‘Crown jewel of the refuge system’

If I was going to tell a grandparent or a grandchild or anybody in between to seek out just one sight in New Mexico, I wouldn’t nominate the ghostly stalagmites of Carlsbad Caverns, the cliff dwellings of Bandolier, the 15,000 petroglyphs adorning the Albuquerque volcanoes, the hot springs of the Gila Wilderness, the nation’s second largest state fair in Albuquerque or the mass ascension of 700 balloons in a bright October morning.

I’d say, just stand on a viewing platform at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Preserve and watch a hundred thousand birds fly into the rising sun.

The scene reaches its climax in December and January, at the moment the sun’s rays first touch the shallow manmade ponds where the birds spend their nights, safe from mountain lions, coyotes and foxes.

To see it, you don’t need to hike, bike, climb, ski, fly or swim. You don’t need to do anything. Just stand and stare.

Off and on for 30 years, I’ve been driving down to the bosque, 18 miles south of Socorro, for this spectacle. It’s not always the same. In fact its continuing fascination is due to the fact that every year is different.

Photos by Thelma Bowles.

This year, for example, snow geese are harder to find, although a ranger insisted, “We have thousands upon thousands,” and we did see one huge flight of thousands of the white birds glinting perhaps a mile away against the backdrop of the area’s steep brown mountains.

Officials of the wildlife preserve said the pattern of ponds and cornfields is different this year, causing birds to be more dispersed. A new road has been opened in the north while another one has been closed to traffic and spectators.

Most of the wildlife preserves I know about around the country don’t make any provision for tourists, and a number ban them entirely. Bosque del Apache, which was created by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1939, is different. “Habitat,” a publication of the nonprofit group Friends of the Bosque del Apache, calls it the “crown jewel of the refuge system.”

The bosque does everything but beg to lure visitors. It has a paved loop road of several miles that you can drive, several viewing platforms, hiking trails, and a recently refurbished visitor’s center with interactive exhibits for kids, a souvenir shop and a video screening room.

While geese, who stop off here on their migration route of thousands of miles from the Arctic, were less in evidence last week than in previous years, ducks and sandhill cranes seemed to fill the vacuum with even larger numbers than usual. In fact, the sandhill crane has become the symbol of the bosque, and the refuge’s big annual November shindig is called the Festival of the Cranes.

Photo by Thelma Bowles.

The tall slender birds with their bright red forehead patch are unique. The only larger crane is the whooping crane, a desperately endangered bird that visited the bosque for several years but has shifted its flyway east toward Florida.

The bosque story is quite a bit more complicated than usually presented, for it includes more than geese and cranes and ducks. At least three bald eagles are currently at the bosque, and I saw one bald eagle resting atop a cottonwood while waiting long and patiently for lunch to show up. To the north I saw a family of deer that included two fawns. Coyotes are often seen here, and signs warn to visitors to be wary of mountain lions.

This environment also extends over an area far larger than Bosque del Apache. The bosque is managed in cooperation with two wildlife preserves further north, Bernado and La Joya, and shares the Chihuahua Desert environment with Sevilleta and, further south, Elephant Butte, which when it opened in 1916 was the second largest irrigation reservoir in the world.

Because of all this expansive complexity, my wife and I try to combine several sites on our visits to the bosque, including a drive through the beautiful and nearly empty state wildlife refuge at Bernardo (we saw a total of three vehicles in a couple of hours last week).

We often spend the night in Truth or Consequences, about 50 miles south of the bosque. It is a poor, rough-edged and old-fashioned remnant of traditional small town America that has found its way into our hearts.

After a feast in a gourmet (really) restaurant in town and a soak in the only outdoor hot springs right on the bank of the Rio Grande, we drive over to Elephant Butte. The lake’s dam, 5 miles from town, offers splendid vistas of water and desert and mountains. In warm weather, we laze on the sand or even take a quick dip in the lake, which retains heat far longer than you might expect. Once we were invited to join in a huge community Christmas party on the beach.

Add it all up. I don’t know how to say it any other way: It’s a wonderful world.