divided into two species—the lesser and the greater—sandhill cranes follow the seasons, the former summering as far away as Siberia and the latter in a refuge in southeastern Idaho.

Standing 4 feet tall on long, thin legs, with boat-shaped bodies, grayish plumage, featherless red caps, and ever-wary amber eyes, they are transformed by flight, fast becoming long, sleek, and sensual, powered by 6-foot wingspans.

Camping

We spent eight memorable days last November celebrating the return of the Cranes to Bosque. Bosque Birdwatchers RV Park, on State Route 1, several miles north of the Refuge, was our convenient home-base during this time. Long pull-through sites with 50/30 amp electricity, water, and sewer are available. Daily rates are $23-26. Weekly and monthly rates are also available.

Photo Tips

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

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.

Merging two cranes into one can either be electrifying or make the birds difficult to comprehend. In most cases, you’ll want to keep the objects in your photo separated and unmerged if you want the viewer to be able to make sense of the image.

For example, in Early Morning Anticipation, I worked not only to keep the four sandhill cranes apart, but I tried to selected moments when their heads and beaks were silhouetted against the water of the pond. Often times, easier said than done. That fourth crane just did not want to cooperate! You’ll require considerable patience and incredible luck—and a long lens that will accomplish this feat.

Details

Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

Operating Hours: Open year-round; Visitors Center: Monday-Friday, 7:30 a.m.-4:00 p.m.; weekends: 8:00 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; Tour Loop: 1 hour before sunrise-1 hour after sunset

Location: From Socorro, 9 miles south in I-25 to exit 139, ¼-mile east on U.S. 380 to the flashing signal in San Antonio, and 9 miles south (turn right) on Old Highway 1 to refuge entrance

Best Times: November-January

Festival of the Cranes: November 15-20, 2011

Admission: $3/vehicle; all federal lands passes accepted

Contact: (575) 835-1828

Address: P.O. Box 340, San Antonio, NM 87832

Website: fws.gov

Friends of the Bosque del Apache NWR (Friends of the Bosque)

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

Website: friendsofthebosque.org
Note: This is the last of a three-part series on Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

Part 1: Birding Hotspot

Part 2: Woods of the Apache

Worth Pondering…
A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends to do otherwise.

—Henry David Thoreau

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Woods of the Apache: Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

The Refuge

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

A 15-mile one-way loop road offers visitors an opportunity to travel through this drama at their own pace. 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.

For some species the best observations will be from your vehicle, which acts as a blind. Waders, shorebirds, great blue herons, hawks, mule deer, and other wildlife can be closely observed and photographed from your toad, tow vehicle, or RV. Bird-watchers will need scopes or binoculars to catch some of the more skittish species.

Along the loop road are spots to stop, get out, and walk to a viewing deck, boardwalk, bird blind, or nature trail. Several of these are accessible to people with disabilities and offer prime viewing.

Seven designated walking trails of various lengths are also available. The longest is a 9.7-mile round trip that covers surrounding desert land. Others are easier and much shorter. They include a trail through cottonwood and willow stands; another with a marsh overlook; and one incorporating a one-quarter-mile boardwalk over a lagoon.

Planning your day

Most birders and photographers start their day before dawn to await the en masse liftoff of thousands of snow geese and sandhill cranes. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The best times to see the birds fly in their massive formations are dawn and dusk.

Most birders and photographers start their day before dawn to await the en masse liftoff of thousands of snow geese. Sandhill cranes take off a short time later.

Some 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. In pairs and threesomes, they take to the air. In one stroke of their wings they accomplish what takes the geese a dozen.

Come early and dress warmly and in layers. Although the mornings can be brutally cold, the afternoons warm up. Gloves are essential until then.

During the day, you can drive the loop road looking for opportunities; in late afternoon, head back for the birds’ return.

Expect numerous RVers, birders, and photographers from mid-November to early December, with numbers tapering off after that.

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. Drive slowly and stop frequently.

Friends of the Bosque

The Refuge Visitors Center offers exhibits explaining the aims, methods, and successes of the refuge and provides a brief history of the area.

Sandhill cranes in flight. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since 1994, the Friends of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (Friends of the Bosque) have supported the biological, educational, and research activities of the Bosque del Apache NWR. The Friends operate the Bosque Nature Store in the Visitor Center with proceeds benefiting various refuge programs, research efforts, and special events.

Friends of the Bosque volunteers promote Refuge and Friends events, conduct workshops and programs, provide labor for special projects, and support the Refuge in thousands of ways each year.

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

Part 1: Birding Hotspot

Part 3: Festival of Cranes

Worth Pondering…
There is something very special about the natural world, and each trip outdoors is like an unfinished book just waiting for you to write your own chapter.

—Paul Thompson

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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

Read More