Published Jan. 6, 2000, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Refuge offers whopping-good time.”
2015 Update: Apparently, Whooping Cranes no longer visit the refuge regularly.
By Barb Gorges
Holiday visits with family can easily become a never-ending cycle of cooking, eating and cleaning up. That’s why, several weeks before heading to my mother’s in Albuquerque for Christmas, I planted the idea of a side trip to Bosque (BOSS-key) del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.
My intentions were to get us out of the house, find some grist for this column and avoid the after Christmas sales.
I’ve been to “The Woods of the Apache” several times, driving south along the Rio Grande a little past Socorro, New Mexico. The refuge is best known for its wintering flocks of snow geese, sandhill cranes and whooping cranes.
It was originally set up in 1939 for the then-endangered sandhills.
The endangered whoopers have been raised in captivity and trained to migrate to the refuge with the sandhills for the winter.
Seeing whoopers is great, but there are 377 bird species on the refuge checklist, and some, like the roadrunner, are equally exotic to us Northerners.
We decided to arrive at the refuge a few hours before sunset, when the geese and cranes start returning for the night from feeding in nearby fields.
The refuge includes 57,000 acres. Nine miles of valley include a series of farmed fields, marshes, ponds and woody margins. The Chihuahuan desert uplands on either side are official wilderness.
Examining the ponds, we saw waterfowl common to the Bosque: pintails, northern shovelers, buffleheads, coots and even a few mallards.
As we drove up to the visitor center, my sister Beth wondered if a friend still worked for the refuge. In fact, Daniel Perry was working that day and kindly marked out his favorite trails on our copy of the refuge map, as well as the location of the morning’s sighting of the two wintering whooping cranes.
At the back of the visitor center a big viewing window with a microphone that brought in the sounds of strutting Gambel’s quail.
The busy white-crowned sparrows looked the same as the ones we get in Cheyenne.
In his backyard a few miles away, Daniel said, he gets pyrrhuloxia, the southwestern version of a cardinal, and black-throated sparrows.
We poked along the 15-mile auto tour loop, playing leapfrog. People passing us as we pulled over to look at birds would themselves be pulled over by the time we continued on. One car with Albany County, Wyoming, plates turned out to be a couple from Laramie who’d recently relocated to Albuquerque.
Just about the time the Chupadera Mountains turned purple in the waning light, we came to the observation deck Daniel recommended.
Thoughtfully equipped by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with both a powerful scope and a Port-a-Potty, it seemed perfect. But no birds were right there.
Beth, Jeffrey and I hiked down the road to investigate a small flock of snow geese, including a few “blue geese,” a color phase. A few sandhills accompanied them.
By the time we returned to the deck, Mark and Bryan had two white birds in the scope. It must have been a strong scope, because I couldn’t see anything white out there with my naked eye.
Were these snow geese or whoopers? Both are pure white with black-tipped wings that don’t show unless they fly.
Of course, with a way to compare size, identification would be obvious. Snow geese are about 2 feet high and both sandhill cranes and whoopers stand about 5 feet tall.
When we could make out sandhills standing next to the white birds, we knew we’d found the whooping cranes.
As I looked through the scope, they flapped their huge and wonderfully flexible wings. Just like in the movies. We all got a good look before they moved deeper into the brush.
There were no other people with whom to share the moment. A steady line of cars lumbered past in the dusk behind us, like elephants, headlights to tail lights. It’s doubtful anyone else not on the deck would have had the angle needed to see the whooping cranes.
We were not entirely alone, however. Occasional sandhills making their “craa-k” calls, flapped just a few yards over our heads. For one evening, we were privileged to be in the right place at just the right time.
Conservation note: Whooping crane reintroduction has not been very successful because the whoopers imprint too well on the sandhills and haven’t been procreating in the wild. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided to put all its crane eggs into the eastern flock instead.
Refuge visitors, as well as locals who enjoy the economic prosperity brought by crane watchers, are petitioning the service to change its mind—and re-evaluate its propagation methods.
Planning a Trip to Bosque del Apache
Check for updates at http://www.fws.gov/refuge/bosque_del_apache.
Location: About 17 miles south of Socorro, New Mexico. On I-25, follow signs at Exit 139.
Hours: One hour before sunrise to one hour after sunset. Visitor center open year round, 8-4 p.m.
Fees: To drive the tour loop–$5.
Seasons: November through mid-February is the peak for bald eagles, cranes, snow geese, other waterfowl and bird watchers. Migration and nesting seasons cover the rest of the year and are also worth visiting.