View from the Flight Deck

Despite the fact that I have two avid “birders” in my family, I have never been able to drum up much interest in birds beyond marveling at nature’s creative palette pertaining to their feathers. I have long joked that my bird “life list” includes black birds, brown birds, white birds, red birds, yellow birds, etc. I would travel out of my way to see a bird with a combination of vibrant feather colors, but it would only be the colorful image that remained imprinted in my mind, not it’s unique characteristics, origin, calls or habits. It just doesn’t stick, and if it doesn’t stick, I can’t get motivated to learn more.

So to be so completely enchanted with the Sandhill Crane migration taking place at Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge was so out of character for me, I hardly recognized myself. Setting the alarm for 5:00am, getting out of bed on a frosty morning, filling my thermos with piping hot coffee to head out to the Bosque’s “Flight Deck,” not once, not twice, but three mornings in a row was puzzling even to me. And then to leave and return again two weeks later was nothing short of self-admitted obsession.

Bosque del Apache has a 12 mile loop that passes several wetland areas.

I believe this is a blue Heron. My bird identification skills are improving!

While observing the wildlife, I kept getting little flashbacks to time spent in Africa.

In addition to the Sandhill Cranes, over 100,000 ducks and geese winter over in the refuge.

It’s common to see coyotes hunting along the marshlands.

There are 15 different species of ducks in the refuge. I learned some are divers, spending most of their time in deeper water, and dabblers, who are the ones that stick their butts up in the air.

There are many overlooks and boardwalks around the refuge.

The 57,331 acre Bosque refuge was established in 1939, primarily to protect the migratory areas of the Sandhill Crane. The Civilian Conservation Corp began reconstructing the areas where the nearby Rio Grande River once flowed. Now dammed, dyked, and canaled off since the late 1800’s, this human intervention caused the river to divert a half a mile to the east, leaving the wetlands dry. An intricate water management system of faucets and plugs were built to mimic the historic flow the Rio Grande. Wetlands are flooded and drained seasonally in attempt to recreate what is a vital ecosystem for migratory birds.

The wildlife refuge has a 12 mile tour along a north and south gravel roads that pass the wetlands, as well as the fields where groups of birds fly out during the day to feed. If you have a CD player in your vehicle, be sure to stop by the Nature Store and pick up a CD for only $2.50 that describes the history and management of the refuge, as well as much of the trivia found in the captions in this post.

Sandhill Cranes have a red crown on their heads.

Photos don’t do justice to the beauty of watching them fly in formation just beneath the wispy clouds

The green Magdalena Mountains form the western border of the refuge.

Once the fly-out happens, the cranes, geese, and ducks head out to their chosen areas according to food supply.

In addition to water fowl, there are many other types of wildlife, including this family of javelinas.

The Marsh Boardwalk leads off to the Lagoon trail if one needs to stretch their legs while on the tour.

Bosque del Apache has one of the most extensive water management systems of any refuge. Refuge staff regulate the rate of flow to flood different areas according to season.

New Mexico is having a drought season, so some of the typical roosting areas will not be flooded this season.

At first, I didn’t find the Sandhill Cranes to be particularly attractive. They fit squarely into my ID category of “gray birds.” While graceful, they are a bit gawky and leggy as they do their high knee lifts to wade through the wetlands. And the cacophony of squawks and shrieks is not what I would call pleasing to the ears. In fact, it’s downright deafening. So had I visited the Bosque Flight Deck mid-day, I think one visit would have sufficed.

But it was the accidental encounter of the “fly out” at sunrise one morning that had me coming back, cold dark morning after cold dark morning. Not being a “birder,” I had never heard of a “fly-out” before, so it took me by surprise to see them all take flight at once.  I felt embarrassed having asked a nearby photographer “What just happened?” only to learn it’s a daily event.

During my visit, the best place by far to experience the fly-in and fly-out was an area known as “the Flight Deck.” It’s located just to the left as you enter the Fee Station. Birds return to this large shallow lagoon at night to roost in the water to avoid predators.

Sunset is an enchanting time in the refuge to witness waves and waves of birds flying in formation as they return to this lagoon to roost, though the flight patterns are more intermittent. It’s possible to see large groups returning by observing along the lagoon edge as the sun drops below the nearby hills.

But it’s sunrise when the experience is most magnificent, as the mass movement is concentrated and therefore much more dramatic. As you drive down the dirt road into the refuge, you can hear the birds socializing long before you can see them. As the sky begins to lighten just before the red glow lights up like a beacon on the horizon, the first indicator of the rising sun, the birds are busy eating, preening, fighting, and communicating. The din across the lagoon is consistent.

