DARKNESS WRAPS Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in a frosty November veil.
It’s 7 a.m., but a gaggle of photographers dressed in full winter gear has already lined a levee surrounding the pond known as the Wetland Roost. They’ve come, filled with anticipation, for the annual Festival of Cranes and the short-lived marvel that is about to begin.
As dawn cracks open the sky, hundreds of white-plumed snow geese lift off from the water in a flurry, circling overhead in a boisterous morning ritual. As they pass in front of wisps of cotton-candy-pink-and-purple clouds, their honks are accompanied by the rapid-fire clicks of camera shutters.
The sandhill cranes are next. The prehistoric holdovers lean their heads and necks into a slight breeze to indicate their readiness. Groups of four or five stride through the water and take off in succession. At first, their spindly legs dangle like airplane wheels in an awkward silhouette. But with a few flaps of their six-foot wings, the ancient creatures tuck in their feet and fall into an elegant rhythm as they pass in front of the Chupadera Mountains.
The four-day festival, held December 6–9 this year, draws hundreds of people from around the world to the refuge’s 57,331 acres in Socorro County for photography workshops, an art fair, nature walks, and a celebration of the sandhill cranes and snow geese that overwinter here. An additional 200,000 people visit the refuge, most of them from October through February, to see the birds perform a daily routine. It takes them north to feeding grounds in the nearby cornfields of the Middle Río Grande Valley, then returns them in the evening to roost in shallow ponds that provide a buffer from roving coyotes.
But over the past few winters, something has changed—fewer and fewer sandhill cranes have wintered in Bosque del Apache’s wetlands. Like the Río Grande itself, the reasons why are complicated and evolving, requiring a deeper look across the crane’s migratory route as well as at the conditions at the refuge. There, a delicate dance is underway to balance visitor experience with the needs of the birds and other wildlife species while working to conserve water and other resources in a time of drought.
“You may be seeing less birds at Bosque in winter,” says Dan Collins, migratory game bird coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Southwest region. “But it doesn’t mean that their population is doing bad.”
Collins may understand the big picture of sandhill crane migration in the Rockies better than anyone in the country. Many of his days are spent in the field, tagging cranes with GPS collars and bands to track their movements, flying over nesting areas in a single-wing airplane for annual population counts, or visiting with biologists at the individual refuges throughout the Middle Río Grande Valley—an area that stretches from Cochiti to Elephant Butte.
“We’ve got a redistribution going on,” Collins says.
ESTABLISHED IN 1939, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge has become a major destination for birders, photographers, and other nature lovers, thanks to its picturesque setting between the Chupadera and the Little San Pascual mountains and its critical role as a winter stopover for tens of thousands of migrating cranes, geese, and ducks.
For millennia, the Rocky Mountain population of greater sandhill cranes has traveled a migratory path known as the Central Flyway, from nesting grounds in Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and Colorado to locations as far south as the large wetlands in southeast Arizona and the northern Mexico highlands. Counting their numbers began in the mid-1990s, and the most recent three-year running average shows that the Rocky Mountain population of greater sandhill cranes sits at roughly 23,630 birds. In more than a decade of working with cranes, Collins estimates their overall population has remained stable or slightly increased.
“The birds are doing great,” says Deb Williams, Bosque del Apache’s former refuge manager.
For many years, about 80 percent of the population—around 18,000 birds—was counted in the Middle Río Grande Valley. Last year, the count was down to 13,257. According to surveys conducted last December and January, Bosque del Apache hosted roughly half of those.
“There are a lot of factors that need to be taken into consideration when we say, ‘Why aren’t we seeing as many birds here?’ ” says Claire Revekant, senior biologist at Bosque del Apache.
Each migration is different. Overwintering birds spread out in many areas along their migratory pathway depending on environmental conditions. For many years, Bosque del Apache was one of the few wintering grounds with enough food and water available to cranes, so nearly the entire Rocky Mountain population spent the winter there.
