I saw them first many Novembers ago and heard their triumphant trumpet calls, a hundred or more sandhill cranes riding south on a thermal above the Rio Grande Valley, and that day their effortless flight and their brassy music got into my soul.
The cranes and I have known each other for many years now. Yet the years of our relationship isn't even a drop in the bucket for this species, one of the most ancient on earth. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recovered a fossil crane skeleton in Nebraska that dates to the Miocene Epoch. These amazing, angular creatures have been flying across North American skies for more than ten million years.
Rocky Mountain cranes fly south from Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho, through Colorado's great San Luis Valley and on into New Mexico. Once they find the Great River -- the Rio Grande -- as it flows south across the San Luis Valley, they are home free. High above the Rio Grande Gorge they track past Taos, then Espanola, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, following the river onward to winter feeding grounds in southern New Mexico or on into Mexico.
Many -- thousands in fact -- stop at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. A rich farmland of 12,000 acres south of Socorro, it is surrounded by 45,000 additional acres of Chihuahuan desert on arid foothills and mesas that straddle the river. When it was designated as a refuge, wildlife biologists counted only 17 pairs of cranes in the area. Now, about 75 years later, thousands of the cranes take advantage of the largess of the U.S. government. And so do thousands of bird watchers.
We first drove south from Albuquerque to see the birds on a Christmas holiday in 1988 or 1989. It became a tradition for our small family, which we gladly shared with others as they visited. No matter how cold, we knew the birds would be there in December and January and we loved the music of their calls, the flurry of their fly-outs and fly-ins, and the challenge of discovering many other species also profiting from farm fields cultivated, watered, and managed just for the birds.
It was a great day trip for us, often capped by a generous meal at the historic Luna Mansion, in Los Lunas. Having a steak or another mansion specialty in the warmth of the dining room, with its tall windows and seasonal decorations provided the opportunity to mull over the day's events yet another time. These visits were educational events for Anna and Andrew, watching the behaviors of the birds and sometimes their predators. Andrew came to know that if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it could still be a grebe. I can't help but think that our visits to "the Bosque" fueled Anna's interest, leading to her decision to earn a college degree in environmental science, as well.
Now the kids are out on their own and I live farther from the refuge. Still I manage to get there several times each winter and even occasionally in the other seasons. Come late November, when the cranes arrive with their cohorts -- including tens of thousands of snow geese -- the bird watching is at its best. I remember those days when our little nuclear family was there together, or perhaps when we were visiting with some of the grandparents or other friends, as well.
Now I tend to travel there to be in the company of other photographers. Family dinners at Luna Mansion have given way to briefer stops at The Owl Café & Bar in tiny San Antonio, New Mexico, for a green chile cheeseburger. Fries, an iced tea or coffee and trade talk about f/stops, shutter speeds, and ISOs complete the fare.
This season, I have seen the familiar ducks and grebes, along with Canada geese, Golden and Bald eagles, the great Sandhill cranes, Snow geese, Red Tails and Swainsons hawks, Great Blue herons, egrets, cormorants, a family of javelina, and herds of mule deer. Of course, there are the ever-hungry coyotes, usually stalking the cranes without success.
The government guardians of the birds keep them at viewing distance, but safely away from the throngs of birdwatchers who patiently cruise the two loops of gravel roads available in the winter months. Getting the best pictures calls for long lenses -- longer than I own -- and creativity. Luck also helps. Given my many years experience, there should be stellar photos of most of these species attached to this essay. Alas not. I turn for explanation again to the wisdom of Charles Kuralt:
I have rarely been so disappointed in my attempts at photography. A closeup of a sandhill crane does not suggest the teeming multitude, and a wide shot of the multitude becomes a blur. I concluded that pictures cannot capture the glory of the Bosque del Apache. You have to be there.
I conclude similarly that my pictures of Bosque del Apache will never be as good as my memories. Today for example, I'm writing on my father's birthday. I often think of dad on my trips to Bosque, recalling that he loved watching the birds there or in his backyard. One of my best gifts to dad was a pair of quality binoculars I purchased in Japan. Now I have them, often used to watch finches and other birds in our New Mexico backyard.
When I travel the Bosque's trails, I can't help but remember family, friends, photo colleagues, who have shared this beautiful chaos, nature's cacophony of sounds, the ongoing miracle of ancient seasonal cycles, re-occurring again and again. You just have to be there.