In addition to the tens of thousands of birds which migrate through Bosque del Apache in the center of New Mexico each year, over 100,000 varieties of the human species join them. All of the humans are seeking a peek at the more than 300 species of birds, and consider themselves fairly lucky if they catch a glimpse of the more than 75 different species of mammals and 60 species of amphibians and reptiles. But the Sandhill Crane and Snow Geese attracts most of the fame and glory in this small community.
Home to humans for more than 700 years, its name came from the Spanish visitors in the 16th century meaning “Woods of the Apache”, Bosque del Apache. The natives of the land were the Piro Indians, forced out by the Spanish explorers and colonists who built “El Camino Real,” or “The Royal Road” north from Mexico. The road became a major commerce route between Mexico and Santa Fe for almost 300 years. Remnants of the Camino Real and the Piro occupation are protected within the refuge.
Address: P.O. Box 1246
Socorro, New Mexico 87801
Bird check Lists: Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge National Park and Wildlife Refuge Bird Check List, Hanksville’s Bird List for the Bosque del Apache, Friends of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge Bird List
Hours: The Visitor’s Center is open Monday – Friday 7:30 am to 4:00 pm and weekends from 8:00 am to 4:30 pm year round. The refuge tour route is open from one hour before sunrise to one hour after sunset every day of the year.
Getting There: Not far south from the largest town in the area, Socorro, on I-25. From the north, take I-25 south to San Antonio exit 139, then route 380 east.5 mile, then State Highway 1 south 8 miles to refuge. From the south, take I-25 north to San Marcial, then north on state highway 1 for 9 miles to refuge.
Best Time: Winter is the best for access, cooler temperatures, bird migration, and mating seasons. Excessive fall and spring rains and occasional storms can bring flooding. Winter can have freezing temperatures and occasional snow. Be prepared.
Famous for: The Annual Festival of the Cranes on the third week of November each year. In the winter, the refuge is popular for sandhill cranes, eagles, and snow geese numbering in the thousands. During spring and fall, visitors can watch migrating warblers, flycatchers and shorebirds.
How to visit: September through March is the best season. Begin with a stop at the Visitor’s Center for maps and information on what has been found in the area recently and where. There is a bird count kept on the board behind the main desk. With a vehicle, the 15-mile auto tour loop allows wildlife viewing and photography. Working from within the vehicle allows close access as the wildlife is accustomed to vehicles and it acts as a blind. Vehicles must remain on established roads open to the public and out of designated wilderness areas. Hiking permitted in designated areas. Bring and use mosquito repellant and sun lotion.
Habitat: The refuge consists of marsh, grasslands, flood plains, and desert uplands of the Rio Grande Valley among the 57,000 acres of wetlands providing an excellent habitat for sandhill cranes, snow geese, ducks, and more than 300 other bird species. The refuge is divided into three wilderness areas: Chupadera, Indian Well, and Little San Pascual.
Wildlife: While the spring and fall are popular for viewing birds, the summer provides excellent viewing of nesting songbirds, waders, shorebirds, and waterfowl. Other wildlife residents include pheasant, turkey, northern harriers, snipe, coot, quail, and roadrunner, as well as coyote, mule deer, rabbits, beaver, raccoon, skunk, porcupine, and muskrat. Pronghorn and the occasional black bear can be found in the desert areas of the refuge.
Equipment: Long lenses are highly recommended to get decent images of the birds. A moderate to wide angle is nice for scenic views of the groups of birds. Autofocus works best with birds in flight. Best photography time is early morning and late afternoon when the light is low so a tripod is critical. Bring binoculars and/or spotting scopes for bird spotting.
The ancient residents weren’t the only ones forced out. Sandhill cranes suffered greatly from habitat reduction and hunting. When the refuge was established in 1941, there were only 17 sandhills which used the refuge. As of 1999, they number as high as 17,000, revitalized by aggressive feeding programs and habitat protection. The protection of the sandhill cranes, snow geese, and other wildlife is now a community affair. Practicing eco-tourism, the community hosts the Annual Crane Festival on the third week in November, attracting thousands to the area to eat, drink, be merry, and watch the birds. The refuge staff works with local farmers to grow crops for the wintering waterfowl and cranes. They plant alfalfa and corn, then harvest the alfalfa and leave the corn for wildlife. The refuge staff grows corn, winter wheat, clover, and native plants to create a more stable food source for the visiting birds.
Located at the north edge of the Chihuahuan desert about 20 miles south of Socorro, New Mexico, the refuge straddles the Rio Grande and its flood plain. Almost 13,000 acres represent the active flood areas. While only receiving about 7 inches of annual rain fall, rain from other areas along the Rio Grande flood the refuge. Nine thousand acres represent flood control areas and land created by diverting the water to creative extensive wetlands, farm lands, and riparian forests. The rest of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge consists of arid foothills and mesas rising up from 4,500 to 6,272 feet to the Chupadera Mountains on the west and the San Pascual Mountains on the east.
For the nature photographer, Bosque del Apache is a prime location to get close access to the birds and wildlife. Hundreds of cars drive along the 15 mile auto tour loop and through the Season Tour Road, so the wildlife is accustomed to people and vehicles. The turkeys will come right up to the vehicle with little fear. Occasionally birds will roost on vehicles left standing too long in one place. The roads open up one hour before sunrise and stay open until about one hour past sunset, providing great access to the prime feeding and activity times for the birds early in the morning and late in the afternoon. At sunset, almost as if on cue, the snow geese will rise up out of the north farm fields and fly to safety for the night on the southern waterways. The event is a symphony for the eyes and ears as they squawk and honk their way into the golden colors of the setting sun.
For the photographer you have two great birds in flight opportunities to take advantage of. Be at the farm fields for the scenes of the geese and cranes taking off, or be at the ponds for their arrival. Take advantage of both over several days. Working early in the morning and in the afternoon, you will find coyotes exploring the area and generally fearless around the vehicles, allowing for great photo opportunities from the car window. Use a bean bag or window support to stabilize the camera for the slow shutter speeds which come with the low light. Turkeys and roadrunners wander the auto roads, easy targets for the camera. Look up into the trees, especially the bare snags, for hawks and osprey. Get out of your car and sit or stand quietly with your camera on a tripod and wait for the birds and occasional wildlife to just come check you out.
Make your first stop the Visitor’s Center. The staff is exceptionally helpful and passionate about the area. They keep excellent records of the counts and lists of what creatures have been spotted where. Watch the interesting video and check out the great displays they have on the refuge. This will give you the information you need to maximize your photographic opportunities during your visit. And make sure you stop by the “blind” in the Visitor’s Center. A small puddle attracts all kinds of birds and animals all day long. They fly in and grab a sip and fly out, or hang out enjoying the coolness. A microphone brings the sounds of the birds into the Visitor’s Center, adding to the enchanting view.