New Year's Day, the sun was setting, and it was a very comfortable 60-something degrees. I could understand why thousands of birds were wintering at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, near Socorro, N.M.
This was our third visit, and I was thrilled as ever by the guttural cries of thousands of cranes and snow geese flying in to roost in the wide marshlands and shallow lakes of the refuge. As we watched them settle in for a cold night, we also enjoyed the many species of ducks paddling around. Northern shovelers with their big bills, little American coots, mallards and showy northern pintails are most common.
Several bald eagles kept watch in a big snag tree, and red-winged blackbirds called in the cattails.
We drove along a loop road, stopping and snapping photos of a roadrunner as it fearlessly approached us. We especially enjoyed watching a family of three coyotes in the golden light of early evening, systematically hunting together through a shining meadow in the floodplain of the Rio Grande.
The "Woods of the Apache" Refuge was established in 1939 to provide "a refuge and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife," especially greater sandhill cranes, then endangered. Protected habitat such as this has allowed them to survive and even thrive.
The refuge's managers seek to imitate the natural ebb and flow of the river before channels and dams were created. They flood fields to create marshes with native vegetation like smartweed, millet and sedges. The invasive salt cedar (tamarisk) is being cleared and replaced with native black willow and cottonwood for natural wildlife food and shelter. The refuge also partners with valley farmers to grow forage crops such as corn and alfalfa to nourish the birds.
This beautiful refuge is more than 57,000 acres, and much of it is kept as wilderness. Wetlands, where most of the birds congregate, are easily accessible by car. People enjoy strategically placed wooden viewing platforms and a wonderful bird blind named in honor of our friend, Phil Norton, who was manager of the Bosque for many years. Located only five-plus hours from Durango, you will find an informative visitor center and hiking trails. Dogs are allowed on leash.
Winter is the best season to view the thousands of migratory birds. There are places to stay in Socorro, but we recommend staying at the historic Casa Blanca Bed & Breakfast in little San Antonio, minutes north of the refuge, owned by very knowledgeable birders. Its Web site is www.casablancabedand breakfast.com.
The best time at the Bosque is the darkness just before dawn when thousands of birds start to stir and "talk" and then take off in swirling clouds of wings in the first light of day.
Gail Grossman is a contract field instructor and former board member of Durango Nature Studies.