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.

Fueling up for the journey south

Fall migration of songbirds and raptors has been underway for weeks now, but recently, the Sandhill Cranes have been moving down from their arctic and subarctic breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska to feed in the pastures and cultivated fields in central Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Sandhill Cranes-Crex Meadows-

Thousands of Cranes stopover at Crex Meadows near Grantsburg, Wisconsin in late September-October each year.

Birds that spent the summer in small family groups now gather by the hundreds to forage in farmer’s fields for the residual grain left after corn and soybean harvest, but they also feed on insects, amphibians, small rodents, seeds, berries, and aquatic vegetation in the wet meadows that permeate this area of Wisconsin.

Sandhill Cranes-Crex Meadows-

Modern harvesting methods don’t leave much seed on the ground, but apparently there is enough there to allow the birds to fatten up for the next stage of migration south to Texas and Mexico.

Sandhill Cranes-Crex Meadows-

It’s hard to believe they can find anything nutritious in some of the fields that look like mowed lawns.

Sandhill Cranes-Crex Meadows-

Young birds (like the one on the left) lack the brilliant red forehead of the adults. A fall molt of feathers has replaced the worn, brown-tinged plumage of the summer breeding birds to their normal gray and white color.

Staff of the Crex Meadows refuge estimate that there are about 6000 Cranes here at the peak of migration — which sounds really impressive unless you compare it to the numbers of cranes that stop at the Platte River in the spring on their way north. You can read more about that migration by clicking here.

The formation of large flocks during migration helps young birds (and adults) locate food sources, but is probably more important in providing protection from predators. They gather in high density in the middle of wetlands overnight, and fly in large groups out to fields several miles away to forage, just as they did on their spring migration journey through Nebraska.  Unlike their sunrise dispersal from roost sites on the Platte River though, the Cranes at Crex Meadows were a little more leisurely in their morning departures, so we managed to see lots of Cranes flying about the refuge.  Just a few of the over 200 photos I took yesterday of that spectacle…

Sandhill Cranes - Crex Meadows, Wisconsin

It looks like take-offs can be quite congested with one bird’s head buried in another bird’s rear. Somehow they keep their wings separated though.

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes - Crex Meadows, Wisconsin

With their relatively light body weight (8-10 pounds) and large wing area, these birds are powerful flyers and gain altitude and speed very quickly after take-off.

Sandhill Cranes coming in for a landing.

Coming in for landings, they sort of float down to the ground, and then beat those huge, long wings backward to stop their forward motion.


They will be back next spring, when we can again enjoy the rattling calls of Cranes flying overhead on their way to Canada.

Sandhill Cranes in action

This short video clip of the Sandhill Cranes at their overnight roost site on the Platte River will give you a better idea of the numbers of birds there and the continuous racket they make with their loud rattle calls.

You can view the video in low resolution by clicking on the play button on the video screen here.  However, to view the video in HD, click on its title at the top of the video (next to my lovely photo), which will take you to the Vimeo site.  There, you should be able to view it in HD by clicking on the HD button at the bottom right of the screen.

a day in the life of a Sandhill Crane

sunrise on the Platte River, NE

Sunrise on the Platte River near Grand Island, NE. Already, hundreds of Sandhill Cranes have launched themselves skyward to fly out to crop fields to forage.

Sandhill cranes at sunrise-

One large flock of cranes flew off before sunrise, but several more flocks still remain on the sandbars. You can just barely see one group in the lower third of the photo.

From sunrise to sunset, Sandhill Cranes make their presence known with their loud rattle call (click here to sample the sounds of a single bird or that of a large flock of cranes).

Sandhill cranes at sunrise-

All but a few of the Cranes in the foreground have taken off, but a huge flock in the background is still waiting for just the right time.

Sandhill cranes at sunrise-

What are they doing, besides preening, calling to each other, and occasionally stabbing a bill into the mud to find a snack there? Waiting…waiting, for just the right time to take off.

Sandhill Cranes flying to crop fields to feed

Often still vocalizing, it’s follow the leader to the first foraging site at some farmer’s corn field.  These birds are strong flyers, and move quickly across the landscape!

Sandhill crane flying and calling

Calling out….”follow me”

Sandhill Cranes flying

Large flocks accumulate in fields of corn stubble a few miles from the river, but often a small flock simply joins another larger flock if the foraging looks good there.  Here, this small flock is gliding in to land with another larger group.

Sandhill cranes flying

Put down the landing gear…

Sandhill Cranes flying and feeding

Gliding in for the landing…

Sandhill Cranes feeding

Heads down, the Cranes are intent on gobbling up every kernel they find. However, more efficient machinery for harvesting corn leaves far less waste on the ground these days than in previous decades. Cranes must search more intensively or stay longer on their stopover to gain adequate fat stores to complete their migration.

Sandhill Cranes feeding in corn stubble

The Cranes spread themselves out in a straight line across the remains of last year’s corn crop. You can see there is not much in the way of edible nutrients left on the ground.

Sandhill Cranes flying back to the river at sunset

After a long day of foraging in the corn stubble, Sandhill Cranes head back to the river in huge flocks of hundreds of birds — for another night on the river’s sandbars.

Three subspecies of Sandhill Cranes converge on the shallow sandbars of the Platte River from their wintering grounds in New Mexico, Texas, and northern Mexico in late February to early March.  They might stay several weeks, depending on how quickly they can refuel their fat deposits, before taking off for prairies in central and western Canada and Alaska.

Central Flyway_Map

Cranes and other waterfowl funnel through the narrow channel of habitat along the Platte River in the Central Flyway.

Sandhill Cranes are one of the oldest bird species, with fossils (found in Nebraska) indistinguishable from living cranes dating back 9 million years, long after the the rise of the Rocky Mountains and the development of prairie grasslands.  It’s amazing to think that these birds may have been repeating this same migratory journey for millions of years — and hopefully will continue for years to come.

Sandhill Cranes flying