Birds around Bosque
Specialty birds of Bosque del Apache
Published: August 26, 2011
For birdwatchers blessed with the freedom to travel, each season inspires its own wish list of destinations. Springtime may evoke names like High Island or Magee Marsh. In summer, thoughts may turn to hotspots in Arizona or Alaska. Among autumn destinations, an increasing amount of attention is focusing on Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.
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Located along the upper Rio Grande near the center of the state of New Mexico and affectionately known as “Bosque” (pronounced boh-skay), the refuge has long been known as one of the best birding spots in the state.
Since the late 1980s, however, it has been on the national radar as well, thanks to the popular annual Festival of the Cranes, held every November as a cooperative project of the refuge and the nearby town of Socorro.
When the festival was established, two species of cranes were possible here. The Whooping Cranes have disappeared, but the festival has flourished, partly because the birding in the area is so rewarding.
In recent years, up to 14,000 Sandhill Cranes (roughly three-quarters of the Rocky Mountains population) have spent the winter in the area, along with more than 30,000 Snow and Ross’s Geese. When their full numbers have arrived in November, the refuge and surrounding areas are a photographer’s dream. Many people who come for the festival come back repeatedly for the photography.
Ace photographer Brian Small follows birds all over North America and is no stranger to the Bosque area. When he visits, he doesn’t spend all his time on the cranes and geese in the marshes. He knows that the surrounding canyons and woods and deserts are home to scores of other interesting species, and he has photographed most of them.
In terms of overall birding possibilities, New Mexico is sometimes overshadowed by its immediate neighbors, Texas and Arizona. They are deservedly popular, but New Mexico is also a powerhouse of bird diversity: More than 530 species have been recorded within its borders, for one of the highest state lists in the United States. In addition to an intriguing mix of eastern and western species, it offers the opportunity to catch up with birds that are widespread but uncommon elsewhere in the West. An autumn trek to Bosque, right in the heart of New Mexico, is a treat for birders at every level of interest.
A place to celebrate cranes
Bosque del Apache is located 96 miles south of Albuquerque and 18 miles south of Socorro in south-central New Mexico.
Sandhill Cranes begin arriving in November and leave as late as the end of February. The birds fly to San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Colorado, then move on to Grays Lake, Idaho, their breeding grounds.
This year’s Festival of the Cranes will take place November 15-20, 2011.
Festival of the Cranes
Friends of the Bosque del Apache NWR:
Festival registration: (575) 835-2077
A grand experiment
Bosque del Apache was once part of a daring experiment in bird conservation.
In 1975, when the last wild flock of Whooping Cranes was stalled at only about 50 individuals, scientists tried to establish a second migratory flock by placing Whooping Crane eggs in Sandhill Crane nests at Grays Lake NWR, Idaho. The Grays Lake flock of Sandhills was known to winter at Bosque. Cranes, unlike most birds, learn the migratory route from their parents, so it was assumed that the young Whoopers would follow their Sandhill foster parents to Bosque and winter there.
The assumption proved correct, so the project continued. From 1975 through 1988, more than 200 Whooping Crane eggs were transferred to Sandhill Crane nests at Grays Lake. A total of 85 young fledged, and the population of Whoopers wintering at Bosque peaked at 33 birds in 1985.
However, a problem loomed: The young apparently were imprinted on their foster parents, so when they grew up, they showed little interest in pairing with their own kind. In several instances, they formed mixed pairs with Sandhills. When I spoke at the Festival of the Cranes in the early 1990s, refuge staff showed me a Whooping Crane x Sandhill Crane hybrid. The experiment was halted after 1988, but in some ways it helped to pave the way for the establishment of other new Whooping Crane flocks, such as the group that now migrates from Wisconsin to Florida.
Kenn Kaufman is the author of the Kaufman Guide to Birds of North
America, Kaufman Field Guide to Advanced Birding, and other books about
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