To someone who leaves coffee in the microwave for days on end, birding is tedious. I’m no good at it, and it often ends up as a sidebar on a larger outdoor adventure.
But–and there is a big but–I’ve found a few special places on this earth where I love to bird, and would even bet my girlfriends would too. Two weeks ago I visited one such place, the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, and it was an experience I will never forget.
The Bosque (“bos-kay” as it is called) is located on the Rio Grande river in a dry and barren part of New Mexico, about 10 hours from Austin and San Antonio.
Imagine Area 51 territory, and you have the scene. It’s hard to imagine anything but a vulture and a dung beetle could thrive out here.
But the green marshy banks of the Rio Grande are a welcome sight to wildlife and especially to the millions of migratory birds that cross the desert each year.
Strung out along the river to host this natural phenomena of bird life are a series of refuges: the Bosque del Apache, Bernardo, Sevilleta, and Valle de Oro. Each year the refuges are flooded with water from the Rio Grande to provide wading and roosting pools. Corn is planted in dry places to provide food.
The birds are in heaven over it all.
It’s like their Hyatt Hill Country resort, or Buccees; a spacious joint with clean restrooms, lots of food, and tons of fellow travelers. The birds swarm around the pools and corn fields like people to the kolache stand, and everyone is yacking away.
All they do is chit chat and eat, chit chat and eat. Honks and quacks and bugles fill the air and create quite a racket. I did wonder what they could be discussing.
Crane vocal chords are twice as long as their necks, so when they start bugling they can give it some power.
I think I would do well as a crane…sitting around in a field with my friends eating and chatting all day.
And mating for life.
Mom and I had come to see the refuge’s main claim to fame: the Sandhill cranes, Canadian geese, and Snow geese that winter over on the refuge.
Our first stop was the welcome center. It was nice! Clean restrooms, cute gift shop, and helpful staff. We got the audio tour CD (recommended) and spoke with the staff about where to see the birds.
There were a few educational displays to teach about the wildlife on the refuge and see their tracks and migration routes. Kid friendly! Check out the Sandhill crane’s migration route. The last dot on the map is the Bosque.
Take the tour from the comforts of my own vehicle? Yes please. Rolling with cupholders and seat heaters is my kind of wilderness travel.
Added perk: someone else was driving.
I count four sets of duck tail feathers. Do you?
Two geese come in for a landing. What a backdrop!
Shout out to my husband for the new telephoto I got to take on the trip! I felt like a bird paparazzi.
This duck couldn’t get any privacy.
We even saw….drumroll please….
A bald eagle!
That was a first for me. He wouldn’t turn around but showed off us his big white neck and brown shoulders.
He did not like the paparazzi.
Insert burger break here. We headed to the Owl Bar & Cafe a few minutes away and had green chile cheeseburgers–yum–while formulating our evening plan.
We decided to come back to the refuge before sunset to see the birds come in to roost. We hit it perfectly. We drove around until we saw a bunch of people who looked very professional gathered around a pond edge. (Birding 101: follow the people who look like they know what they’re doing.)
We pulled up and got out nonchalantly as if we were experts too.
Within a few minutes one of the birding pros pointed to the sky. I turned and looked. Off in the distance, great black clouds were billowing up from the horizon. As the black clouds moved closer I could see parts of them splitting off and then coming back together, and then splitting apart again.
A mass of geese were heading towards us at full speed! Soon enough I could hear a roar of honks like an army of New York City taxi cabs. As the birds drew closer, the sound got louder, until it reached a crescendo as they passed overhead. It felt like I was living in a Planet Earth documentary. What an awesome sight! And one I could appreciate without knowing a single call or bird name.
On our way back to Texas the following day we checked out the Bernardo refuge. We had received a tip that the cranes would be spending the day grazing there. It was spectacular and there birds everywhere. We nearly had to shew them off the road!
We left completely birded out.
I’m so glad we went. It was a long haul from Texas but it was worth it to be up close and personal with these majestic birds and to see firsthand, instead of in a magazine or a textbook, how they live on this earth and make their incredible cross continental journey.
PS. How some people bird…
Things to Know
- How to Get There: Take I-10 from Texas past El Paso, head north at Las Cruces
- Where to Stay: Holiday Inn in Socorro (20 min) or Bosque Birders RV Park (5 min)
- Audio Guide: purchase at welcome center for $2.50
- Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge Website: http://www.fws.gov/refuge/bosque_del_apache/
- Bernardo Wildlife Area Website: Click Here
- Directions to Bernardo from Bosque: Head north on I-25, take exit signs indicating Ladd S. Gordon Waterfowl Complex, continue onto HWY 116 (looks like frontage rd of 25; runs parallel)
- Local Eats: Chile burger at the Owl Bar & Cafe
- What to Bring: A TELEPHOTO LENS!! Don’t even think about going without one. Rent one at your local camera store. You will be glad you did!