Sandhill cranes often take off from the wetlands in small groups.

THE MORNING TEMPERATURES at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, near Socorro, can drop below freezing in the winter, when avid bird-watchers brave the chill to catch the show. They come to this 57,331-acre refuge to witness a massive flight of sandhill and whooping cranes, snow geese, and a variety of ducks that migrate through the area and overwinter here, taking shelter overnight in the Río Grande Bosque. 

As the sun begins to rise, so do the birds, flapping off from their watery bedrooms and heading to nearby agricultural fields to fuel up before returning to northern breeding grounds, around February.

For 32 years, the Festival of the Cranes has celebrated this ritual the week before Thanksgiving with photography workshops, lectures, and activities. While the in-person festival is canceled this year due to Covid-19 restrictions, the birds will still be there. (A virtual Crane Fiesta 2020, scheduled for November 19-21, includes a variety of photography and birding webinars.)

Snow Goose flyingA snow goose comes in for a landing.

PARK RANGER AMANDA WALKER reflects on the magic of Bosque del Apache’s winter days.

Mornings in November here typically start very cold. Occasionally the wetlands have a thin layer of ice over them. People arrive early, at dawn, waiting for birds like sandhill cranes and snow geese to leave the wetlands and move to the agricultural fields. It can be quite a spectacle.

The typical behavior is for geese to all take off at once and head to those fields. The cranes take off in smaller groups of three or four flying right over your head. It’s not all at one time; birds are on their own schedule. You need to be patient and wait for that activity.

As the day progresses, the sun comes up, and the ice melts, you remove the layers you came in and you continue to watch the birds. Sandhill cranes are known for dancing and sparring with one another. Watching those behaviors can be really enchanting.

There’s also the opportunity to observe other wildlife that is typical year-round at Bosque del Apache, like javelina or maybe a bobcat. It brings a lot of people here to experience wildlife.

Bird-watching is a live scavenger hunt. You get to search for all these different species, different colors and shapes and sizes. You can observe them feeding their young or catching insects or digging in the ground with their beaks or their feet or diving in the water. It’s sort of endless. It’s easy to become lost in that world. —As told to Maria Manuela

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, 1001 NM 1, San Antonio, 575-835-1828

Three sandhill cranes in wetlandsSandhill cranes at the wetlands.

Story Sidebar

Crane Teasers
Three things to know about sandhill cranes.

  1. They come to Bosque del Apache from Siberia and Alaska. “We are sort of connected to this place beyond our world scope with these birds that come from very far away,” says ranger Amanda Walker. 

  2. They can live for 30 or 40 years. “There is a history component to cranes,” says Walker. “Maybe this crane has been coming here for 40 years—and maybe you have been coming here for 40 years. That’s pretty cool.” 

  3. They are one of the largest birds in North America. “They are four to five feet tall full-grown, when they are all stretched out,” says Walker. That’s most observable when the cranes take flight. Otherwise, she says, “they are often a little hunched over.”


Wingin' It
While sandhill cranes go where they can find food during their layover at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, park ranger Amanda Walker suggests the Wetland Roost along NM 1, especially the North Loop Pond and its Flight Deck, a wooden pier that juts into it.