It is cold and there is very little sound coming from the darkness in front of me. But I know that they are there because they landed there at sunset the night before. As the first quiet light touches the sky behind me, the gathering of large birds begin to talk and ready themselves for another day in the fields. There are some 4,300 sandhill cranes currently in the refuge on this mid-November morning, and a large number of those are in the pond before me. The number of cranes that migrate to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge each winter can number as many as 17,000, but most of those will come toward the end of December and beginning of January.
As the glow of the sun behind the mountain in the east slowly intensifies, the activity of the cranes begins to ratchet up as a large swarm of snow geese converge on the pond and circle above it, frantically darting up and down and left and right, and slowly descend toward the water and land among the large birds. The clamor generated by the cranes and geese is deafening. An instant before sunrise the snow geese “blast off” as one and fly directly over my head in one giant wave and fly toward the sun and the fields of corn in another part of the refuge. While the number of geese at this time of year is less than the 50,000 that will migrate to the refuge by year’s end, it is still quite substantial. As the morning dawns, the cranes also begin to lift off in small groups and circle toward the fields. This will continue for almost an hour until all of the birds are gone, and the pond will sit empty until that first crane returns at the end of the day.
We visited the refuge during the annual Festival of the Cranes which runs November 17-22 just outside of San Antonio, New Mexico. Over the five days that we were in the area, I was up at 0415 to get into the refuge well before sunrise to catch the “fly out,” and was also in the park until after sunset to see the “fly in” when the birds return to their night roosting spots. A truly extraordinary spectacle to see, one that I will experience again when I return to the refuge the middle of December for four more days with the birds.
Images from my first visit to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge are below.
Click on photos to open gallery in Flickr –