Winter is prime time for New Mexico refuge


Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Cranes are one of the attractions at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. Courtesy Wikipedia.

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

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.

Desert birds in New Mexico

Greater Roadrunner

The Greater Roadrunner can be found in the parks and backyards of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published June 24, 2004, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Desert travel offers many different birds.”

2014 Update: Sandia Crest, known as a “sky island” is also where all three Rosy-Finch species can be found in the winter.

By Barb Gorges

“….so it is in traveling, a man must carry knowledge with him if he would bring home knowledge.” Samuel Johnson, April 17, 1778.

Travel broadens my knowledge, but it’s also useful to know something about where I’m going so I don’t mistake a new bird for one I know at home or fail to appreciate new species.

Earlier this month my family and I hiked the trail at the top of Sandia Crest, elevation 10,600 feet, overlooking Albuquerque, N.M.

We were surrounded by familiar birds and their songs and calls even though we were almost 600 miles south of home in Cheyenne: gray-headed junco, yellow-rumped warbler, mountain chickadee, brown creeper, red-breasted nuthatch, white-breasted nuthatch and Steller’s jay. White-throated swifts and violet-green swallows reeled over the cliff edge.

The 800-acre bit of Rocky Mountain spruce-fir forest in the middle of the southwest desert is similar to the same forest in Wyoming, but at a higher elevation. Conversely, the spruce-fir forest occurs at a lower elevation in Montana than in Wyoming. The formula is this: a climb in elevation of 1000 feet equals traveling north 600 miles and equals a drop in temperature of three degrees Fahrenheit.

If there are any birds peculiar to the crest (specialty birds as they are known to avid birders), I didn’t know what they were. A bird checklist for the area or having a local birder along would have been helpful.

However, I did discover a peculiar tree, identified by an interpretive sign as “corkbark fir.” I couldn’t find it listed in the index of my Peterson field guide to western trees. Does the scientific community change the names of trees as often as it does bird names? Luckily, in my 1979 edition of Ruth Ashton Nelson’s “Handbook of Rocky Mountain Plants,” she mentions corkbark fir is a southwestern variation of subalpine fir, the usual sidekick to Engelmann spruce.

The next day, in Albuquerque, at a mere 5,000 foot elevation along the bosque, or riparian woods, of the Rio Grande, we were in desert summer heat, and we finally found birds different from home. No sooner did we emerge from our car in the parking lot at the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park, than we saw a greater roadrunner snatch up a lizard and stride away, clasping the small, pale body in its long, strong bill.

There are no records of roadrunners in Wyoming. According to my newest field guide, they are not found north of southeastern Colorado.

While the nature center’s pond was full of whole families of the familiar–Canada goose, mallard, cinnamon teal, wood duck—and even a pied-billed grebe on a floating nest–we were able to identify a green heron, a rare migrant in Wyoming, but a nesting species at the pond.

Black-chinned hummingbirds, considered rare summer residents in Wyoming, and only in the western part of the state, were swarming feeders, completely oblivious to people a couple yards away.

We saw great-tailed grackles, a species confined to southern Texas and south in 1900, but which has expanded its range to 19 states, according to an article in the June issue of Birding magazine. This spring we had a report of three of them at F.E. Warren Air Force Base. Now that I’ve seen them in the flesh, or feather, it’s obvious that they are much bigger than common grackles (18 versus 12 inches) and though the length of crows, they are quite slender.

Half of the doves flapping around Albuquerque are white-winged, another species apparently heading to Wyoming. The white-winged dove’s tail is blunt compared to the mourning dove’s. Their folded wings show white along the lower edge but are otherwise plain gray, whereas the mourning dove has black spots.

A traveling birder, Paul Lehman, of Cape May, New Jersey, reported a white-winged dove in Burns last month. He also reported a mourning warbler southeast of Cheyenne, another bird with few records in Wyoming.

I looked up this new (to me) warbler and discovered it is nearly identical to its western counterpart, MacGillivray’s warbler, except it has a white eye-ring. Is this a case of us westerners neglecting the study of eastern birds and failing to identify them properly when they appear, or is it the traveler putting a familiar name to a nearly familiar face in a strange land?

As it turns out, the warbler was also identified by several local birders this spring and Paul Lehman has impeccable credentials. The fourth edition of the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America lists him as chief map consultant. It shows the mourning warbler’s migration range skirting Wyoming a couple hundred miles to the east. I suppose that’s one range map to be amended in the fifth edition.

At any rate, our visitor from New Jersey is a perfect example of Samuel Johnson’s observation about carrying knowledge when traveling. I should probably invest in a copy of the New Mexico Birdfinding Guide for all the best places to bird and their specialties before visiting my mom again.

Why not find out what makes a travel destination unique? Otherwise, except for family reasons, one might as well stay home.