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Where Cranes Gurgle & Geese Chatter
By Donna Ikenberry
As I write this, I am sitting in my full-size pickup truck, deep in the heart of New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuse. It is high noon and too bright and flat to photograph. Instead, my fingers gently touch the keys of my laptop computer, while gangs of sandhill cranes move from one field to the next. Their gurgling sounds give me reason enough to stop typing and look up in wonder. I can't help thinking that the birds sound like they are gurgling underwater.
But these birds provide more than just gurgling sounds. Their long graceful necks and super long legs serve to match their wide, outstretched wings. So I look up again and again, marveling at the scene before me.
When I look up I behold more than just cranes, however. Snow geese, tens of thousands of the white and black beauties, feed in the same fields. Sometimes a coyote saunters by. Sometimes nothing. Still, it is reason enough for the anxious flock to scream and chatter and explode into the heavens. Seconds later the geese settle down and all is quiet - until the next explosion.
In between their fits of hyperactivity, a great blue heron croaks and flies by, intent on landing in a local drainage ditch where it will wait for its next meal of tiny fish, or anything that moves. Next, I see a deer tiptoe out from behind the trees; a sip from a nearby pond and it is gone.
Most of the birds leave for a while, to feed elsewhere, but I continue to wait for the last hours of the day, that magic time when the sun is low and the light is warm. The remaining hours of daylight. It's a special time for photographers like me.
If tonight's performance is anything like last night's, then all will be well and I'll go back to my little, home-on-wheels a happy woman. Late yesterday, as the sun bid all a goodbye and the temperature dropped, I stood with my 600mm lens mounted on my tripod, aimed my camera and clicked the shutter over and over again as flocks of snow geese joined an already bulging gaggle of geese. If thousands of snow geese weren't enough, sandhill cranes began making an appearance of their own, flying low and alighting near the geese.
I was one of several visitors who stopped to watch the spectacle as the setting sun painted the birds a pastel pink. Soon the performance was over. Darkness fell upon the quiet waters, and I had to leave. I would have been upset at the thought of leaving, but I knew I'd be back the next day to witness more of the same.
I was fortunate enough to witness similar spectacles many times during the week I camped near the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife. I had come to the place after reading about it in several publications, though I can't remember the names of the magazines or newspapers because it was a long time ago. But the image of the place stuck and I knew that someday I would have to experience the place for myself.
Although I don't consider myself an avid birder, I do enjoy observing birds and I love photographing them. Photography is just one element of my job as a full-time photo-journalist, and there's no doubt that for me, it's one of the most rewarding segments of my occupation.
My work had taken me to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in the winter because that's the best time to see large numbers of snow geese and sandhill cranes. During the winter, thousands of geese and cranes make their way to the refuge from places farther north, joining together to escape the brutal cold and to enjoy ample food. As I watched and listened to the birds, I couldn't help thinking that the birds seemed a lot like me. I traveled fulltime for 16 years, living in a 30-foot fifth-wheel trailer and most of the time heading south in the winter, just like the birds. Like many other RVers,
I was a snowbird. (Now I am married and have a home base in south-central Colorado, but we still spend half of the year on the road.)
I always visit the Bosque in January or February (the sandhill cranes are there from November through February), each time enjoying the chilly realms of central New Mexico. But sometimes the weather is quite pleasant. I've donned shorts on more than one occasion. But cold can attack the Bosque, especially in the morning, so I'm always prepared with several layers of clothes and a nice warm jacket.
Keeping warm is always difficult for me, so I thoroughly enjoy the gravel roads that lead through the 57,191-acre refuge. On cold mornings, I run my heater while my pickup idles along 15 miles of tour roads, looking for birds and other animals to photograph. Fortunately for me, the best way to see and photograph the birds and animals of the refuge is for me to stay inside my vehicle. I drive slowly, stop often and scan the areas where animals are most likely to hide. I almost always see something. Iin fact, I don't think I've ever made the loop without seeing at least one exciting creature.
