Silhouettes

Back in January, my mom and I drove to New Mexico to see the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, the winter stomping grounds for thousands of geese and cranes.

One night, en route to the hotel, we saw a bunch of photographers and birders gathered on the side of the road with their binoculars and cameras pointed in the same direction. (Did I mention the first rule of wildlife spotting is to look for humans?)

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Freshwater ponds at the base of the mountains were on fire with the day’s last rays of sun, and all across the sky, cranes were sounding out bugle calls as they came in to join their comrades.

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It was like a painting, or a scene from a movie, almost too perfect to be real life!

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Cranes like shallow water to wade and roost in, and these ponds were perfect for them. They had been feeding all day 20 miles north of the refuge in some corn fields, and flew back for the night.

(That’s a lot of effort for food, if you ask me.)

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One of the rangers told us that every day is different; some days they roost in other fields, some days they spend all day at another refuge, and can’t be seen coming in until after dark, and some days they leave too early in the morning to be photographed. Sadly, you can’t schedule performances like this with wildlife.

But today, here they were, striking poses for us in perfect lighting.

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Work it, cranes! I love it!

One of my favorite quotes about cranes is as follows, “The ultimate value in these marshes is wildness, and the crane is wildness incarnate.” — Aldo Leopold

Seeing these cranes in their element was a brush with that pristine “wildness” and something we will always remember.

Plan Your Visit

  • 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!

The Best Birding in All of New Mexico

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Crane vocal chords are twice as long as their necks, so when they start bugling they can give it some power.

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I think I would do well as a crane…sitting around in a field with my friends eating and chatting all day.

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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.

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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.

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Take the tour from the comforts of my own vehicle? Yes please. Rolling with cupholders and seat heaters is my kind of wilderness travel.

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Added perk: someone else was driving.

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I count four sets of duck tail feathers. Do you?

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Two geese come in for a landing. What a backdrop!

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Shout out to my husband for the new telephoto I got to take on the trip! I felt like a bird paparazzi.

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This duck couldn’t get any privacy.

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We even saw….drumroll please….

A bald eagle!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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We left completely birded out.

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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…

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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!

 

A Frosty Drive in the Gila National Forest

This weekend, Brandon, Mom, and I went out to New Mexico. As you may have noticed, this isn’t our first visit to this part of the world–we have a close family friend who lives out here and we’re always looking for an excuse to see her.

One thing that has astounded me about New Mexico is the amount of wilderness open to the public, from national parks to wildlife refuges, national monuments and official Wilderness Areas, each completely unique.

The Gila National Forest is one of them. It is enormous. For perspective, the largest ranch in Texas is 825,000 acres. The Gila is 3.3 million acres.

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Snow had just fallen in the valley when we went for a drive and it was a gorgeous day. Frost was covering our windshields, draping the plants, and piling up along the edges of mule deer tracks.

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We explored Highway 15, which cuts a winding route northwards from the town of Pinos Altos. And by winding, I mean very winding. They reminded me of the zig-zaggy roads of Italy….if you’ve ever driven there, you will be able to relate.

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More on this route: Highway 15 will take you from Silver City through the tiny mapdot town of Pinos Altos (check out the Buckhorn Saloon and Opera House there), and into the National Forest. From there can get to Lake Roberts, where you will see a pair of Bald Eagles who nest on the lake’s main island.  Eventually the road leads to the Gila Wilderness, the first wilderness area ever established in the United States, and on to the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. When I ask people in Silver City the number one thing to see, they always say the cliff dwellings. A required stop if you’re ever in the area. Nat Geo’s writeup of this drive in greater detail here: Trail of the Mountain Spirits Scenic Byway..

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As we drove, I kept looking up at the hills and seeing mounds of oreos and ice cream, and occasional spots where the ice cream had melted down near the creeks. I think they were taunting me, knowing I would be starting Whole30 soon.

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Eventually the road took us out of the oreo wilderness and tall pines and into an expanse of younger, shorter, and bushier trees. This was where we had the best view of the surrounding hills.

