If your first visit to the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge is in winter, you may wonder at first what the fuss is all about. Say it’s December, and you arrive around midday. The winter sun slants in from the south and strikes the now bare cottonwood trees, whose gray and white trunks contrast only slightly with the landscape’s dull brown hue. Sealed in your warm car, you note a duck or two in the air and, shortly after officially entering the refuge, come to a marsh the size of a football field. The pond is covered with snow geese, “covered” meaning you can hardly see the water they’re floating on. Still, I can somehow imagine you sitting in your car nonplussed, regarding the scene as just another stroll through a city park, the geese as only so many catchers of tossed bread.
Then you open your car door. This is when the Bosque takes you by the ears and, in a way, will never let them go for the rest of your life. Never before have you heard this almost deafening cacophony of 10,000 geese all seemingly trying to get in on the same conversation. It is a sound from the Pre-Columbian past, of a period when birds of all species were so numerous in America that a single flock in flight could black out the sun. It’s a sound that reminds us that the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge is a place for which New Mexico, if not the world, should always be grateful.
Established in 1939, the Bosque was conceived as a refuge and breeding ground for birds ranging along the Rio Grande and Rock Mountains, especially for whooping and greater sandhill cranes whose populations at the time were at risk. The refuge is located off Interstate 25, just south of Socorro, straddling the Rio Grande across an area of about 57,000 acres. This is not just land set aside for birds, but an ecosystem that is actively and dynamically managed for their benefit. To maintain wildlife habitat that is adequately diverse and therefore resistant to catastrophes such as drought, disease, and fire, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rotates the use of Bosque lands between fallow, wetland, and agriculture (1.4 million pounds of corn are produced annually on the refuge as feed for overwintering birds. Alfalfa is grown too as a nitrogen fixer for land in cultivation). The riparian zone along the Rio Grande is also managed for wildlife; invasive trees such as Russian olive and tamarisk are removed, native species such as cottonwood are encouraged, and regular flooding is conducted to mimic historical hydrological and nutrient cycling. All in all, countless mammals and at least 377 bird species—from waterfowl to songbirds to raptors—benefit each year from the cutting edge land management employed at the Bosque.
Winter is the season for peak bird populations, when up to 15,000 sandhills, 30,000 geese and 40,000 ducks spend their days eating and, it seems to me, catching up with each other on old times. During the day, the squawking and quacking is almost constant. The right way to do the Bosque in the winter is to be there for both the evening fly-in and the dawn lift-off. Arrive at the Bosque before sunset to watch the cranes and ducks fly from their daytime feeding sites back to their roosts, sleep over night in Socorro, and get to the refuge before sunup to see the morning lift-off. You will have previously spoken to a refuge employee about the location of a roosting flock of geese or cranes, and it is there where you’ll go to watch the sunset. (There is a “flight deck” that’s popular with budding nature photographers; it can be quite crowded but if you have a camera with a tripod this is where you’ll want to go.) In the morning, soon after the sun hits the roosting area, some mysterious avian signal will be passed around, and the entire flock will take flight at once. Talk about a noise, talk about blacking out the sun. This is an explosion of the senses.
An exciting bonus to the winter season is the chance to see predators in action. Obviously, such concentrations of large birds will draw good numbers of bald and golden eagles, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, skunks, bobcats and, I imagine, the occasional cougar (though the big cat may be more interested in deer, it won’t likely pass up an easy bite of waterfowl). I think that predators are sighted more during winter simply because the glut of food opportunities makes them more brazen and carefree. Of course it’s sad to see a coyote dragging a sandhill crane alongside the road, but we must remember that one creature’s refuge is another’s dinner table and that’s how it always will be.
Springtime in the Bosque is when you’ll see lots of ducklings and baby birds, as well as a general exodus of winter vacationers to northern feeding grounds. There will also be temporary arrivals of birds that wintered farther south. Look for a new mix or shorebirds and waders, and an influx of warblers. Mallards will be nesting in the spring, as will great blue herons, and raptors (buteos especially).
Refuge literature warns of swarms of mosquitoes during the summer season, so it should surprise no one that there will be birds around to take advantage of the feeding opportunity these pests provide. Flycatchers (I love the song they make, at least the ones near my house) abound in the summer, and flocks of swooping swallows are a common sight. Bats, too, fill the air at night. Being the season for flowers, summer is also the best time on the Bosque for hummingbirds. My favorites, red-winged blackbirds, will also be around in force.
The early part of fall is a relatively slow time at the refuge if you’re looking for lots of new arrivals. Migrators do arrive from the north, but only on a piecemeal basis at first. At about the time when the cottonwoods are at their peak yellow, birds will start arriving in larger, more organized groups, until the end of November, by which time there’s quite a party going on.
Probably everyone has their own fall ritual. Mine is to fly fish as much as I can on the rivers of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, where watching the trees and underbrush change color amounts to saying adios to another year. In recent years, my ritual hasn’t been complete unless I hear that distinct primitive squawking in the sky above me. Looking up, I have to search pretty hard to find them—Vs of gray and white cranes—for they are always about 10,000 feet off the ground and heading south. And though I don’t know whether they’re coming from Alberta, Montana, or Wyoming, I know exactly where they’re bound. It’s a place like the Serengeti plain in Africa or a salmon stream in Alaska, a place bursting at the seams with relentless life and death. I know that if I were a bird, I’d be heading there too.