The world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—over and over announcing your place in the family of things.
—Excerpt from the poem Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is located in San Antonio, Socorro County, New Mexico. Situated between the Chupadera Mountains to the west and the San Pascual Mountains to the east, the 57,331 acre Bosque del Apache was established in 1939 to provide a critical stopover site for migrating waterfowl. The refuge is well known for the tens of thousands of sandhill cranes, geese, and ducks who winter here each year. Over 30,000 acres of Bosque del Apache are designated wilderness.
Seasons of wildlife
While there is always something interesting to observe, you will find the greatest numbers of birds at the refuge from early November to late January. In the spring and fall, migratory bird species are moving through the refuge resulting in high numbers of species.
Each season, the Bosque del Apache offers unique bird and wildlife viewing opportunities. Peak visitation occurs in winter when bald eagles and thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese flock to the fields and marshes. Plan to visit the first week of December during the annual Festival of the Cranes. This world-famous event includes speakers, special tours, and arts and wildlife displays. More on the festival later
Winter (mid-November through late January)
Thousands of snow geese, Ross’s geese, and sandhill cranes spend the night in water to protect themselves from predators. Near dawn, the geese take off in a group in search of fields throughout the Middle Rio Grande Valley to feed in for the day. Smaller groups of sandhill cranes then leave the safety of the water for the same reason. Check the sunrise time and stop in the visitor center to learn the most recent roosting and feeding sites as they can change through the winter.
In addition to viewing cranes and geese and many species of ducks, you can drive the auto tour loop or hike the trails and see hawks, eagles, blackbirds, ravens, coots, and other birds along with occasional mammals such as mule deer, coyotes, and jackrabbits. Check in with the visitor center staff for recent sightings.
Spring (mid-February through mid-May)
The wetlands that were home to thousands of ducks, geese, and cranes all winter are slowly emptied of water in the spring providing prime feeding grounds for migrating sandpipers, stilts, plovers, dunlins, curlews, avocets, and twenty other shorebird species. Spring wildflowers add a bit more color to the landscape and greater roadrunners dart across and alongside the auto tour loop and Highway 1 in search of sluggish lizards and snakes.
Spring is also when flycatchers, vireos, and a dozen species of warblers filter through either as a rest stop on migration or as they determine the best locations for their nesting territories on the refuge.
Summer (mid-May through mid-September)
Summer is the time to see the colorful antics of black-chinned, calliope, broad-tailed, and rufous hummingbirds. The flowers of spring transition to the fruits of summer especially in the desert arboretum. Also look for the many young birds moving around the refuge. Some, like the quail, scurry around in long lines of a dozen or more.
Mornings and evenings are good times to view wildlife in the heat of the summer—most creatures will seek shade in the middle of the day. Near waterways are good places to search for wildlife and signs of wildlife (such as tracks).
Fall (mid-September through mid-November)
Late season sunflowers are a colorful contrast to the red-winged blackbirds that swoop and dart through the grasses. The first cranes and geese typically show up at the end of October during which time coyotes, mule deer, and javelina are moving through open fields as well. Wild turkeys begin moving to the northern part of the refuge to join up with other family groups in separate male and female roosting flocks.
The Dabbler Deck or Willow Deck are good places to take a break and search for ducks dabbling in the water for food especially the northern shovelers and northern pintails.
Because National Wildlife Refuges like Bosque del Apache are protected and managed lands, they can make ideal locations for the recovery of plant and animal species that are endangered, threatened, or have another special status through the Endangered Species Act. Bosque del Apache is a seasonal home to the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher and the threatened yellow-billed cuckoo. Bosque del Apache is a year-round home to the endangered New Mexico meadow jumping mouse and Rio Grande silvery minnow.
The waters, trees, and skies of Bosque del Apache yield a changing mix of birds throughout the seasons. Over 20 species of ducks and geese regularly spend part of their winters at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Seeds of grasses and sedges that have been growing all summer are the reward after migrating south for large numbers of northern pintail, northern shoveler, gadwall, and American wigeon. In summer, smaller numbers of Mexican duck, wood duck, and cinnamon teal may be found in the wetlands and ditches. Sandhill cranes are a winter visitor—typically from late October through late January.
34th annual Festival of the Cranes, December 6-9, 2023
Celebrate the return of the sandhill cranes at the 34th annual Festival of the Cranes, December 6-9, 2023 in Socorro. Join birding experts from near and far for a chance to learn about Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge and many of New Mexico’s overwintering birds. The Festival offers over seventy creative workshops in the field at Bosque del Apache and indoor workshops at New Mexico Tech.
The Festival celebrates the survival and yearly migration of the enigmatic sandhill crane. The sandhill crane is an ancient species of waterfowl that migrates from Canada and the northern U.S. to winter in the Rio Grande Valley. The oldest fossil on record is 1.7 million years old. Both cranes and snow geese begin arriving in smaller numbers at the refuge in late October. By early December, tens of thousands of cranes and snow geese make the Middle Rio Grande Valley their home until they migrate back north in mid-February.
The most popular presenters will return to offer education and up-close viewings of wildlife. Festival workshops focus on photography, birding, and environmental education as well as offering hikes and historical tours of the area. Registration for the general public opened Wednesday, October 11. Workshops are filling up quickly but many still have plenty of space available. To register and learn more about this year’s Festival, click here (https://friendsofbosquedelapache.ticketspice.com/2023-festival-of-the-cranes-registration).
Field workshops will be outdoors at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge with buses taking registrants to various locations. Additionally, there will be three nighttime photography workshops at the Very Large Array on the San Agustin plains, one hour west of Socorro. Indoor workshops will meet in classrooms at Macey Center on the New Mexico Tech campus in Socorro.
Visit the Expo Room located in the downstairs and upstairs lobbies at NM Tech’s Macey Center for the opportunity to meet and explore unique offerings from several vendors including camera and optics companies, eco-tourism partners, and this year’s art contest winner, Lisa Benham. The Expo Room is free to enter and open to the public. Anyone coming to the Expo Room on the first day of Festival will receive a welcome packet with great coupons and other goodies.
What do people love about Festival of the Cranes? Guests who attended the 2022 Festival shared that they loved the sense of community the festival provided. “Being able to gather with people from around the world and of all ages in a unique environment was an unforgettable experience,” said one attendee. Other guests were amazed by the educational quality of the workshops and the new skills they learned. Many attendees appreciated the opportunity to be outdoors and experience the amazing sites, wildlife, and healing energy of nature.
Why: We gather to celebrate the annual return of sandhill cranes and the delicate oasis ecosystem that supports them at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Festival is an opportunity for people who care about New Mexico’s wildlife and wild places to have fun outside, meet like-minded people, and learn how to sharpen their birding and photography skills.
What: 34th Annual Festival of the Cranes
When: Wednesday, December 6-Saturday, December 9, 2023
Where: Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (outdoor workshops) and New Mexico Tech (indoor seminars)
Cost: Varies with some events and activities cost-free.
Who’s Invited: EVERYONE! Visit the fragile oasis in the high desert—a rare jewel that has been cherished by New Mexicans from all walks of life for generations.
I saw them first many Novembers ago and heard their triumphant trumpet calls, a hundred or more sandhill cranes riding south on a thermal above the Rio Grande Valley, and that day their effortless flight and their brassy music got into my soul.