This New Mexico preserve harbors a spectacular number of bird species.
By Joann Mazzio
On a winter morning, as the sun reddens the sky, thousands of snow geese scattered on a big pond begin to waken and disrupt the quiet air with loud honks. One bird powers into the sky, sees no followers, and plummets back to the water. Visitors perched on observation decks or inside parked vehicles see and hear the communication that eventually gets the flock, including the sleepyheads, into the air and headed north to fields where they feed all day. The snow geese are soon joined in the sky by flocks of sandhill cranes, Canada geese, and rapidly flapping ducks. Near sunset, birders stand under a stream of flyers heading back to the relative safety of the ponds and marshes to roost. It is the rare human who is not stirred to awe and excitement as thousands of birds soar scarcely 20 feet overhead.
This vast haven is Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, approximately 90 minutes south of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Each year thousands of humans visit this refuge on the Rio Grande, considered one of the most spectacular in North America. The main attraction is the abundant variety of birds and animals, but the setting itself adds to the attraction. This is an oasis of wetlands formed by the Rio Grande’s flood plain, that contrasts with the dry, puckered mountains that surround it.
The preserve’s name means “Woods of the Apache” in Spanish, as the first European explorers often saw American Indians camped in the area. “Bosque” is pronounced “BO-skay.”
In 1846, when naturalist Lt. James Abert camped there, he observed and reported large flocks of sandhill cranes. These migratory birds followed their ancestral routes south in November and left in February or March, returning to the north to breed. However, with human population increases accompanied by agriculture along the Rio Grande, the great migrations had almost ceased. In 1941 only 17 sandhill cranes returned to the Bosque. Thanks to the existence of the refuge and other efforts, that number now is approximately 17,000.
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1939 to provide refuge and breeding grounds for migratory birds and other wildlife, and to develop wintering grounds especially for the sandhill cranes. These days, depending upon the weather, the rough honk of sandhill cranes is heard as early as September, when the vanguard flocks arrive. By mid-December the cranes share the 57,191-acre refuge with tens of thousands of migratory snow geese, Canada geese, Ross’ geese, and many varieties of ducks.
The sandhill cranes typically leave by mid-February; so, unfortunately, they won’t be around when FMCA convention-goers explore the area in March. But the other seasons provide special treats. If a warm winter encourages an early departure for the geese and cranes, other birds arrive from the south to take their place. Hummingbirds, songbirds, turkey vultures, and other species fly north to the refuge in the spring to breed. Permanent residents such as Gambels’ quail; rufous-sided towhees; great blue herons; American coots; neotropic cormorants; robins; and New Mexico’s state bird, the roadrunner, delight visitors year-round. In March, FMCA members can expect to see several varieties of shorebirds, too, including Wilson’s phalaropes and long-billed dowitchers. All told, the Bosque del Apache Refuge habitat supports more than 370 bird species throughout the year.
Approximately 50 different types of mammals are permanent residents, too. Coyotes cross the loop roads that run through the refuge, eye visiting vehicles, and then casually disappear into thickets of cottonwoods. Deer rub their antlers among the willows. Muskrats paddle through the water, trailing V-shaped wakes.
A 15-mile one-way loop road offers visitors a chance to travel through this drama at their own pace. The refuge’s dirt roads are well maintained and RVs should have no trouble driving on them. If 15 miles sounds too long, you can cut your tour short by taking a two-way cutoff and driving only on one section (the 7-mile Marsh Loop or the 7.5-mile Farm Loop). Keep in mind that your best observations will likely be from your vehicle, which acts as a blind. Waders, shorebirds, and other wildlife can be closely observed and photographed from your car or motorhome. Bird-watchers will need binoculars to catch some of the more skittish species.
Along the loop road are spots for you to stop, get out, and walk to a viewing deck, boardwalk, bird blind, or nature trail. Several of these are accessible to people with disabilities and offer prime viewing. By sitting quietly and waiting, observers often see blue herons, cormorants, and dabbler ducks.
Seven designated walking trails of various lengths are available. The longest is a 9.7-mile round trip that covers surrounding desert land. The others are easier and much shorter. They include a trail through cottonwood and willow stands; another with a marsh overlook; and one incorporating a 1/4-mile boardwalk over a lagoon.
The best times to see the birds fly in their massive formations are dawn and dusk. The refuge is open an hour before dawn and closes an hour after dusk, so you can be on hand when the birds begin or conclude their daily activities. Drive slowly and stop frequently.
In March, temperatures reach an average high of 65 degrees and a low of 33 degrees. The biggest weather concern at that time of year is a constant breeze, so be prepared with a light jacket.
At the visitors center, exhibits explain the aims, methods, and successes of the refuge and provide a brief history of the area. If the winds blow chilly, the center provides the most comfortable bird blind imaginable: a wide-windowed observation room that looks outside to a small stream where quail and other birds visit regularly. A concealed microphone brings the sounds of gurgling water and the clucks, cheeps, and rustling of wildlife into the center.
The Laura Jean Deal Desert Arboretum is located next to the visitors center and contains nearly 100 varieties of plants, including cactus, agave, yucca, and other desert dwellers. The cacti typically bloom between April and June.
For many people, there seems to be a gulf between modern America and the wonders of wild places and wild animals. A visit to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge helps bridge that gap.
Directions: From Albuquerque, follow Interstate 25 south to exit 139, which is 7 miles south of Socorro. Travel east 1/4-mile on U.S. 380 to the flashing signal in San Antonio and turn right (south) onto Old Highway 1. Continue south 9 miles to the refuge entrance.
Tour information is available at the tour entrance a few yards south of the visitors center. Fees must be paid there. The passenger vehicle entry fee is $3. (A 12-month unlimited entry pass may be purchased for $12.) No fee is required for those who have a Golden Age, Golden Eagle, or Golden Access passport, or a current federal duck stamp.
The visitors center is open Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and on weekends from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., except for occasional holidays. It is not mandatory to stop at the visitors center before taking the tour loops.
For more information, contact:
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge
P.O. Box 1246
Socorro, NM 87801
Area Campgrounds (And A Famous Eatery)
Bosque Birdwatchers RV Park
State Route 1
San Antonio, NM 87832
Socorro RV Park
1101 State Route 1 S.W.
Socorro, NM 87801
P.O. Box 215
San Antonio, NM 87832
The café is famous for its green chili cheeseburgers, said to be the best in the state. Its ambience is unusual, as the walls are papered with dollar bills put there by patrons. (The money is donated to charity annually.) It is located at the corner of U.S. 380 and Old Highway 1.