But then, it’s as if one of them gives the signal. “Everybody! Out of the pool!” You can literally feel the shift as they all rise up in unison creating a ground swell. It starts with a flutter and ends with a roar as the chatter turns into chaotic commotion. I can imagine I can feel the combustion of the air waves as the sheer force of nature’s wings take flight right over my head.

I don’t do videos often, but I did take a quick capture of what it feels like to experience a fly-out of the Sandhill Cranes at sunrise. Unfortunately I wasn’t fast enough to catch the initial “out of the pool” signal, but I was able to capture some of the grandeur of what it felt like to be in the flight path of a few hundred hungry birds. Click here for the >1 minute video.

Many of the cranes and geese return to this lagoon along the Flight Deck to roost at night, so it’s a good place to observe the fly-in and fly-out.

One of the noisiest places I have been in the wild, as a cacophony of squawks and honks can be heard long before the birds are seen.

While sunset offers a lot of views in flight, they are not as concentrated as they are at sunrise.

These fly-out scenes were all taken from the “Flight Deck,” a designated viewing area.

Bosque del Apache is the winter home of two of the six different Sandhill Crane subspecies, the Greater Sandhill Crane, and the Lesser Sandhill Crane,

The Greater Sandhill Cranes weigh up to 8 lbs, and are on average 4′ tall with a 6′ wingspan, while the Lesser weigh 6-7 lbs, are 3 to 3.5’tall, and have a 5′ wingspan.

They are funny to watch in flight as their gangling legs trail behind them.

The Sandhill Cranes visit the refuge from Oct/Nov through March. I was here in late November, and this was by far the best place to view at sunrise/sunset.

Sunrise from the Flight Deck.

Hard to tell from the photo, but there is a bald eagle perched atop this “snag,” or dead tree. They are known to swoop down and steal a meal from the water fowl below.

Sandhill Cranes mate for life, but they are known for “dancing” year round, not just in mating season. During their unison call, the male extends his neck straight, while the female lifts her neck at 45° angle. This is how you can distinguish male from female.

One of the most distinguishing feather characteristics is the distinctive “bustle” that both males and females display. While it appears to be tail feathers, it’s actually their wings tucked behind them.

Fields of corn and grain are cultivated by local farmers, and plowed by the refuge. Cranes do not like to venture into the fields for fear of predators, so crops are “bumped,” or knocked down a few stalks at a time to make the food available. Cranes eat an average of 3/4 lb of corn per day, resulting in consumption of 1.5 million lbs / season in the refuge.

Sandhill Cranes have 10 different loud, rattling bugle calls, each lasting a couple of seconds that can be heard miles away. They are so loud because they have a 48″ trachea, twice the length of their neck. It coils into their chest area like a trumpet.

This day, I am almost as enamored by the clouds as I am the birds!

Another coyote hunting. I am surprised to see them out in the daylight, but since the birds roost in water overnight, it us understandable.

Seen along the north loop.

I don’t have the right camera for photographing wildlife. My Canon G7X is better at landscapes than it is zooming. Even my naked eye was better. Please forgive the quality as I zoomed and cropped to get as close as I could, but this is the kind of equipment one needs to do the refuge justice.

View from the Flight Deck.

Once the sun pops up over the horizon, the featured attraction scatters.

The Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is located just 9 miles south of the tiny town of San Antonio, New Mexico. There’s not much there except for a general store, yet the town is home to two dueling restaurants, vying for the title of “Best Green Chili Cheeseburger.” Not only are sunrises a good incentive to stay a couple of days, but sticking around for two days will allow you to try both offerings and cast your vote for which one is best. And both offer outdoor dining (limited to take-out while New Mexico is under lock down.)

I sampled the offering from the two restaurants on two different days.  I didn’t specify any particular condiments or added ingredients. My burger from the Owl Café came with mayo, and the green chilies were pretty fiery. The burger from the Buckhorn Tavern was made with mustard, and also included bacon. I tried not to be influenced by the fact that the Buckhorn Tavern served craft beers in their outdoor dining area, but if you have to pick one or the other, go with the winner of the Food Network’s “Throwdown! with Bobby Flay,” The Buckhorn Burger.  I enjoyed them both, but it was my favorite.

The Bosque del Apache Wildlife Reserve is about 9 miles south of the town of San Antonio, which sits along the BNSF Railway.

The small town is known for its two restaurants across the highway from each other. This one is the “Owl Cafe.” Always a good sign when there are bikers parked outside!

While they have an outdoor seating area, one must come inside to place an order to go, and take it out back to the picnic tables.

The Owl Cafe’s Green Chili Cheeseburger was featured on an episode of the Travel Channel’s Burger Land in 2013,

This is the competing restaurant across the highway. Believe it or not, this little shack, the Buckhorn Tavern, is one of the most popular restaurants for miles around. This one was featured in Food Network’s “Throwdown! with Bobby Flay.”

