On a chilly morning in early November, I crawl out of bed two hours before sunrise, knowing it will take at least an hour to reach my destination. My objective this morning is Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, a 57,331-acre preserve in south-central New Mexico administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The refuge was established in 1939 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Each year, it’s estimated that between 10,000 and 30,000 migrating sandhill cranes come to the refuge and adjacent areas to feed and spend the winter. Geese and other waterfowl also spend the winter here, thanks to an intricate web of gates and channels which move water from the Rio Grande through fields and floodplains and back to the river, simulating the natural cycle that has been disrupted by decades of development and diversion.
As I exit the freeway and drive the five miles to my first stop, the anticipation starts to build, just as the light is beginning to build on the eastern horizon. The parking area near the pond comes into view and it is filled with vehicles. As I get closer, I can make out dozens of human silhouettes with tripods in front of them. Some have cameras mounted, while others support spotting scopes. Many people have cameras or binoculars on straps around their necks. Then, I see why they are there. Thousands of sandhill cranes are gathered in the shallow water around the edges of the pond. I park on the shoulder of the road, since the parking area is filled to capacity. While most of the people are either silent, or speaking in whispers, the birds are raucous and loud. The unmistakable cackling call that is unique to the species is nearly constant. The sense of wonder and awe is apparent on the faces surrounding me.
My heart is pounding with excitement as I grab my camera and find an open spot on the raised bank above the pond. The birds are beginning to fly, in small groups of four, six, eight, yet it’s still too dark for sharp images of birds in flight. Another photographer remarks to me that we need more light. I nod in agreement.
Then, the sun begins to break above the partly cloudy horizon, and suddenly flight photos are possible. As the sunrise continues, more and more birds take to the sky. The groups of cranes taking off from the pond are so frequent I hardly know which way to turn. They are flying to my right, my left, behind me, in front of me, in the distance, and just a few feet away. It’s almost dizzying as I try to decide which way to point the camera. I’m feeling good about my decision to leave the tripod in the car, but regret leaving the gloves. I can barely feel my fingers, but don’t want to take the short walk back to the car for fear I will miss the magical dawn light.
In less than an hour, the spectacle is over and there are only a handful of cranes left at the pond. As I return to the car, still shivering, partly from excitement and partly from cold, I realize the extra memory card I had in my hand before I set out is still on the table of my dinette–55 miles away! A quick pass through the images on my camera, deleting the ones that were too dark and out of focus, frees up some space for a drive around the auto tour route.
Daylight has revealed some of the other species who call this place home. Raptors, herons, ducks and geese are awake and going about their lives amidst the ever-present and ubiquitous sandhill cranes. As I fill what’s left of the space on my camera’s memory card and head back to the place I’m calling home at the moment, there is a sense that I have experienced something very special and truly unforgettable.
Visit the official page of Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge for more information.