STORY AND PHOTO BY GIL POTTS
Itâ€™s happening now just a few short hourâ€™s drive from Van Horn. People from around the world are congregating near the small town of San Antonio, New Mexico, in witness to one of natureâ€™s marveled wonders. The event celebrates the annual migratory destination of sandhill cranes, snow geese, and ducks to the protected marshlands of New Mexicoâ€™s famed Rio Grande.
No, the guests of honor donâ€™t arrive to the fanfare and pageantry of parades or partying in the streets, although some pictures may suggest otherwise.
Rather, they (that is, the ducks, geese and cranes) offer daily shows of brilliant aeronautical maneuvers, and wingman ship rarely witnessed in such mass by us land based mortals. As for the partying in the streets, well, there is the occasional impromptu “block party,â€ initiated by anyone of 30 or more thousand snow geese.
Rumors of traffic jams, blocked roadways and disorderly conduct have been grossly misstated. It is true however, at any given time roadways may be temporarily blocked by a few hundred (or thousand) geese, but itâ€™s all quite orderly, although a bit noisy. You just have to be in the right place at the right time to experience the occasion. If you are caught up in such an event, some degree of placidity, and of course a camera, will be ultimately crucial to survive your encounter with a new found sense of serenity.
The event is the 27th Annual Festival of the Cranes, taking place at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Since its 1939 beginnings with the Civil Conservation Corp, a hardworking and dedicated staff has shaped and molded these farm lands and marshes along the river into what is now a premier example of a successful wildlife management undertaking.
Itâ€™s rock solid proof that man can positively influence the survival and resurgence of a dwindling species population. Seventy five years ago the region hosted a mere eighteen sandhill cranes through the winter months.
Today, more than 20,000 sandhills triumphantly return to the Bosque del Apache each year. Manâ€™s desire and abilities to create a magnificent habitat for these feathered friends is truly exemplified here, and the benefits are common with numerous other wildlife as well.
Today, the refuge is made up of nearly 60,000 acres, of which approximately 30,000 acres are designated as wilderness area.
The 12-mile “loop roadâ€ through the main section of the refuge affords good views of the fields where crops are grown for the benefit of the birds, under cooperative agreements with local farmers. More than 4,000 acres have been cleared of the non-indigenous invasive salt cedar, allowing cottonwoods and willows to once again flourish along the river as they have naturally in the past.
It is quite common to see mule deer, a raccoon, coyotes, and even an elusive lion or two. But bird watchers can be kept busy discovering the many different species concealed within the underbrush and trees.
At least 377 species of birds have been observed within its confines. The wetlands attract the massive flocks of wintering cranes and geese, providing the most interesting feature of the sanctuary. Many other species, most notably waterfowl, shorebirds, and birds of prey, winter in the Bosque as well.
The most dramatic moments are realized at sunrise and sunset, usually on or near the “flightâ€ observation deck. Although, a midday gathering of geese or cranes in one of the farm fields off the North Loop can make your day if youâ€™re quick with your camera.
As a side attraction, check out the numerous photographers that come from all around the world to capture the perfect birding image. If youâ€™re a camera buff or photography aficionado, just hold your breath.
Thereâ€™s not many occasions when you can witness such a huge collection of high-end cameras with lenses as big as your left leg, (assuming youâ€™re taller than 6 feet,) costing more than the new car youâ€™ve been eyeing.