One must pass through the vacant interior to reach the outdoor seating area. It is one of two “dueling restaurants” vying for the title of “Best Green Chili Cheeseburger.”

This one was definitely my favorite, but it might have had something to do with the Elevated IPA in the background. 😉

13 thoughts on “View from the Flight Deck

  1. Oh my what memories! Bosque del Apache! The Owl Cafe! Love ’em both. Although I’ve yet to see the infamous liftoff of the Sandhills, I love that NWR and it’s been on my bucket list to go during Crane season for a number of years.
    I got (among others) my Phainopepla life bird there. Do a google image search for that little weirdo. 🙂
    So glad to see you’re warming up to the idea of becoming a birder! ha I won’t hold my breath, but know the invitation is always open to take you birding. Especially during spring migration – that should get you hooked. 😉

  2. Very interesting. I liked the video, but had to turn the sound down. I have never been where there were so many waterfowl at once. The dueling green chili joints were most fascinating, they would definitely would be on the stopping list if we still were a traveling couple. Might even break the rules and have one of those IPA.
    Have a happy holiday wish from the two of us no matter where you are.

  3. Suzanne,
    I’ll bet a Green Chili Burger that you got much better images of the Fly-Out than did the Long Lens Boys. Enjoyed your write up!

  4. I am not a “birder” either, but have many birder friends who keep me in the loop now and then. And I do love the “flyouts”. Mo and I went to the eagle flyout in snowy Klamath Falls for our first outing together and saw 400 eagles fly out from Bear Mountain to the Lower Refuge for tasty duck meals. It was in February of 2003. Judy taught me lots about birds, and John and Carol were volunteers at Bosque as well, so I had seen their photos. Still, I have yet to see as many truly great fabulous photos of such a wondrous event as you posted here. We also had sandhills keep us company on kayaks at Recreation Creek in the Klamath Basin. As you said, big gawky birds, and so croaky! Still loved seeing them and am glad you got caught up enough to take all those gorgeous photos

  5. I can’t believe we were right there and missed it. We even saw the restaurants but didn’t notice outside dining.
    The number of places we have to return to is mounting, not to worry we have plenty of time.
    I definitely have to hone my navigational skills, they’ve become quite lacks. But thanks for sharing, love the post

  6. Love the video (and, as a YouTube addict, would love to see more) and your beautiful shots of the sunrises and sets and water and birds at Bosque del Apache are glorious in hues of pink, blue and yellow! I visited there mid October a couple years ago where the folks at the Nature Store/visitor center explained there wasn’t a bird in sight because I was, sadly, there a wee bit early in the year…a few weeks later and I might have heard that magnificent sound myself!

    With no birds in sight to photograph, I consoled myself with about 362 shots of that old San Antonio railroad depot…what a cool old building! There was another abandoned building down the road I photographed named the “Crystal Palace”…I would have loved to have known the history of that old place!

    Here’s the kicker about this blog post for me: About two weeks after returning from my trip (during which I breezed through tiny San Antonio to get to the wildlife refuge) I was asked by an acquaintance if I had eaten a green chili cheeseburger at the Buckhorn. “Huh?” I asked. “It’s only the best dang burger in all of New Mexico!” he exclaimed. How the heck did I manage to miss BOTH those eateries?! I’m sitting here drooling over your shots of the food that I was *that* close to but missed entirely!

    I’ve gotta’ learn how to be a traveler instead of a meanderer. ::::sigh::::

  7. Thank you so much for this wonderful post…photographs are great, even without the super equipment! It’s been a long time since I’ve been there, so enjoyed seeing it again. Thank you.

  8. Thank you for this great post. My cousin is a huge birder and lives in Austin. At first I even thought the man on the left in your picture was him. I’ve never been too interested in birds either but the last couple of years have been thinking it would be a good hobby. We went to Elephant Butte after being at the Balloon Fiesta one year and the birds weren’t in yet. Some early ones were landing in the lake and we saw a few. New Mexico is on my list of places I want to go back to and see. I loved the video . I can remember seeing a fly out video on Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt many years ago. Stay safe. Hope to see you down the road.

  9. As a native New Mexican, I’ve never understood the Owl/Buckhorn obsession, but whatever. Also, San Antonio NM’s other claim to fame is as Conrad Hilton’s boyhood home. His mother owned a boardinghouse there.

  10. My timing wasn’t quite right the winter I barely made it to Bosque, and we had to somewhat pass right through and miss what is clearly a glorious sight! I have since moved a short distance away from my previous location to an area that is summer territory for the sandhill cranes. (I didn’t realize it when we moved.) It is such a treat the first time in the spring when I hear their crazy call as they fly by. We’ve been treated with cranes hanging around on our property a couple years so far as well! Such a cool bird!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *