It was the second day of a brand new year, 2018. My son and I had been driving for over three hours and it was just after sunrise. Cold. This will be a recurring theme. It had been a long time since I visited the German immigrant-founded community of Boerne, Texas. No time to be a tourist today, however. We were hungry. My son’s research paid off in the form of very large breakfast tacos. Fresh puffy tortillas filled with eggs and spicy sausage. His further research had located a scenic local park where we enjoyed our meal while watching a herd of White-tailed Deer munch frosty grass for their own start to the day.
My son, Sid, has been suggesting (that sounds so much better than “nagging”) for quite some time that we needed to plan a trip to some scenic spot for photography, birding, nature-watching and, most importantly for me, just some quality bonding time. I finally agreed with him and he graciously took care of planning what was a trip of a lifetime.
Gini remained at our son’s home near Houston and entertained grandchildren with tales from the “olden days”, pajama parties and, I am pretty certain, a hefty dose of the type of loving laughter that produces streams of tears. She is the most special person I have ever known.
Texas. It is big. One can cross into Texas from neighboring Louisiana, drive west for 14 hours and STILL be in Texas! Our destination was in west-central New Mexico. Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is located in the Rio Grande river valley. Consisting of nearly 60,000 acres (+24,000 Ha), the refuge was created in 1939 to provide a critical stopover for migrating waterfowl. (See Additional Information for a link to the official webpage.) One of the main attractions in this desert oasis is tens of thousands of wintering Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes. They begin arriving near the end of November and typically head back north as February closes. Many birds continue further south but large numbers can be seen throughout the winter months. The local area hosts a “Festival Of The Cranes” during late November each year. (See Additional Information.)
Did I mention it was cold?
As we approached El Paso, Texas, the temperature dropped to 19 F (-7 C) and we began to see what we thought was an unusual amount of “dust”. That’s what happens when a south Texas boy and his Floridian father see snow. We don’t recognize the stuff.
After a very long day of driving, we saw signs for the refuge and even though it was late, we decided to drive through the main refuge to orient ourselves for the next day. We stopped alongside the “South Crane Pool” just in time to enjoy the sun disappearing behind the Chupadera Mountains, leaving in its wake the most incredible array of colors imaginable! Sandhill Cranes and a variety of ducks were settling in for the night. The waterfowl roost in shallow water ponds throughout the area in order to lessen the chances of predators sneaking up on them while they’re resting.
Seven minutes after taking the previous photograph, the sky has a totally different look as the sun moves further toward the horizon behind the mountains.
Nature has a very distinct rhythm. As I mentioned earlier, the geese and cranes spend the night in a pond to avoid predation. Just before dawn, they begin to take flight. At Bosque del Apache, there is a pond near the visitor’s center where a wooden viewing platform (the “Flight Deck”) has been constructed. From here, one can usually see Snow Geese asleep on the pond (numbers vary from month to month and even day to day). As geese from around the area take off, they begin a large circular flight and geese from other ponds join the larger groups. While watching “our” group begin to stir with the approaching dawn, we became aware of a dark line just above the distant eastern horizon. That line coalesced into a “cloud”, moved toward us and as the pink sky began to turn orange we could hear the combined voices of tens of thousands of Snow Geese and the “cloud” became individual birds so dense we couldn’t believe they could fit into the sky. “Our” geese were moving around in the pond more and more and their level of cackling rose noticeably. Suddenly, they all burst into the air at once! They flew like a single giant organism toward the rising sun, circled the pond where we were standing and joined the mass of white over our heads. Incredible!
From where they spent the night, the geese dispersed to what seemed to be “holding areas”, more ponds, where they remained for 30-60 minutes. Gradually, groups of 10, 20, 30 birds would take off and fly to feeding areas, usually corn fields where they would spend the day feeding. At some unknown signal, the remaining hundreds or thousands of geese would take off en masse to join the groups already feeding. As the sun began to set, the process was reversed and the skies again filled with geese looking for their favorite pond.
This entire spectacle replayed each day. The trick was finding the ponds where the most geese were sleeping that night and then being there an hour before sunrise. Also, finding the feeding grounds proved to be interesting and produced a lot of fun during the day.
All of the following images were taken from one of the “holding areas” mentioned above. These were all taken within less than an hour, by which time the pond was empty of Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes.
This “holding area” is called the South Crane Pool. (Yes, there is also a North Crane Pool, but on this visit it was almost dry.)
Snow Geese are the main visitors to the refuge, but Canada is also represented! Branta canadensis cross under the setting moon.
Performing their own “moon shot”, a group of Snow Geese head into the bright rising sun.
With temperatures WELL below freezing every morning, these Sandhill Cranes practiced their ice skating technique.
In Florida, we have a large resident population of Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis pratensis), but it’s a novelty for me to see the Greater Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis tabida) with a mountainous backdrop.
We were fortunate to observe the Alaskan Snow Goose Aerobatic Team practicing for the olympics.
A Snow Goose flying with a Ross’s Goose. The Ross’s is smaller overall, has a smaller bill and lacks the black line (“grinning patch”) on its bill.
The Snow Goose (and Ross’s) occurs in both a white and blue version.
Birders and photographers are not the only ones who appreciate the geese gathering in large numbers! Coyotes (Canis latrans) perform the valuable service of most predators as they prey on injured, sick or weak members of the flock.
This short video gives you an idea of what we experienced for an hour as geese took off in small groups heading for their feeding areas.
I know this is a long post (oh, like THAT’S a surprise!), but all of the above was just the first two hours of our first day at Bosque del Apache! We both said “wow!” a lot. More to come …
We hope you enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!