Bosque del Apache
New Mexico National Wildlife Refuge
Text and photos by Jay W. Sharp
As the sun descends through the clear autumn sky to disappear behind central New Mexico’s Chupadera Mountains, you can hear and then see the sandhill cranes wheeling overhead like gliders to alight for the evening in the marshes and fields of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, just east of the Rio Grande. Early arrivals issue a resonant roll call karrroooo-a and soon other members of the flock appear overhead, their necks extended, their stilt-like black legs trailing, and they circle and then alight, almost daintily, and join the chorus.
Simultaneously, you can hear and then see the snow geese whouk!, whouk! flying in an undulating formation, silhouetted against the bronze-colored western sky, and they take their descent to the ponds of the Bosque del Apache and settle to the surface of the water. Sociable, they crowd together, a raft of white, squabbling and gossiping ung, ung, ung into the night.
Fall and Winter Headliners
Eighteen thousand sandhill cranes and fifty thousand snow geese headline the fall and winter pageantry of waterfowl at the Bosque del Apache. The cranes, with wingspans of six to six and one half feet, have flown 1700 miles from their nesting grounds in western Canada. They travelled in well defined "V’s," covering as much as 350 miles per day, reaching top speeds of fifty miles per hour. They arrived at the Bosque del Apache with red Canadian soil still staining their feathers.
Tall, stately birds with ash gray plumage and a reddish orange forehead, the cranes stalk the marshes, searching for frogs, rodents, insects, bulbs, seeds and berries. They parade in nearby corn and wheat fields like the tuxedoed and bejeweled English swells posturing at Britain’s Royal Ascot Festival. The birds feed on hor d’oeuvres such as grains and small mammals. With the coming of evening, they rise on elegant wing and return home for the nightly gathering of their clan.
The sandhill cranes represent the aristocracy of the fall and winter waterfowl at the Bosque del Apache. The garrulous snow geese speak for the working class. The geese, their wings spanning three feet, have flown more than two thousand miles from their nesting grounds in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Less disciplined in flight than the cranes, the snow geese travelled in wavy and changeable U-shaped formations at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour, pausing occasionally at prairie wetlands to gather up their brethren. They arrive at the Bosque del Apache with their white headed and dusky flanked adolescents in tow.
Come dawn, the adults, snowy white except for their black wing tips, stir the flocks, and the birds rise in noisy billowing clouds from the surface of the water. They scatter and head for the nearby corn and wheat fields, where they feed on the grains voraciously, like hard working people of the soil. They scour the marshlands like treasure hunters, searching out grasses, tubers, roots and forbs, laying on fat for the long return north in spring and the nesting season of summer. Come evening, the geese abandon the fields and marshes to gather on the water’s surface for the nightly ritual of the rafting.
The sandhill cranes and snow geese come each fall as star performers at the Bosque del Apache, and central New Mexico anticipates the arrival of the birds like Broadway once anticipated the opening of a Rodgers and Hamerstein or a Lerner and Lowe or a Bob Fosse musical.
The federal government and local citizens, in a joint enterprise, set the stage for the annual production. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, administrative agency for the Bosque del Apache, manages the refuge habitat, controls water levels, and plants grains and other wildlife food sources. Local farmers plant alfalfa, which they harvest for sale, and they sow corn and wheat, which they set aside for the birds. The Friends of the Bosque del Apache, a volunteer group with worldwide membership, promotes the refuge, mans the visitor center, builds trails, prepares refuge publications and conducts interpretive tours and workshops.
The Patina of History
The refuge (which encompasses almost ninety square miles, including more than twenty square miles of wetlands) and the surrounding northern Chihuahuan Desert foothills and mesas are cloaked with the patina of Southwestern history.
Between 1300 and 1700, Pueblo Indians built stone and adobe villages, planted fields, raised turkeys, gathered wild plants and hunted game in the area; and they left sacred images scribed on rock surfaces scattered across nearby desert hillsides. In 1598, conquistador Juan de Onate led an expedition through the area en route to northern New Mexico to establish the first European colony in the American Southwest. For the next three centuries, caravans, livestock herds, trade missions, armies and refugees filed past the bosque, following Onate’s route, which would become known as the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (the Royal Road of the Interior). Herdsmen stood atop the Mesa del Contadero (the Mesa of the Counting), just south of the bosque, and counted their livestock. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, bands of Apaches encamped at the bosque and raided settlements and travelers.