In the last five years, the towns of Delta, Colorado, and Jensen, Utah, have increased corn production, leaving leftovers for the majestic blue-gray birds to feed on in agricultural fields. These areas also are remaining warmer, so snow melts earlier from the fields and water sources aren’t freezing over, a shift that’s possibly due to climate change.
Last year, the favorable conditions meant about 5,000 cranes overwintered in these areas instead of continuing south. “Why do I need to move if I can just stay here?” asks Revekant.
She views these changes as beneficial. If all the cranes crowd into a single location and something catastrophic happens, like an avian cholera outbreak, it could affect the entire group. “We want to spread their population across the whole valley,” Revekant says. “That’s going to be healthier and safer for them in the long run.”
Bosque del Apache works under a cooperative management agreement with the state’s four Ladd S. Gordon Waterfowl Complex properties: La Joya, Bernardo, Casa Colorado, and Belén waterfowl areas, which stretch between Albuquerque and the refuge. Each property grows a mix of corn, milo, wheat, or other experimental cereal grains, as well as native wetland plants. The goal is to feed half the geese, ducks, and sandhill cranes that winter in the valley.
Traditionally, these areas focused production on corn. “Corn is big, it’s visible, and it’s easy for the cranes to key in on bright yellow kernels in a field,” says Collins. Managers also realized that since cranes can’t peel corn husks, staff could control the food’s availability by mowing over the cobs throughout the winter to ensure proper distribution.
But there’s a problem. “Corn is a water hog and really intensive to manage,” says Williams. For many reasons, including lack of water and other resources, a large portion of Bosque del Apache’s corn crop failed in 2022.
Last winter, visitors noticed a high concentration of cranes at Bernardo Waterfowl Area, where the corn crop outperformed Bosque del Apache. A three-mile tour loop with raised observation decks encircles Bernardo’s much smaller 1,675-acre footprint, making the cranes very visible in its agricultural fields and creating a favorite stop for photographers on their way to Bosque del Apache.
Corn, however, is not the cranes’ only food source. It’s what they’ve become used to. Triticale, a wheat hybrid, and native plants like chufa grown on the refuge with less water did well last year and provided ample nutrition for cranes and other birds. Because irrigation waters from the Río Grande remain limited, the refuge is collaborating with various agencies and universities to develop a sustainable plan to meet the birds’ needs with a mix of native plants and water-efficient cereal grains.
Still Bosque del Apache faces a challenging future. Balancing the needs of the birds and visitors means overcoming a host of obstacles to provide enough water, food, and habitat for cranes and other important species on the refuge.
TO UNDERSTAND WHAT’S GOING ON with cranes at the Bosque del Apache today, we need to go back 150 years to “when rivers in the West were functioning the way they should,” says Collins.
Historically, the Río Grande would overflow its boundaries during the pulse of spring snowmelt from the mountains. Flush with water, the river would spread across the valley, scouring banks, clearing out plants, and depositing sediment and water in new locations. New wetland areas would form and provide the conditions for native seed-bearing plants that cranes love, like chufa and pigweed, to germinate and flourish. Each year, the valley would be remodeled, providing a slightly altered riparian landscape than the year before. The cranes would return to the valley and key in on areas where they could find plentiful open water and food—the two main factors that attract the birds to stop on their migratory journey.
On a bluebird day in early April, I return to Bosque del Apache to tour the refuge with the staff. I want to understand what it takes to be in service to thousands of birds, a diverse collection of wildlife, and hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Although the cranes and geese have departed for the summer nesting grounds in northern Rocky Mountain states, the work to provide water and food for them is ongoing.
“Water is definitely a challenge,” says Gerad Montoya, the refuge water manager. In the managed sections, refuge staff systematically flood the marshes with water from the Río Grande in order to create various habitats and encourage the growth of native foods.
“Everything we do here is to try to emulate the river and what it was doing historically,” says Williams. However, the refuge is at the tail end of the Middle Río Grande Valley irrigation system. In times of drought, after farmers farther north irrigate their fields, little water remains for the refuge.
