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DESTINATION: NEW MEXICO

Birds of the Bosque

A refuge and winter home for snow geese, sandhill cranes and herons is a photographer's wonderland

November 22, 1998|DONNA IKENBERRY | Ikenberry is a freelance writer and photographer whose home base is Hacienda Heights

BOSQUE DEL APACHE NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, N.M. — As I write this I am sitting in my truck, deep in the heart of New Mexico's Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. It is high noon and too bright to photograph. Outside, gangs of sandhill cranes move from one field to the next, their gurgling sounds causing me to stop typing and look up in wonder. The 4-foot-tall birds, with their long, graceful necks and super-long legs, sound as if they are underwater.

I marvel at the scene before me, then resume my writing. When I look up I see more than just cranes. There are snow geese feeding in the same fields, thousands of the white-and-black beauties. The birds make their way to this refuge from places farther north to escape the brutal cold and enjoy ample food. Sometimes a coyote saunters by, causing the anxious flock to scream and chatter and explode into the heavens. Seconds later I see the geese circle and land again, and all is quiet.

The Bosque (pronounced BOSS-kay, Spanish for woods) provides habitat for about 325 kinds of birds, including wild turkeys, and more than 135 other animals such as deer and bobcats. Although winter is a wonderful time to visit, different species are usually present at different times of year. Spring and fall visitors will see migrant warblers, shorebirds and flycatchers; summers are good for nesting ducks, shorebirds, songbirds and waders. Some animals, though--birds such as the Canada goose, coot, roadrunner, quail and turkey, as well as coyote, mule deer and porcupine--are present year-round.

But for bird-watchers, fall and winter are special times of the year, when between 30,000 and 40,000 snow geese and Ross' geese make the Bosque their migratory home, joined by 12,000 to 17,000 sandhill cranes, about 66,000 ducks--including mallards, northern shovelers and pintails--a number of eagles and the rare and endangered whooping crane. The few whoopers seen here are members of an experimental group hatched and fostered at Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho.

The 57,000-acre Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1939, in part because the sandhill crane had nearly vanished from the Rio Grande region about 100 miles south of Albuquerque. It was set aside as a refuge and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife.

The Bosque refuge is visually stunning. Lovely mountains nearly surround the Rio Grande Valley, from the Chupadera, Magdalena and San Mateo mountains that frame the valley to the west, to the Oscura and San Andreas ranges that stand like sentries in the east. To the south is the Fra Cristobal Range.

The name "Bosque del Apache" is fitting considering the numerous cottonwood and willow woods that once lined the Rio Grande here, where Apaches used to come in hunting parties. Unfortunately, many of the native trees were killed off by an introduced species called salt cedar, also known as tamarisk. Today, refuge managers are clearing away the salt cedar in an attempt to restore native woods.

I visited the Bosque wildlife refuge two of the past three winters. Although I don't consider myself an avid birder, I do enjoy observing birds, and as a photojournalist, I love photographing them.

As I watched and listened to the birds, I couldn't help thinking that they seemed a lot like me. Like the birds, I usually head south in the winter, but in my case I pull along my home, a 30-foot fifth-wheel trailer.

During one weeklong visit to the Bosque two winters ago, I saw many wildlife spectacles. Great blue herons croaked and flew by, landing in a local drainage ditch, where they waited for their next meal of tiny fish. I saw a deer tiptoe out from behind the trees, take a sip from a nearby pond, then vanish.

One day, as the sun set and the temperature dropped dramatically, I aimed my camera, mounted with a 600-millimeter lens on a tripod, and clicked the shutter over and over again as thousands of newly arriving snow geese joined an already bulging crowd of geese. As if that weren't enough, sandhill cranes began to appear, flying low and alighting near the geese.

Several visitors 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. But I knew I'd be back the next day to witness the same.

Sometimes the winter weather was quite pleasant at the Bosque; in fact, I donned shorts on more than one occasion. But cold can attack here, and because the refuge is open an hour before sunrise, especially in the morning I was always prepared with several layers of clothes and a warm jacket.

During my second trip to the Bosque, I stayed warm by parking my trailer at the Bosque Bird Watcher's RV park, a few minutes north of the refuge visitor center, just outside the refuge boundary. The RV hookups powered my two electric heaters and my microwave.

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