|Bosque Del Apache
by Dr. Leonard Lee Rue III
Bosque is a photographic treasure at all times of the year, but its peak season is from mid-November until the end of February. At that time, Bosque is the place to go when you don't know where else to go, or if you can't get to most of the other places because of the cold and snow. Don't, however, get the notion that it doesn't get cold at Bosque because it is just a couple hundred miles north of the Mexican border. Make sure that you have your warm winter clothing because, with an elevation above 6,000 feet, ice on all the ponds in the morning is a common occurrence.
The snow geese, blue geese, sandhill cranes and mallard ducks start arriving at the refuge in November and stay until February. The numbers differ from year to year, but tens of thousands of snow and blue geese, thousands of sandhill cranes and many species of ducks, winter there each year. We had planned to spend five days working there, but stayed nine days and were most reluctant to leave even then. I always hate to leave a spot that offers unlimited photographic opportunities for a new spot where you don't know what will be available.
You are allowed in the refuge one-half hour before sunrise and that's when you want to get there, the sun rising about 7:10 a. m. at the end of January. After paying your entrance fee, take the first road to the left to the flight deck area, a distance of about three-fourths of a mile.
The Bosque roads are laid out in an elongated north/south loop. By turning left, you are going up the northwest side of the loop and will be shooting toward the rising sun. Ordinarily you don't want to do this, but take my word for it, you will here.
Ordinarily, that pond area in front of the parking lot is so packed with geese that not much water is visible. As the sun comes up, the geese get up, taking off in wave after wave to go out to feed. If something triggers an en masse departure, you will not be able to see through the flock and no camera holds enough film to let you get all the shots you want to take.
After the geese have departed, turn around; the road north of the parking lot is one-way traffic only. Go back to the two way cross dike road and turn left heading east. Along the side of this road we always saw and photographed kestrels, cormorants and bufflehead ducks. Red-tailed hawks often sit in the trees at the junction of the cross and east roads.
With the sun now at your back, be on the lookout for the great blue herons that patrol the ditch on the left side of the road. We saw at least a dozen on each trip and the birds are so accustomed to people that they are not their usual wary selves.
About thirty bald eagles winter in this refuge, but most perch just beyond good camera range. Northern harriers are numerous on the refuge and are more tolerant of a close approach than I have ever experienced elsewhere. Here is where the Rue Groofwin Pod is worth its weight in gold as it will allow you to hold your camera and your longest lens rock steady as you shoot out your car window. Where you have thousands upon thousands of geese, you will have dozens dying a normal death each day. The eagles, red-tailed hawks, harriers and crows all scavenge upon the dead geese and allow you to get closer than ordinarily possible.
The coyotes were all fat and saucy, beautiful animals in their winter coats, but were extremely wary. I don't know why; usually where coyotes have complete protection, as they do in the refuge, they become quite tame. We saw no tolerant coyotes at Bosque.
I was greatly surprised to find up to five common snipe within a one mile distance every time we drove the northwest loop road. The snipe were busy probing the mud with their long bills for the blood worms upon which they were feeding. Locating a single snipe is always a bonus, but to see up to five workable snipe in one run borders on the miraculous! This is strictly a morning shoot as, after 12, the high bushes throw deep shade over the ditch. We also saw quite a few Say's Phoebes in the area as well as Savannah Sparrows.
To the north of the north loop road is the agricultural area, huge fields of standing corn interspersed with stubble fields. Every few days a certain number of rows of corn are knocked down by a tractor to make it more accessible as food for the geese, ducks and cranes. While thousands of the geese leave the refuge each day to go elsewhere to feed, other thousands feed in the corn fields, blanketing the ground like a mantle of snow.
There were more thousands of mallard ducks also feeding in the cornfields or sitting on one of the earthen dikes than I have ever seen before. When the huge flocks got up, they created a wall of flashing wings and iridescent heads. The roar created by their wings beating the air is a sound most folks have never heard.
The sandhill cranes feed among the corn, but much prefer the more open stubble fields. There they stalk with stately grace as they feed upon fallen grain and insects. As the breeding season is approaching, the cranes often dance exuberantly, jumping high in the air with outspread wings, in their age-old courtship ritual.
To give the endangered whooping cranes a wider range and increased survivability, biologists have put whooper eggs in sandhill nests where they are raised by the latter.
There were three such whoopers at the refuge, but only one was close enough to the road so everyone could get a good look at it.
As you start down the western side of the north loop, watch the brushland on the left hand side of the road. This is the home area of some truly large mule deer bucks. What was surprising was that, in January, these bucks would still be feeding at 10 a. m.
Roadrunners are common throughout the entire park, but we had our best opportunities for photographing them on the right hand side of the west road as we headed south.
Roadrunners are extremely punctual birds and seem to adhere to a very strict schedule. If you see a roadrunner at a certain spot at 9 a. m. this morning, you can almost bet that you will see it in exactly the same spot at exactly the same time tomorrow morning and the morning after that.
The southern point of the loop is best run in the afternoon, as on the western portion the sun is now behind you. The brush is higher on this portion of the road, screening out so much of what goes on in the ponds. Here and there, the refuge management has cut down the brush, allowing photography of the many species of ducks.
Ring-necked pheasants are common in this section, but extremely wary. We were not able to get any photographs of them, although I have been told that they are workable during the breeding season in March and April.
Just before you get to the bottom of the southern loop, the brush has been cut so that the sandbars are visible. Dowitchers and yellowlegs are common and close enough to be worked.
We did no photography on the eastern side of the southern loop. We could see lots of ducks in the ponds on either side and there were Canada geese on the mud flats, but almost everything was beyond camera range. Because of that, we drove the northern half of the loop at least five times to each trip on the southern loop.
Just before getting to the crossroads at the junction with the east road, there is a pond that always had cormorants and black-crowned night herons perched in the flooded brush.
The refuge's visitor center has very attractive and informative displays. The gift shop has a great variety of nature related items and the bookshop is particularly well stocked. I bought a number of wildlife books I had never seen before. To me, the greatest attraction was the area where the birds are fed in front of the visitor center's picture window. By walking around the front of the building, you can easily photograph the large numbers of Gambel's Quail and white-crowned sparrows that come in to feed and drink.
Most folks stay in the hotels and motels at Socorro. If any of you travel by motor home or trailer, as we do, I highly recommend that you stay at the Bosque Bird Watcher's RV Park, just ¼ mile above the refuge. It is a good spot, with full facilities, owned by Jackie Trujillo. Her telephone number is 505-835-1366 and I'd advise you to call ahead for reservations during the peak season. A big bonus is the opportunity to photograph the more than one hundred Gambel's Quail that come into her feed area all day long.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, we did so well with photography at Bosque Del Apache that we probably won't be going back for quite a while and no one should stay away.