Woods of the Apache

Preparations for the Christmas holiday delayed my final post of the November-December journey to the west coast and back. But in moving photos from one computer to another, I rediscovered our final wildlife encounter of the trip back to Minnesota at Bosque del Apache in south-central New Mexico. From there it was an arduous two-day long drive back home, so this was a final chance to get out and enjoy the spectacular wildlife and scenery.

This wetland formed from intermingling streams of the Rio Grande river is one of the premier stop-overs for migratory waterfowl as well as songbirds in both spring and fall. The river channels are wide and shallow, making it attractive to thousands of Sandhill Cranes, Snow Geese, and several duck species that congregate there at night for a couple of months in the late fall-early winter.

Tall cottonwood trees line the banks of the river channels, providing cover for a variety of songbirds that migrate through this area. It is this riparian forest that gives the area its name, “forest of the Apaches”, a site where the local Apache Indians gathered to hunt the wildlife during peak times of migration. However, the area was initially settled more than 700 years ago by Pueblo-building Piro Indians that farmed the fertile, flooded regions around the Rio Grande. They were eventually driven out of the area by Apache raiding parties and Spanish explorers/colonists.

Two one-way loop roads (north and south) branch off from the main road into the Bosque del Apache national wildlife refuge. We made frequent pull-overs and stops to see what might be hiding in the water.
Pintail (with brown and white necks) and Widgeon ducks were plentiful along the roadside, swimming in the narrow channels between sections of the river.
But these were the birds we had come here to see, the majestic and prehistoric-sounding Sandhill Cranes. We found a small flock of birds hiding in a backwater channel. Most were foraging intensively but a few were calling, strutting, and showing off.
Hundreds of cranes and Canada Geese were spread out along the shallow channel, beaks deep in the mud, foraging for something.
Parent and a mostly fully grown chick (no red on the top of its head)foraged together just a few yards away, while dozens of other cranes foraged on the other side of the channel.

We have seen many more Sandhill Cranes here in mid-January, so perhaps the bulk of the migrants from northern-most parts of North America have not arrived yet, or perhaps some cranes that might stop here prefer to overwinter further south in Mexico. (Click here to see a video of the cranes coming in to roost on the river at Bosque del Apache in January.)

The Cranes probably won’t stop here on their way north again in the spring, but will congregate in huge numbers in March and April in Grand Island, Nebraska on the Platte River — and that is a sight to behold!

Sandhill Cranes taking off right at sunrise on the Platte River in Nebraska, March 18, 2015. They fly to nearby corn fields to forage and then return each night to the river. This is a major refueling point for Cranes that will migrate up to northern Canada and Alaska to breed.

More Cranes at Sunset

Looking over the photos from our recent trip to the west coast, I remembered I had shot some video clips of the Sandhill Cranes arriving at their overnight roost on the Rio Grande floodplain at Bosque del Apache, New Mexico.

It was an all-too-brief encounter, but the video will give you an idea of what it was like…

They have an impressive wingspread when you see them up-close.

Sandhill Cranes, Bosque del Apache, NM

Snow Goose bonanza

Snow Geese may be overtaking the world; well, at least their Arctic breeding grounds.  And when they invade their winter headquarters, they dominate that landscape as well.  We thought there must be a thick layer of salt along the edge of the Rio Grande flood plain when we looked across the expanse of blue water.

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

That’s not a line of salt crystals along the shoreline, it’s a dense pack of Snow Geese!  Ruddy Ducks are in the foreground.

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

High densities of Snow Geese congregate in their select winter headquarters in the U.S. and eastern coast of Mexico.

There must have been tens of thousands of these medium sized geese, crowded together in the shallow water of the Rio Grande. They are described as “voracious herbivores”, eating any and all parts of a plant, ripping up roots and all, or just shearing off the tops of grasses, sedges, and other aquatic plants.  Digested food passes through their gut in just a couple of hours, so just imagine how much goose poop is going into this section of the river!  Their voracious foraging is what has been decimating their tundra breeding grounds, as more and more geeese arrive each year to raise their chicks.

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

Snow Geese come in two color phases: white- and dark-bodied. The dark form was once believed to be a separate species, called the Blue Goose.  

Color is controlled by a single gene, but the dark allele is dominant over the white variant (actually dark is Incompletely dominant, to be technically correct).  So, this raises the very obvious question:  if dark color is dominant, why are there so many white Snow Geese?

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

The amount of color is variable, depending on whether the individual has one or two dark alleles.  Of the 3 most prominent birds in this photo, the one on the right has no dark alleles, the one in the middle might have two dark alleles, and the one on the left with less dark coloration might have one dark and one light allele.

The Snow Geese put on quite a display for us, with massive numbers of them taking off, circling in front of us, and then settling back on the pond. You have to marvel at their ability to fly in such close quarters without running into each other.

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

Take-off…

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

Coming closer…

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

Right in front of us….

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

Overhead!

What a spectacle!

Sunset at Bosque del Apache

Bosque del Apache (literally “woods of the Apache”) is a 3800 acre wildlife refuge in the floodplain of the Rio Grande River in southern New Mexico that was set aside in the late 1930s as a wintering spot for waterfowl.

Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

One can look down on the flood plain of the Rio Grande River from an overlook a couple of miles away.  We had no idea how many thousands of birds were concentrated there.

And thousands of birds do congregate here from November to March. Snow Geese by the tens of thousands (more on them later), dozens of ducks of all kinds, and of course, the one we had come to see, hundreds, if not thousands of Sandhill Cranes.  Fortunately we arrived just as the light was turning golden, and developing into a beautiful sunset. (Click on the photos below to view them full screen and use the back arrow to return to the blog.)

Sandhill Crane, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

Sandhill Crane, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

The Snow Geese don’t seem to mind that Sandhill Cranes walk through and over them.

Sandhill Crane, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

Hundreds of birds congregated in a shallow lake right next to the road through the refuge, completely unperturbed by all the photographers lined up on the shore about 100 feet away.

Sandhill Crane, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

As is usually the case with Sandhill Cranes, they continually vocalize as new birds fly in, landing often in the middle of a clump of others.

Sandhill Crane, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

Sandhill Crane, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico