Bird lovers flock to Bosque del Apache for the Festival of the Cranes

Photographers train their lenses on Sandhill cranes as they take flight.

By Gavin Moughan

Beeps and honks fill the air as curious bystanders ready their cameras and furiously click click away to capture the commotion. This isn’t Albuquerque at rush hour, it’s Bosque del Apache during the festival of Cranes. 

Nature lovers and their cameras converge on this wildlife refuge south of Socorro Dec. 1-3 to see and photograph migrating Sandhill Cranes and other spectacular animals. The refuge offers nearly 60,000 acres of ponds, marshes and grassland in the valley between the Chupadera and San Pascual Mountains.  

First time attendee Declan O’Reilly says he hadn’t imagined how great his visit would be. “The Birds are obviously awesome, but the scenery has to be what makes it so amazing.” 

Although the birds visit Bosque del Apache for most of the winter, the festival brings a three-day weekend of photography workshops, tours and much more. Some of the most popular cost money and many are booked far in advance, but there will also be many free events.

Go for the free agriculture workshop, the keynote presentation on wetland preservation to see high school and college students from Socorro performing A Christmas Carol. 

Or pack up your camera gear to take advantage of the truly awe-inspiring sight of tens of thousands of migrating Sandhill cranes, snow geese, and 20 different kinds of ducks flapping around with resident bald eagles and hawks.  

“You show up with an idea, I want this shot this shot and this shot, and you end up not getting any of those or just one of those, but you get something else that you never even thought of,” said Russ Pickering who traveled from Loveland, Colorado to see the cranes in November. 

The big draw during the winter is the sight of the Sandhill cranes taking flight at dawn.One of the largest birds native to North America, the cranes can weigh up to 12 lbs. and have a wing span of about 6.5 feet. As they fly overhead you can hear the sound of their long gray-feathered wings cutting through the air. 

And the honking. The cranes are known for their distinctive, difficult to describe calls, which sound like something in between an angry goose and a movie theater pterodactyl. (Watch the video to hear the calls.)

The Cranes travel in flocks of thousands, following the path of the Rio Grande through New Mexico and stopping in Bosque del Apche on their way south from Canada. Some stick around New Mexico all winter while others travel south into Mexico or south Florida.

But the cranes aren’t the only draw and winter isn’t the only time to observe Bosque del Apache’s flora and fauna. More than half of the preserve is designated wilderness, home to shyer species such as mountain lions, bears, javelinas, coyotes, hummingbirds and quail.

Some visitors come without cameras just to soak it all in.

“It’s not just about taking a cool picture, it’s about just being and observing, says visitor Russ Pickering, who turned his eyes away from the cranes and spotted a mountain lion and bear. 

His wife, Cheryl Pickering watched as a bald eagle startled a group of cranes and geese, sending them all into the air. She caught some perfects pictures of it. 

Photographers flock to the refuge all year long and several post regularly to the Critters of New Mexico group on Facebook. 

But the festival is the biggest time of year at Bosque del Apache, drawing visitors from all over the country and a far away as Europe and Asia, Park Ranger John Saluke says. Many come specifically for the educational workshops on photography and animal life. 

“You learn a lot about the habitat,” says Cheryl Courtney from Loveland Colorado. “To me that’s the fun of it. “
Information about the festival is at friendsofbosquedelapache.org. The cranes will be here until around Valentine’s Day, when they head back north for breeding season.