The long, marshy ponds are shrouded in mist. The darkness fades away behind the mountains to the east. Small groups of people cluster silently on wooden observation platforms, blowing on their fingers while holding binoculars and cameras.
A moving mass of white covers the surface of the lake, as a gabbling, honking chorus gradually becomes louder. Then there’s a shift, so sudden and subtle that it’s difficult to predict. The birds are resting on the water’s surface one instant. Thousands of snow geese take off the following second.
Sandhill Cranes join the geese, and the early sky is filled with wheeling formations of raucous birds. Each morning, the flocks leave the safety of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge to eat in adjacent farmland along the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico. The term “Bosque del Apache” translates as “Apache woods” and relates to the invading Apaches’ technique of concealing in the dense undergrowth surrounding the river. The 57,000-acre reserve has habitats such as the Chihuahuan desert and Rio Grande wetlands.
The Bosque was created in 1939 to serve as a “refuge and breeding place for migrating birds and other species.” Visitors may witness some of the 330 bird species on five hiking routes and vehicle tour loops with carefully positioned observation platforms.
The Bosque is best visited in the late autumn and winter. The insects have gone, the cranes and snow geese have returned, the air is fresh, and the cottonwoods stand out against the blue sky.
However, the greatest time to visit the Bosque is during the annual Crane Festival. Every year, the Festival is held the weekend before Thanksgiving. The dates for this year are November 18 to 21. After 12 years, the Festival has grown to encompass so many activities that you could forget to go see the birds. This year’s programme includes talks on environmental photography, raptor identification, rock art, bird sounds, backcountry camping, bats, outdoor adventures and Native American culture. More alternatives include field visits to adjacent Pueblo sites, wildlife areas, and the Trinity Site (first atomic bomb test).
The major attention, though, is always on the birds. Several unique excursions are available during the Festival that takes guests into locations that are often closed to the public. The “fly out” trips in the early morning and late evening are very popular. Cormorants, raptors, quail, herons, egrets, roadrunners, and songbirds may be observed in addition to Sandhill Cranes, snow geese, and waterfowl.
Visitors to the Visitor Center may learn about such as wolves, reptiles, natural vegetation, raptor rehabilitation, and binocular technology via exhibits. An outdoor feeding area within the Center features a huge window and comfortable benches for calm birdwatching. Natural noises are brought inside using hidden microphones.
Of course, the endangered Whooping Crane is the bird that practically everyone wants to see. It resembles the somewhat smaller Sandhill, although it is white rather than grey. If you see one, there’s no mistake it.
In 1942, the population of Whooping Cranes has reduced to barely 15 birds. The little flock spent the winter in Aransas, Texas, before returning to Canada in the summer to reproduce. The Whooping Crane has been spared from extinction because of captive breeding operations, considerable bird research, and the founding of the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Aransas scientists counted a record 181 birds in 1997.
Non-migratory bird flocks may also be seen in Florida, Wisconsin, and Maryland. However, scientists were concerned that sickness or a natural calamity might kill off the single migratory flock. Attempts to construct a second flock between Grays Lake, Idaho and the Bosque del Apache continue.
Kent Clegg performed his famous 800-mile ultralight flight in 1997 with a small flock of Whooping and Sandhill Cranes reared on his Idaho farm. Only three of the juvenile birds made it to the sanctuary due to a series of mishaps. Two returned last year, and naturalists at the refuge are expecting to see them again this year.
Even if you don’t see a whooper, the Bosque provides a haven of calm and sanctuary for everyone who come.
If you want to go, contact the Festival of the Cranes for a programme that contains a schedule of activities and lodging options. You may reach us at P.O. Box 743-C, Socorro, NM 87801, or by phone at (505) 835-1828. Sturgeon.irm1.r2.fws.gov/u2/refuges/newmex/bosque.html is another way to contact the office. Every year, around 10,000 people attend the event, and some of the special tours sell out quickly.
Where to Stay
San Antonio is the closest settlement to the sanctuary. The Bird Watchers RV Park and the Casa Blanca Bed & Breakfast are the only places to stay. Socorro, 20 miles north of the refuge, has a lot more housing and every fast-food restaurant in the world.
Where to Eat
Armijo’s Mexican Restaurant, the dining room of the 1919 Val Verde Hotel with paintings depicting the mountains and railroad along the Rio Grande, and Martha’s Black Dog Coffee House, which serves sandwiches and killer desserts, are three terrific locations to eat.
Green chile cheeseburgers at The Owl Bar in San Antonio have become something of a festival tradition. But be warned: there are no breakfast options in San Antonio. However, you will not go hungry throughout the festivities. The Socorro County Fair and Rodeo Association will offer a chuck waggon breakfast cooked over an open fire on Friday and Saturday. The Socorro Lion’s Club provides pancakes and breakfast burritos on Saturday and Sunday. Both organisations will also provide lunch.
What to bring:
This time of year, temperatures fluctuate substantially. In the afternoon, T-shirts; in the morning, long underwear. When the sun goes down, the temperature plummets like a rock.
Sunscreen is required due to the altitude (4,500 feet) and clear, bright sky. Always have a water bottle with you. Because the air is dry, it is simple to get dehydrated. Bring insect repellent. Sometimes just a few tough survivors survive. Bicycling is ideal on the level gravel roads around the refuge. Bring your cameras and binoculars, of course. Binoculars may also be rented at the Visitor Center.
Lyn Kidder and photographer Frederic Moras spent nine years travelling, working and birding in Arizona, Alaska, Colorado, Wyoming and Idaho before settling in Ruidoso, New Mexico. They collaborated on the guidebook Barrow, Alaska from A to Z and Tacos on the Tundra, the story of Fran Tate and the world’s northernmost Mexican restaurant.