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.
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.
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!
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.
We spent the weekend in central Minnesota taking photos of different stages of prairie restoration. Prairie grasses are above knee high already, and there are quite a few perennial forbs flowering — injecting some highlights of color into that huge expanse of green.
Tall stems of timothy grass stand behind the lower herbaceous perennials on the Lake Johanna Esker prairie.
Many thousands of years of growth of perennial prairie grasses in this area resulted in a several feet thick layer of black, organic-rich soil — perfect for farming. But as a result, less than 2% of the original 19 million acres of native prairie remain.
Any prairie that could be plowed (not too dry or wet, not too steep or rocky) was converted to cropland over a hundred years ago. But here, pasture (on the right) is being returned to a prairie, while the hill in the background (too steep to plow) has been heavily grazed. In the absence of fire or heavy grazing pressure, prairies are easily invaded by trees.
Where there are large acreages of prairie or grassland landscape, we can usually find some of the native prairie animals and plants that live there. What a treat to drive down one gravel road that dead-ended in a soybean field and find a family of Sandhill Cranes walking through the meadow grasses.
This pair of Sandhill Cranes tried to distract us from finding their two chicks by walking up the hill away from where the chicks hid in the longer grass.
One of the chicks was a little less than half the height of the adults — with no tail yet.
I suppose they thought we might follow them up and over the hill, but as we backed away, they flew back toward the chicks.
A few minutes after a couple of Canada Geese took off from the marsh yesterday, I heard a really eerie call and turned around to find these two birds taking off.
And they sounded just like this…as they flew away. It’s not a sound you easily forget.
These birds may have bred near here this summer, but will soon be on their way south as well, to wintering grounds in Florida, Texas or northern Mexico. For more information about these birds, see “Dance of the Cranes“.