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

out on the prairie

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.

prairie-flowers at Lake Johanna Esker

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.

prairie vs cropland in central Minnesota

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.

sandhill cranes-

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.

sandhill crane chick

One of the chicks was a little less than half the height of the adults — with no tail yet.

sandhill cranes-

I suppose they thought we might follow them up and over the hill, but as we backed away, they flew back toward the chicks.

Flyaway

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.

sand-hill crane

sand hill cranes

sand hill cranes

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“.