Last month I visited Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in Southern New Mexico. I was very excited about this trip because this is one of the most remarkable wildlife refuges in North America, and even though my expectations were very high, I was not disappointed, on the contrary, I was pleasantly surprised both by the natural beauty of the place and the abundance of birds.
To get there, I flew to Albuquerque where I arrived late at night due to a flight delay, got my rental car and drove 73 miles to the town of Socorro, located about 20 minutes from Bosque Del Apache with a variety of hotels to choose from. That night I set my alarm clock to wake me up at 5AM, with enough time to arrive at the refuge about 45 minutes before sunrise. This turned out to be a good estimate, so it ended up being my early morning schedule from then on.
The reason why I went in December is because Thousands of snow geese and sandhill cranes make this refuge their home, typically from mid November until begining of January and that, in my opinion, fully compensates for having to endure cold weather. The temperatures at night were usually in the low twenties during my trip, and the refuge was always about 10 degrees colder than Socorro, so each morning at 6:15AM, I would be standing with my camera and tripod near the frozen ponds with temperatures between 25 and 16 °F for a couple of hours. Warm clothes and especially gloves are essential when you stand outside for so long in that kind of weather. Fortunately I brought two pair of gloves made of thick synthetic fabric and I was able to fit two gloves in each hand.
This 57,000 acre refuge was established in 1939 as a critical resting and feeding stopover for migrating birds, it is situated between the Chupadera Mountains and the San Pascual Mountains and includes a long stretch of the Rio Grande with cottonwood and willow trees.
The staff and workers do an amazing job re-creating and maintaining the kind of habitat the migratory wildlife need in order to thrive. They use gates and ditches to move water from the river to the fields and they also have corn fields within the refuge, making sure there is always plenty of food for the birds.
There is a very nice visitor center that is staffed mostly by volunteers that are available to provide all kinds of relevant information, so it is a good idea to stop by, get a map and learn about the refuge. There is also a lot of information on display about wildlife, history of the place and the work they do. Also, there’s a store where you can buy hats, scarfs and all kinds of souvenirs inside and all the proceeds are used to help the refuge.
If you come from Socorro you will drive through the small town of San Antonio and turn right on HWY1, the Visitor Center is about 6 miles from San Antonio on the right and the entrance booth is about 1/4 mile further, on the left but the refuge actually stars about 4 miles South of San Antonio. When you pass the entrance booth, there are two main loops and several hiking trails. Both the North loop and South loop are worth it but in my experience, the North loop is where most of the action is. There are several ponds and a few observation decks within the refuge and birds (thousands of them) roost on these ponds at night to protect themselves from predators, so every evening birds come to the ponds and every morning around sunrise they take off, in a very spectacular way because they take off by the thousands, creating literally a blast. So if you pay attention to see where the birds are going to spend the night before you leave in the evening, you will know where they will be in the morning and you can be there for the take off.
Blasts can occur not only in the morning but also anytime, so whenever you see thousands of snow geese in a pond, it is guaranteed that sooner or later they will take off and when they do, they usually do it all together! In my observation, one way to predict a blast is by listening to their sounds, the volume is normally high but sometimes, at some point it gets quiet for a couple of seconds and then they take off. Most of the time, it is not always so predictable, sometimes the sound has nothing to do with it, so you need to be patient and most important, to be present and sense what is happening.
As a landscape and nature Photographer, I am very happy with the photos I was able to capture at this beautiful place and I look forward to visiting again. I had never seen so many birds together before and never before had I experienced a place that takes such good care of the land and the birds, in fact, a place that so successfully benefits the wildlife, the habitat and the visitors.