Birdwatching at the Bosque del Apache Festival of the Cranes

Chupadero Mountains near Socorro, New Mexico, with snow geese and sandhill cranes.

Despite the early hour, the snow geese and sandhill cranes were quacking, squawking, chuckling, and generally making a loud ruckus.

This weekend we made a little jaunt down to Socorro, New Mexico to attend the annual Festival of the Cranes at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. 

We had been invited to join friends and soon-to-be friends in birdwatching and photography. After a quick lunch, and even quicker tour of Socorro, we met up with our friends and headed over to the refuge to scope out the birds and the location.

Snow geese, cranes, the Chupadero Mountains in New Mexico, dawn.

The Chupadero Mountains turn rosy at sunrise, while cranes start lifting off.

The Wrenaissance Man and our friends from the Grand Canyon photography trip were hoping to capture some exciting images of the mass gatherings of snow geese and Sandhill cranes that overwinter each year at the refuge. Our new friends were nature enthusiasts who attend the festival nearly every year to enjoy the drama of thousands of waterfowl in flight and the comedy of individual birds interacting.

Photographers taking pictures of snow geese and sandhill cranes.

Sometimes watching the birders and photographers is more fun than watching the birds!

After learning about how and where the birds gather and disperse in the park, we enjoyed dinner at a local Mexican restaurant and headed to an early bedtime. To reach the site of the next morning’s lift-off we would awake at 4 am.

Birdwatching in Socorro, NM, at the Festival of the Cranes.

It was just below freezing, but the birders were out in force!

We arrived at the pond in the dark shortly before 5:30 am. Temperatures were around 29F, or -2C, with little or no wind. Fortunately, I had prepared by bringing fresh-baked bran muffins from home, and 2 aluminum thermos canteens with a mix of hot coffee and cocoa! 🙂

Even in the dark, the sleeping birds were cackling and squawking.

As the sun rose, so did the noise level. The snow geese and cranes began to preen and socialize within their flocks. Now and then, a few would fly up, then circle around and land.

Around 7:00 am, the snow geese suddenly ascended en masse. The deep beat of their wings and the honking calls were nearly deafening. The water and sky were filled with a chaotic flurry of white and blue as they took off.

The cranes stayed behind, but they slowly began to fly away in groups of 3 or 7. We noticed that cranes have an interesting “tell” when they are about to fly. One bird will extend its neck straight forward at a 45° angle for a few moments, then spread its wings and lift off, causing others to join it.

Wetlands near the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, Socorro, NM.

A stately cottonwood at water’s edge shelters ducks.

By 7:45, only the ducks were left behind.

We spent the rest of the day in the refuge itself, going from pond to field, as the birds moved around from feeding ground to feeding ground.

It was a marvelous day. The weather warmed up to a sunny 60F or 15C by mid-afternoon, with very little wind. The photographers filled up their memory chips, and I got many gesture sketches of bird postures.

The festival takes place in late November each year, but the winter birdwatching season at the Bosque del Apache has only just begun. We learned that there are even more birds, and the landscape more spectacular in December and January when snow covers the ground, and in February, when the Sandhill cranes perform their mating dance before heading back north to their summer nesting grounds.

Goose feather on the ground. Birdwatching in New Mexico.

All that remained after the morning lift-off.


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  1. Pingback: Groovy Links of the Month: Ideas for field sketching kits | Wrenaissance Art

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