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8 • NOVEMBER 2018


Flocking to Bosque Del Apache


arrier!” A brown hawk flies straight at intent birders, his image reflecting in a still pond where flocks of ducks and geese dip their heads, quack and cackle. A cool breeze ruffles golden willows, filling the air with the

uniquely autumn aroma of dry leaves. Telephoto lenses and binoculars leap to attention. It’s November again at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). Birds fly south for the winter; we’ve been taught that since



childhood. But where exactly is “south?” For sandhill cranes, snow and Canada geese, bald eagles and other birds that summer in the northern United States and Canada, “south” is New Mexico. They flock to the Rio Grande bosque, their own winter resort, and can be found at Bosque del Apache two hours north of Las Cruces like Midwesterners basking in sunny beach resorts. Birders flock here too, where wintering and migrating species offer excellent watching and imaging opportunities all during fall and winter. Although Bosque del Apache’s premier event is Festival of the Cranes, this year Nov. 14-17, one can enjoy Bosque del Apache migratory thrills from November through February. Late this November 2017 afternoon, I join another migrating group, genus photographer. “We’re trying for a shot of the birds against the daytime full moon,” explains Celia, a photographer from Tucson, Arizona, mounting her camouflaged 400mm telephoto as long as her arm on a camouflaged tripod. A dozen identically equipped photographers congregate at the south end of the car-accessible Marsh Loop. On one side of the dirt road, flocks of snow geese cackle and flutter among low dry grasses. Eight Canada geese, darker and larger than the snow geese, poke about by themselves at the edge of the road. A flock of starlings swirls into the distance. Two helmeted bikers wheel past silently. Across the road, photographers aim their cameras on the large pond where pintail ducks and mallards quack and dip their bills. “We shoot with the setting sun behind us for the reddish effects,” Celia said. “Cranes and geese fly in here as the sun sets.” At sunset, after feeding in the fields during the day, the cranes and geese fly into ponds and marshes to spend the night protected from coyotes, bobcats and other predators. This activity is called “Fly In.” At sunrise, they fly out from the water and return to the fields to feed, called “Fly out.” Turning north onto Farm Loop,

Sandhill cranes in the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo by Yvonne Lanelli)

Let’s Flock to The Bosque, Too! Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Reserve is off Interstate 25 north of Las Cruces. Take Exit 124 (San Marcial), go east on the dirt road 1.5 miles, then north on Old Highway 1 to the Visitor Center. Festival of the Cranes: Bosque del Apache is open year-round, however the Visitor Center closes Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day and July 4. There is a $5 vehicle fee for the self-guided auto tour, but all federal passes are honored.

I stop at wooden observation decks. The setting sun turns cottonwoods, willows, bulrushes, phragmites reeds (carrizo), cornstalks and cattails from soft gold to bronze. Ring-necked pheasant scour cornfields that are cultivated by local residents for the Bosque’s bird population. Cirrus clouds frame a flock of red-winged blackbirds. One flies so low I look directly into its eye. When the sun begins to disappear behind the Chupadera Mountains, I stop at wetlands to wait for a Fly In. The waning sun silhouettes two photographers and a great blue heron that tucks its neck as it struts. Two mule deer stop for a drink, a roadrunner scoots in front of the car, and a V of 13 Canada geese fly into the setting sun. Twilight replaces sunset, the moon brightens in the darkening sky, but no large flocks fly in. Suppressing a small sigh of disappointment, I plan for tomorrow’s sunrise Fly Out. Part of the experience is just being here, knowing the Fly Out will happen whether you’re here or not, according to Carolyn and John, wildlife enthusiasts from Alaska, visiting Bosque for the second time. It’s barely 6 a.m. the next day, and dozens of photographers have lined up on a west-facing bank on the northern edge of the Bosque. They focus on a football field-sized white blotch that cackles in rolling tones, the cackling increasing as the sky lightens. Salmon-pink sun reveals the white blotch to be hundreds of snow geese. Sandhill cranes, bigger and darker than the white geese, flap and strut along the northern edge of the geese. A few geese fly out, framing the single star remaining in the sky. As the sky glows more orange, cackling and fluttering crescendo. Photographers murmur excitedly. One points south. There’s a huge flock taking off. Any time now … Crows circle overhead “like buzzards,” chuckles John. A wildlife artist from Phoenix examines a small V overhead through powerful binoculars.

“A blue goose!” she announces gleefully. “Blue geese are a color variation of snow geese, like black sheep. “Look, a coyote!” My binoculars pick out a gray blur that disappears and reappears several times in the brush. A redtail hawk glides above. Several voices suddenly chorus, “They’re dancing!” as cranes now strut, flap and weave about one another. “Move one F-stop and go 1/60th of a second,” one photographer quietly advises his companion. “Look behind!” a voice shouts. While we concentrated on the cranes in front of us, flocks of geese from the southern Bosque behind us had filled the sky, creating a blur of gray and white against the gray-brown Chupadera Mountains. One immense V soars overhead, so close that you can see the birds’ yellow bills clearly without binoculars. “They’re off!” A shout returns our attention to the cranes we’d watched since before dawn. They’re moving! The entire football field-sized flock lifts off as one and shoots directly overhead, so close I feel the movement of air from their wings. I’ve never heard birds’ wings flap so loudly. Motorized shutters follow the cranes’ soaring flight until they disappear into the sun. In less than five seconds, it’s over. “I’m hit!” One photographer moans and wipes bird droppings from his cap. His companion chuckles, “You were ‘muted.’ Birds lighten their load before they take off.” This information doesn’t appease the “muted” victim. He shakes his head ruefully and smiles, “Well, I got some great shots. I guess it was worth it.” What adventures will you have at Bosque? Tell me and I’ll share with readers.   Novice birder Yvonne Lanelli (evlanelli@yahoo. com) remembers her first trip to Bosque and looks forward every year to another adventure there.

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Desert Exposure - November 2018  

Desert Exposure - November 2018  

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