Refuge Hosts More Than Sandhill Cranes

Nov 21, 2013

In Socorro County this week, the Festival of the Cranes draws thousands of tourists. Sandhill cranes and snow geese draw the big crowds, but the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge hosts more than just migrating birds.

Six sandhill cranes swirl above us, deciding whether or not they’re going to land. We’re standing at a pullout along Highway 1, south of San Antonio, New Mexico.

“This is great. These are the first ones I’ve seen this year. It’s always so exciting. The first time you hear them, you’re like, ‘They’re back!’” says Leigh Ann Vradenburg, director of the nonprofit Friends of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. “For this area, you know, to hear the cranes, to see the cottonwoods, to smell the green chile roasting: that’s when fall hits in Socorro County.”

It’s not just their prehistoric-sounding call that makes the cranes unique. They’re giant and gray, with a red mask. When they come in for a landing, they have this way of hanging their legs out behind them. These birds come down from the northern Rockies, migrating through Colorado’s San Luis Valley, arriving in New Mexico in October. This year, they started arriving during the federal government shutdown.

Refuge managers spend all year cultivating fields and working wetlands. “There’s lots that has to happen this time of year in terms of heavy equipment on the ground, to get it all set,” says  Vradenburg. “We say ‘We’re setting the table for the birds.’”

If the table isn’t set, birds can bypass the refuge, head toward wetlands in Mexico. Or they can settle onto nearby fields. They like corn. And red chile.

The shutdown did end. And people got back to work on the refuge. At the end of October, I drive with manager Kevin Cobble on the back roads. It’s a huge place—stretching from the Chupadera Mountains east, across Interstate 25 and the Rio Grande, to Little San Pasqual Mountain. We pass corn fields, fields of native grasses, and areas being flooded to make habitat for thousands and thousands of ducks, geese, and cranes.

Snow geese and sandhill cranes are the stars. They’ll be here until about Valentine’s Day. But there are also songbirds, raptors, bobcats, mountain lions, and coyotes.

“We do have elk here. We have a big population of mule deer that you’ll see a lot of times. Those are javelina right there,” says Cobble, pointing out toward a corn field. “We didn’t used to have those here twenty years ago and we think it’s related to climate change. As the winters have gotten milder, the javelina have been moving north. And now, they’re probably the most abundant large animal we have on the refuge, because we see them all the time. There’s a herd of looks like probably 20 of them right there.”

Within the past twenty years, elk have moved in, too. We pass a buckled wooden fence.

“During the mating season rut, [they] come in and here and just rub their antlers on the fence,” he says. “So they pretty much destroyed that fence there, just trying to let everyone know they’re the biggest bull in the neighborhood.”

All these species are interconnected. And they all rely upon water. But when it comes to the plumbing of the Middle Rio Grande, Bosque del Apache is last in line for water. After cities and farmers upstream take their share, there’s little left for the refuge.

“This year was a kind of killer for us,” says Cobble. “We only did 20 percent of what we would normally do because the water was just not available.”

We head out to what’s called the flight deck.  They started filling this wetland toward the end of October.  

“We’re looking at probably a hundred sandhill cranes, and probably a couple hundred snow geese, just out in the field feeding,” he says.

Knowing climate change will make things even harder, for now, Cobble’s just glad they made it to fall.