Once the day warms up, several nature trails give me a chance to stretch. I never see as much when I’m out walking, but I still like to get out and walk the trails. I do so slowly and quietly, always noticing the sights, sounds, and smells around me. Often I find animal tracks, feathers, scat, and animals themselves. When I find a good spot for observing, I usually just sit down and blend in. I relax and enjoy the place. I close my eyes and listen to the sounds of sandhill cranes gurgling and snow geese erupting in mass in a nearby field.
About the Bosque
The Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is a visually stunning place. Lovely mountains nearby surround the Rio Grande Valley: west the Chupaderas, Magdalenas and the San Mateos embrace the valley, while the Oscura, Little San Pascual and the San Andreas ranges stand like sentries in the east.
The name Bosque del Apache means “Woods of the Apache,” a fitting name considering the numerous cottonwood and willow bosques that once lines the Rio Grande River. Unfortunately, many of the native trees were killed by an introduced species called salt cedar, also known as tamarask. Today, refuge managers are clearing away the salt cedar in a attempt to restore native bosques. It’s a worthwhile effort for in the end the region is of higher value for wildlife.
And wildlife there is. The Bosque provides habitat for many different species, including 325 kinds of birds, and more than 135 different animals, including mammals, amphibians and reptiles. Although winter is a wonderful time to visit, you won’t see all of these species at any one time of year. Instead, different species are usually present at different times of the year so anytime is a good time to visit the refuge. Of course, some, like the Canada goose, coot, roadrunner, quail, turkey, coyote, mule deer and porcupine are present year-round. Winter brings up to 60,000 snow geese, 17,000 sandhill cranes, and a number of eagles. The refuge was established in 1939 and was set aside "as a refuge and breeding grounds for migratory buds and other wildlife."
The refuge is also a winter home for the rare and endangered whooping crane. The whoopers seen here are members of an interesting experimental group, hatched and fostered by a flock of sandhill cranes at Gray's Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho. Seven to 15 whoopers typically arrive with the sandhills come November. Spring and fall visitors see migrant warblers, shorebirds and flycatchers. Summers are good for nesting ducks and shorebirds.
How to Get There
The Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is easy to reach. From Socorro, travel south on Interstate 25 to the San Antonio exit. Head east a short distance to New Mexico 1 (at the flashing light), then go south for eight miles to the refuge. If you're heading to the refuge from the south, via Interstate 25, take the San Marcial exit and drive 10.5 miles north on New Mexico 1.
Festival of the Cranes
The annual Bosque del Apache Festival of the Cranes is held in mid-November. The four-day event is a combination of education and fun and a intriguing way to welcome back thousands of returning cranes and geese. Co-sponsored by the City of Socorro and the national wildlife refuge, the festival draws birders from all over the world. For tickets or other information contact one or both of the following: Socorro County Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 743-H, Socorro, NM 87801; (505) 835-0424; fax (505) 835-9744; firstname.lastname@example.org;
or Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, P.O. Box 1246, Socorro, NM 87801; (505) 835-1828; fax (505) 835-0314;
The refuge is open year-round from one hour before sunrise to one hour after sunset. A small admittance fee is payable at the entrance. If you are the owner of a Duck Stamp,
Golden Eagle, Golden Age or Golden Access passport, admittance is free. The visitors center and tour roads are accessible to everyone. If you're physically challenged, there are several observation platforms off of the auto tour route that are accessible to wheelchairs.
There are places to camp nearby. The Bosque Bud Watcher's RV Park is just outside the refuge boundary, about five miles north of the refuge visitor center. Owned and operated by the Trujillos', who offer full hookups, sites are available on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. Call (505) 835-1366 for more information.
There is a campground and various motels in nearby Socorro, which is a little more than 20 miles to the north. Socorro is a friendly little town, named by Spanish explorer Juan de Onate, who, with his troops journeyed through Jornado del Muerto (Journey of Death), the desert region south of Socorro. (Today the region is part of the White Sands Missile Range.) Aided by the Piro Indians who supplied his troops with food, Onate named the place Socorro which means "help" or "aid" in Spanish.
Socorro has a population of 8,500 and offers all the amenities of any small town. There's a post office, an assortment of motels, numerous restaurants, a couple of grocery stores and stations providing gas and diesel. There's also Socorro RV Park, which offers daily, weekly and monthly rates. Call (505) 835-2234 for further details.