Bosque del Apache is a unique national wildlife refuge located near San Antonio, New Mexico, about 2 hours south of Albuquerque. We traveled there in January 2015 to photograph the sandhill cranes and snow geese that winter there.
We arrived at Bosque del Apache amidst rain and snow. Despite the weather it did not prevent wildlife enthusiasts from visiting the refuge to watch the thousands of birds.
With feathers wet, this red-tailed hawk sat quietly through an early morning snow shower.
Man-made wetlands created by diverting water from the nearby Rio Grande provide an attractive habitat for the birds who winter here. Even though we didn't see the sun our first two days visiting The Bosque, we still found beauty in the scenery
Here's another red-tailed hawk shown in black and white perched on a leafless tree enduring the 28-degree temperature.
The unusual markings on this horse caught my attention as we were driving into The Bosque.
Here's one of the primary reasons we came to The Bosque. Sandhill cranes winter here in great numbers. Some winters more than 15,000 sandhill cranes are here, but this winter only about 5,000 were present.
Sandhill cranes journey from northern Canada to winter in The Bosque because the National Wildlife Refuge has created the wetland sanctuary for them and plants hundreds of acres of corn to feed them.
The Refuge even cuts the corn crop to make it easy for the cranes to feed. A mature crane will eat about 3/4 lb. of grain a day. The reason fewer cranes were present this winter is that the yield on the planted corn was lower than usual.
Watch the video above by clicking the center arrow to observe sandhill cranes briefly performing their mating dance.
Here's the second reason we traveled to The Bosque. These are thousands of snow geese flying into this pond before dawn from various locations within the Refuge. Each morning this pond was a staging or gathering place before they took flight to feed for the day.
Watch Julie's short video of snow geese flying into the pond.
We had arrived an hour before dawn to be sure not to miss the famed flight of the geese. Just before the sun broke the horizon, the geese began flapping their wings as if they were warming them up to prepare for flight. Their "honking" grew in volume, and in a blink of the eye, the entire flock, thousands of snow geese, lifted off en masse from the "gathering pond."
Now watch Julie's video of these snow geese taking flight.
After leaving the gathering pond the snow geese flew to another pond about 5 miles away where they gathered for about 45 minutes. Shown here in the early morning light a snow goose picks her landing spot with precision.
The Bosque was home to an estimated 15,000 snow geese this winter.
About 15% of snow geese are not white, but have dark blue feathers and are called Blue geese.
Here you see the snow geese gathered at the second pond with a few birds beginning to leave for the day.
And once again in a matter of a few seconds the entire flock took flight.
Look out! The snow geese are coming right at us. How did they manage to miss us? How do they manage not to crash into each other? How did we manage to avoid missing their droppings?
Snow geese weigh about 7 lbs. and have a wingspan of about 5 feet. They leave The Bosque in February and March to return to their breeding grounds in the tundra above the Arctic Circle.
Snow geese fly over 3,000 miles in their migration to and from the Arctic at very high altitudes. They breed from May to August in the tundra.
During the day at The Bosque the snow geese fly from field to field in search of food.
Lookouts keep an eye out for eagles, foxes, and coyotes and will call out to warn the flock.
We drove the roads of the Bosque looking for other wildlife. Here's a Gambel's Quail.
Red-tailed hawks were plentiful in The Bosque.
A bird of prey, the red-tailed hawk usually feeds on small mammals.
A red-tailed hawk feeds on a dead snow goose. The hawk did not kill the goose, but the goose died of an unknown cause and the hawk swooped in for an easy meal. The crows were wanting to share the meal, but the hawk would have none of that.
While enjoying the snow geese and other wildlife, we were especially interested in seeing more of the sandhill cranes. Here is a beautiful bird lifting off from the "gathering" pond.
It looked like suspended animation as pair after pair of sandhill cranes droped down to roost for the evening in the gathering pond.
The cranes roost in the shallow waters of the pond to protect themselves from predators. This photo shows a case of mistaken identity. The lonely snow goose thought it was a sandhill crane.
After the snow geese departed, the cranes began leaving the pond in small groups of 3 to 10 birds.
We enjoyed watching these large birds gracefully leave their roost.
Sandhill cranes and snow geese commonly roost together and feed together.
Sandhill cranes have wingspans of 6-7 feet and weigh about 10-12 lbs. This bird forgot to clean her feet before lift off.
Cranes are social birds, usually living in pairs and having one brood per year.
Calm returns to the ponds after the sandhill cranes and snow geese fly away for the day, leaving this Northern Shoveler to swim and feed in peace.
Beep! Beep! I was lucky to catch this road-runner streaking across the road before he slipped into the bushes.
A white-crowned sparrow on a frosty morning.
A symbol of America pride, the bald eagle.
We were not alone in photographing the spectacle of sandhill cranes and snow geese filling the airways of Bosque del Apache.
It was cold in the early mornings when the birds were most active. Here's Julie in her Antarctica clothes.
We left The Bosque happy that we had this opportunity to witness one of nature's most impressive spectacles.