Flocking to the Bosque

Sandhill cranes at the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Carla DeMarco
Sandhill cranes at the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge.

Fall and winter are perfect times to trade the baster for the binoculars and head for the birds at Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge near Socorro, New Mexico.

Here, a temperate Rio Grande Valley climate and 57,000 acres of wetlands, wilderness and cultivated fields comprise a comfortable stay for thousands of waterfowl and sandhill cranes seeking refuge from northerly ice-covered waters, short daylight hours, cold nights and diminishing food supplies. The population starts building in September and extends through the second week of March, when the last of the cranes starts their migration northward.

While the refuge is designed to meet the practical needs of our flighty friends, a day trip here can also furnish the kind of intangible nourishment craved by the “inner bird” in humans. There is something magic about standing amidst the simultaneous hooting, honking, squawking and chortling of thousands of birds. The multiple sounds fuse into a symphony that shifts brain waves and lifts you out of yourself. If at the same time you are also gazing skyward and watching hundreds of birds sweeping, soaring and swooping in a synchronized dance of ever-changing patterns, your spirit might try to shoot right out of its socket and join in the performance.

More than 100,000 people from around the world roam the Bosque annually in hopes of viewing some of its 3200 species of birds, 75 species of mammals, 35 species of fish and 60 species of amphibians and reptiles. Among visitors’ favorites are the sandhill cranes.

Only 17 sandhills used the refuge when it was established in 1941. Now, they number as high as 17,000. Watching a flock of the gangly-yet majestic birds descend is a slightly sci-fi experience. In an upright position, gray as any robot, with legs extended like landing gear, they look more mechanical than organic as their armada cruises down to ground zero.

Birders know if they get lucky, they may catch sight of a rare white whooping crane among the slate-colored sandhills that blanket the alfalfa fields. In an effort to revive the endangered whooper, scientists placed whooping crane eggs in sandhill cranes’ nests at the sandhills’ Idaho nesting grounds. This experiment failed, however, when the whooping cranes failed to mate with each other and only a couple of birds are left from the experiment. More work is being done at this time for the introduction of the whooping cranes into this flyway. Kent Clegg, a biologist from Idaho, has experimented with sandhill cranes, raising them from chicks and teaching them to fly from Idaho to New Mexico behind an ultralight. These birds would normally learn the migration route from their parents. Kent, who has substituted himself as a parent, successfully reached the Bosque this October with three whoopers and six sandhill cranes trailing his ultralight in V formation. Now that the whoopers have learned the migration route, the hope is they will mate and perpetuate the species.

Bird guide Stuart Healy of Sierra Vista, Ariz., shared an up-close-and-personal view of a snow goose through his high-powered telescope. Healy said while the Bosque offers a fairly limited number of species on any given trip, “those you see, you see really well.” This is due to numerous viewing stands and hiking trails along the 15-mile tour route as well as hikeable wilderness areas. Some trails are closed from September to April for roosting.

Birds aren’t the only creatures flourishing on the Bosque. The mule deer, coyote, porcupine, beaver, badger, raccoon, skunk and muskrat are among its residents. Pronghorn herds visit from the Jornada del Muerto, and the mountain lion and black bear leave behind taletell footprints.

Inching along the loop trail road, we spied a coyote foraging for food. We stopped to shoot the unconcerned canine multiple times photographically. The overcast morning was not amenable, lightwise, but nevertheless, we enjoyed a depth of color in the Bosque’s plant life panorama that would normally have been paled by the sun. The lustrous glow of seepwillow, saltcedar, phragmide and coyote willow compensated for too-long shutter speeds that eliminated the chance for sharp shots of moving subjects.

Those perky individuals who manage to get themselves to the Bosque by dawn report that at sunrise, thousands of snow geese, ducks and cranes ascend from the marsh ponds in a maelstrom of flapping wings and piercing calls before moving upriver to feed in the grainfields. At twilight, they return again en masse to roost.

Although the Bosque’s primetime show occurs in winter, the spring and fall seasons provide a stopover for migrating shorebirds and neotropical songbirds. During the summer season the refuge is quieter, with only around 100 species of birds nesting. Visitors should be aware that during late spring, summer and early fall the wetlands also sustains the unpopular but necessary mosquito. This dietary staple for resident birds, bats, amphibians, reptiles and fish, is, in Healy’s words, “as big as the birds.” The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommends using insect repellant or driving with car windows up during warm seasons.

The Bosque is open one hour before dawn and one hour after dusk year-round. A stop by the Visitor’s Center will yield a wealth of current information, history, books and a video. Be sure to look out the east window where water is running and the sounds of feeding rufous-sided towhees, pyrrhuloxia, curve-billed thrasher, gambel’s quail, and perhaps even a rare fox sparrow fill the room.