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National forest as far as the eye can see.

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We hit it just at the right time, because while it was cold, it wasn’t frigid, and the frosting of snow everywhere created such an elegant scene.

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(My jacket can be found here: Columbia TurboDown Interchange Jacket.)

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And we got to enjoy it all from the warmth of our car! We Texans cant get too cold, you know.

There is so much to see within the borders of the Gila, I definitely think it is worth driving out from El Paso or Albuquerque and spending a few days.

More information on the Gila–

PS. Gila is pronounced Heela.

 

 

This City in New Mexico Rocks

On the way back from Silver City, New Mexico last week, my mom and I stopped in at the City of Rocks, a massive rock outcropping in the middle of the desert.

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Admittedly, when we turned off on Highway 61, we were dubious City of Rocks existed at all, because we had heard of “beautiful, towering rock formations” but there was nothing on the horizon besides vast, flat plain. Granted, a gorgeous flat plain but a flat plain nonetheless.

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But after about five minutes (and passing a “Hot Springs Resort” that was not resort-like in the least) the road made a bend and we descended into a valley, and it was as if we had unfolded a pop-up book of the desert.

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Here in the middle of what seemed like nothing were mounds of rock up to forty feet high, as if a giant had swept pebbles into a pile.

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A 3D blip on a 1D landscape.

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I love the desert.

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The City of Rocks was formed when a giant volcano erupted 39.4 million years ago and sent lava soaring across the countryside. Wind and rain over the millennia have worn away the earth surrounding these rocks, like an archaeologist uncovering a relic with his brush on a dig.

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The narrow “streets” between the rocks reminded me of the narrow streets in Italian villages we saw this past month.

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Ocotillo dot the landscape around the rocks, making for a very picturesque desert scene.

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The visitor center is contemporary and chic, and looks like the setting for a Longmire episode. (Pardon the obsession..)

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Just as I was posing by some rocks for a picture, a voice behind my shoulder shouted “HEY!” and I jumped. I turned around to see a giant white Pyranees and a man waving from his RV, which was parked behind a nearby boulder.

One of the best aspects of City of Rocks is the camping privacy, as the RV and tent locations are tucked behind rocks and dispersed along roads winding throughout the park. Picnic tables are private and scenic as well. Considering that one of my least favorite things about camping is the sight of RV’s and tents lined up next to each other, the City of Rocks is a PERFECT camping and picnicking destination in my book!

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The entry fee is only $5, and we found it to be worth every penny.

A must see if you’re ever in Southwest New Mexico.

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Official website here: http://www.emnrd.state.nm.us/SPD/cityofrocksstatepark.html

My Morning Coffee Date with the Gila Wilderness

This week I’m staying in New Mexico with my friend Sandy, and enjoying the breathtaking views of the Gila National Forest from her back porch.

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I’ve been enjoying my coffee every morning here and loving this start to the day. Life is rough! I could stare out here for hours.

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The Gila National Forest begins at the blue ridge line in the distance and continues on far beyond this hillside for 3.3 MILLION acres.

Within the 3.3 million acres is the Gila Wilderness, the first wilderness area ever established.

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Sandy has decorated her wall with topo maps of the Gila forest. See why we are friends? This and about a million other reasons. (See horseback riding story here: Learning to Ride.)

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These peaks are about 8,000 feet high, and I’m sitting at 6,500 feet taking this picture. The spruce fir and aspen that surround me are putting me in the mood for Christmas!

The pine is abundant out here, as are the mule deer. We’ve already spotted at least a dozen; a few fawns, a buck, and several plump fuzzy does bouncing across the dirt road. Of course, I didn’t have a camera handy but I got the tracks.

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There are some beautiful cactus is in bloom out here too. This part of the country is where pine forests and arid desert meet, and the combo of cactus and pine have to be one of my favorite plant combos ever.

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Gorgeous.

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Good times with good friends in the foothills of the Rockies. I love it and never tire of the mountains or desert.