This has been the case in the past three years. With less water for irrigation, the staff has had to rethink its practices. “We’re constantly working on projects to utilize the irrigation water more efficiently,” Montoya says. For example, the refuge is slowly replacing old manual irrigation gates with newer automated gates that regulate water flow and distribute it more effectively.
Refuge staff are also learning how to do more with less. “We’re trying to shrink our farming footprint and be very strategic about what we plant,” adds Williams. In 2022, the number of irrigated parcels of land the refuge is actively managing dwindled from 61 to 42.
In spring, the honking and squawking of cranes and geese is replaced by the sweet melodies of migratory songbirds. A vermilion flycatcher, in bright red and black, calls from the tip of a tree branch looking for a mate to start building a nest. A pulse of migratory shorebirds moves through Bosque del Apache.
“We call that Killdeer Island,” says Williams, pointing to a mud flat in the middle of a pond along the tour loop. Over several weeks in the spring, the refuge staff slowly draws down the water in certain units to create mud flats where shorebirds can forage. Killdeers, ducks, sandpipers, dowagers, avocets, and black-necked stilt quietly wade near the shorelines. The mud softens the clapping noise made by their long beaks as they grasp at insects.
In June, the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher and yellow-billed cuckoo return to the refuge. They nest in willows and other shrubs that grow along the canals, a habitat that requires constant flowing water.
The endangered New Mexico meadow jumping mouse also inhabits the refuge year-round, hibernating throughout the winter and emerging in summer to feed and reproduce. As the only low-elevation mouse left in the state, it needs its wet meadow habitat irrigated to keep thriving.
The refuge also supports a growing population of ducks, approaching 50,000 compared to 20,000 a couple of decades ago. Other wildlife includes javelina, coyote, elk, deer, turkey, raptors, owls, shorebirds, and hummingbirds—any and all of which you might see on a visit to
“I’ve worked on and visited a lot of refuges,” Williams says. “But I’ve never been to one that’s managed as intensely as this place and on so many acres.”
The cranes, though, remain the main attraction. In the winter, the refuge strategically manages the wetlands and farm fields to provide viewing opportunities. But it also must consider that not all wildlife is comfortable with a human presence. In 2022, approximately 70 percent of the actively managed acres were visible along the 12-mile tour loop during the winter months. The remaining 30 percent were in areas closed to the public. So on any given day, cranes may be taking a break from disturbances in areas that are closed to the public.
“We think a lot about visitor experience,” says Williams. “It’s important to us.” For the best chance of viewing the cranes at Bosque del Apache, Williams recommends visiting during December and January. To experience the dawn flyout, call the visitor center to learn where the birds roosted the previous night. Since the birds move around all day, concentrated flocks can shift from one hour to the next. Ask what parcels have been mowed recently, what areas are being flooded along the tour loop, and where the cornfields are located.
While visitors to Bosque del Apache may wish for concentrations of birds from a decade ago, Revekant asks people to think about the good of the population, not just an experience at a single refuge. The numbers of cranes overwintering in the Middle Río Grande Valley today are the result of coordinated efforts across the West to spread the cranes out for their own health. While you may have to travel to several locations to see the larger crane population these days, it means the plan is working.
After my visit with the staff, I drive the refuge tour loop for one last look before heading home. In a harvested cornfield, three kestrels hunt for small mammals. Down the road, avocets in their copper breeding colors pick at muddy shores. A lone javelina crosses the road in front of my car at the south end of the loop.
A mile farther, red-eyed cinnamon teal wade in a pond. At the north end, three white-capped bald eagles sit in the tops of cottonwood trees, watching the action below. Along the irrigation canal, a migrating yellow warbler sings its song, Sweet, sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet! from the willows.
A refuge staff member starts up a tractor. As he drives through a field, the attached disks turn the soil. They’re preparing the ground for the coming winter and for the cranes that will inevitably return.
For more than a decade, Christina Selby has joined the annual migration to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge to photograph cranes.