After the United States defeated Mexico in the war between the nations in the middle of the nineteenth century, the Americans took control of the Camino Real from Santa Fe to El Paso; and in 1854, the U. S. Army built Fort Craig on a rise overlooking the Rio Grande, across from the Mesa del Contadero, to protect settlements and travelers from raids by the Indians. In February of 1862, the Yankees and the Rebels (including my wife’s great grandfather, Private Thomas Edward Jackson) fought a bloody winter battle a few miles south of the bosque, with the combined forces suffering 450 casualties.
The Supporting Cast
The Bosque del Apaches serves as a historic stage for the lead roles played out by the sandhill cranes and snow geese. A supporting cast of migratory and non-migratory birds as well as 75 species of mammals, 60 species of reptiles and amphibians and 35 species of fish adds verve, variety and color to the performances of the stars.
Tens of thousands of ducks join the cranes and geese in the long flight south down the Central Flyway to winter at the bosque. The most common include blue-wing teals, green-wing teals, cinnamon teals, mallards, northern pintails, northern shovelers, the American wigeon, the American black duck and the ruddy duck.
An occasional migratory bald eagle or perhaps even an osprey presides over the proceedings from the limbs of dead trees and searches the ponds for fish. A red-tail hawk, cream breasted, thick bodied, perches on a power pole, scanning for prey, occasionally taking an ailing or unwary Snow Goose. A northern harrier, sleek, agile, swift, marked by the white band at the base of its tail, glides low over the marshes, hunting, a shadow of death for small mammals.
More than 300 species of year-round birds, including the great blue heron, the snowy egret, the American white pelican, the wild turkey, the ring-necked pheasant, the greater roadrunner, the northern flicker, the pied-billed grebe, the Gambel’s quail and the Say’s phoebe, host the fall and winter residents. Canada geese patrol the marshes and sometimes even the roadsides, foraging for wild grasses, grains and other aquatic vegetation.
The bosque an ever changing kaleidoscope of birds always offers opportunity for the extraordinary. Once, during a late fall trip through the refuge, my wife and I saw a summer tanager, which thrilled us because the bird occurs infrequently in the area during that season.
The birds hold center stage at the Bosque del Apache, but the mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish play important though less conspicuous roles. With reasonable luck, you might see a mule deer, a coyote, a beaver, a badger, a porcupine, a raccoon, a skunk or a muskrat. With exceptional luck, you might see a pronghorn, a black bear or possibly even a mountain lion.
Late one summer, my wife and I watched a mule deer doe deliver a fawn. That was lucky. One year in November, I climbed a hill just to the east of the bosque, and I found myself in the midst of a crowd of humming and buzzing diamondback rattlesnakes just outside a small cave where they were gathering to den up for the winter. That was not lucky.
An Environmental Success Story
Established under Franklin Roosevelt’s administration in 1939 "as a refuge and breeding grounds for migratory birds and other wildlife," the Bosque del Apache the "woods of the Apache" has become a cornerstone of wildlife management in the Southwest. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with the support of farmers and the Friends of the Bosque del Apache, have effectively re-established a wetlands environment, following the ecological wreckage caused by forest destruction, overgrazing, excessive hunting, river diversion and alien plant invasion. It has become an important environmental success story. For one example, in the early years, no more than a dozen and a half sandhill cranes wintered in the bosque. Now, a thousand times that many spend September through February at the refuge.
A Visit and a Festival
You can visit the Bosque del Apache at any time since it is open every day of the year. The Visitor Center a good place to start offers displays, videos and a bookstore, and it maintains up-to-date information on current wildlife species and sightings. A 15-mile long driving tour loop yields an extraordinary opportunity to see and photograph the bosque’s wildlife community, which is accustomed to automobiles. Hiking trails with blinds for observation and photography will bring you unusually close to many of the birds.
You can also joy in one of the Southwest’s most extraordinary celebrations of wildlife, The Festival of the Cranes, scheduled this year for November 16 through the 19. Hosted by the Friends of the Bosque del Apache, the festival dazzles with hikes, tours, workshops, lectures and exhibits centered on birding, wildlife management and research, wildlife rescue, raptor identification, native plants, conservation, geology, history, archaeology, astronomy and photography. Experts will discuss regional prehistoric and historic art. The Socorro Community Theater will stage a melodrama. The New Mexico Symphony Orchestra will perform a selection of classical music.
Since its inauguration 13 years ago, the festival has become a major event and a persuasive expression of love and concern for our environment.
The Bosque del Apache is located near the center of New Mexico, just east of Interstate Highway 25, on State Highway 1, about eighteen miles south of the community of Socorro.
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge
P. O. Box 1246
Socorro, New Mexico 87801
There are hotels and motels in Socorro, New Mexico with something for every taste and price range.
Camping & RV Parks
Birdwatchers RV Park (south of San Antonio, 1-505-835-1366)
Socorro RV Park (1-505-835-2234)
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