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.
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.
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.
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.