Wherever there are birds, there is hope.
~Mehmet Murat ildan
Snow Geese taking flight at Bosque del Apache (click on photos to enlarge)
Bosque – say that to any birder or wildlife photographer, and they immediately know of what you speak. There is only one place that comes to mind – Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. It has been on my bucket list since I first saw images of the birds there more than 20 years ago. And just before Christmas I was there…and it did not disappoint.
Bosque del Apache is Spanish for “woods of the Apache”, referring to a time when Spanish explorers would be surprised by Apaches coming out of the forests of Cottonwood trees growing along the Rio Grande River. The refuge was created in 1939 to preserve important wintering habitats along the river for waterfowl and a dwindling Sandhill Crane population. Today, it is widely considered one of the finest wildlife viewing areas in the world, especially for the thousands of waterfowl and cranes that winter here.
High desert habitat in the area near Bosque del Apache, New Mexico
The drive down from Albuquerque yielded no clue to the abundance to come – it is high desert covered in shrubs with odd-sounding names like Creosote Bush and Screwbean Mesquite. As you near the refuge, trees begin to appear – beautiful, majestic trunks of Cottonwoods. The flat landscape changes dramatically as you near the river, the true lifeblood of the 57,000+ acre refuge.
Northern Pintail on morning ice
But there were birds to see, so after a quick stop at the visitor center (staffed by a cadre of helpful volunteers) time was spent watching a large flock of Northern Pintails (probably the most abundant duck seen) in a pool bordered by ice.
The sky was soon full of birds, mainly Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes, flying in from the fields to roost for the evening. Staff told me the cranes were coming into some pools along the main road known as the Crane Ponds, so that is where I wanted to be as the sun set.
Crane Ponds at sunset the first evening in Bosque
The sky was clear, not a cloud in sight. Cranes drifted into the ponds for about an hour as the sun set behind the Chupadera Mountains. Their ancient calls filled the air and a group of us stood in silence (except for the camera shutters:) as the pond filled with the stately forms. Quite an introduction to Bosque.
Sunrise at the Flight Deck
Cranes dropping into pond at sunset
The next few days were a sequence of incredible sunrises and sunsets, with the sights and sounds of thousands of flying and calling birds filling the skies.
Sunrise from Flight Deck with Snow Geese in flight
Last sunset at Bosque
The final day brought this sky painting sequence to a glorious finale – a lingering sunrise at the area known as The Flight Deck and a slow starting sunset at the Crane Ponds that turned into one of the most intense fire-laden skies I have ever seen.
Sandhill Crane lifting off over marsh
Early morning on Crane Ponds
I learned I have a compulsion to photograph birds in flight and ended up with a total of over 8000 images over the five days of shooting. On the return flight I deleted over 1000 and quickly trashed another few hundred once I started reviewing at home. How many images of flying cranes and crowded scenes of birds on the water do you need?
Snow Geese flock on Crane Ponds
Snow geese are raucous, always busy and noisy, kind of a rough crowd in the bird world, or so it seems at first glance (I actually got hit 6 times by snow goose “bombs” as they blasted off over my head one afternoon).
Cranes tend to be more elegant with a call that is one of the most memorable utterances in the bird world. They stand an impressive 4.5-5 feet in height and are stately in their flight, dances, and strides. To offset that noble air, they sometimes do border on the comical with some of their jumps and in a behavior appropriately labeled the intend-to-fly. I called it “the lean”.
Crane jumping on and probing dirt mound
Cranes often lean in the direction of flight prior to take-off
Cranes running for take-off
Prior to take-off, cranes tend to lean in the direction of their impending flight. It gets funny when several adjacent birds all start to lean, and then hold that position for what seems like an unnecessary length of time before one bird will finally start the run-and-flap sequence that leads to lift-off.
Snow Geese flying between feeding areas mid-day
Sandhill Crane portrait
The middle of the day has notoriously harsh light, but is still a great time to search the refuge for other species or to watch interesting behaviors of the stars, the Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes.
When you take time to look elsewhere there is even more to see at Bosque. One of the biggest surprises was one morning when three large bull Elk came out from the shrub thickets, paused, and turned back and disappeared while my mouth fell open and my camera lay untouched on the seat.
Other mammals spotted during the stay included Coyotes, Desert Cottontails, Collared Peccaries, a Rock Squirrel, and the very common Mule Deer.
Mountain Lion signage – there have been sightings at Bosque
Unfortunately, I once again failed to add one particularly elusive mammal to my life list but did get some hope from these scattered signs.
Once you get past the masses of geese and cranes, there are plenty of other birds to see. My last post covered one of the several Great Horned Owls seen, but several other raptor species patrolled the skies including Bald Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks (many of which are various dark color morphs), Northern Harriers, Cooper’s Hawks, and American Kestrels.
Other species of note included a few lifers for me – Gambel’s Quail, Say’s Phoebe, Lesser Goldfinch, and a much sought-after species observed late in the trip – a couple of Greater Roadrunners. The first Roadrunner was a real skulker alongside a roadway and the second was noticed because of an unusual behavior. Roadrunners fluff up their feathers as they turn their back toward the sun to soak up warmth – they look like a dark gray puffball with a brown neck as they sit in the open for up to several minutes.
Snow Geese at Crane Ponds with mountains as a backdrop
But Bosque is about the spectacle of thousands of birds in a stunning setting. There’s a feeling I get when I have these experiences that I have trouble putting into words. It’s a connection to the larger world, to something much bigger than me. A calmness comes over me. It is powerful, peaceful, and it gives me hope…hope for better things, hope for a world more in tune with natural cycles and events. It also always makes me thankful for those people that had the foresight to set these areas aside as protected lands, and to the people that have been, and are now, the caretakers of these public treasures.
A trip to Bosque is a dream come true for any naturalist or photographer. But while the numbers of the different species on the refuge are impressive (that week according to volunteers – 92,000 ducks, 46,000 Snow Geese, 8,900 Sandhill Cranes, 9 eagles), it did remind me of some special places back home – Mattamuskeet and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuges. And I think I will appreciate them even more now – while a Sandhill Crane is a rare sighting in NC, we do have more Snow Geese (estimated 85,000 last year at Pocosin Lakes alone), tens of thousands of ducks and Tundra Swans, many more eagles, and all those Black Bears I find so fascinating. I hope that one day the funding may exist to allow some additional development of visitor services facilities at our refuges, but for now, I am looking forward to my next trip down east in the next few days. I’ll be sure to pause and reflect how lucky we are to have these special places here in NC where we can be inspired by the spectacle of abundant wildlife.
A national wildlife restoration program is based on the premise that wildlife is not only worth our efforts to restore it, but that its restoration is absolutely and vitally essential to the welfare of our citizens.
~Jay Norwood (“Ding”) Darling, former Chief of the U.S. Biological Survey
I’ll leave you with some more images of the abundance and beauty at Bosque…
Sandhill Crane calling as it takes off
Cranes flying across rising full moon
Cranes flying into Crane Ponds in fiery sunset
Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk
Crane silhouettes in setting full moon at dawn
Photographers at Crane Ponds
Sandhill Crane takes flight
Sandhill Cranes at sunset
Sandhill Cranes flying out to feed in nearby fields
Sandhill Cranes settling in for the night