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Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

Over the past winter Dave and I began following a few photography blogs looking for tips on using our cameras. In the process, we discovered ranches in the southwest that build blinds for photographers, rather than hunters, to observe wildlife, particularly migrating birds that use the property as a stop over or wintering grounds! That led us to look for wildlife photography opportunities along our route home.

We didn’t choose one of ranches this time, but we spent a few days at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, about 100 miles south of Albuquerque. A major wintering range for Sandhill Cranes and other birds.

looking north west in the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

We’re here a few weeks before the big arrivals, enjoying the peace and tranquility!

Arriving at midday, we don’t expect to see many animals, so we use our first afternoon to get acquainted with the layout of the park and scout likely places for sunrise and sunset landscape photo locations for Dave, and likely places animals might be at dawn and dusk over the next few days.

Although the visitor center is closed, the gift shop is open. We stop in and have a lovely time chatting with the very informative and cheerful manager. It is clear that she has an artistic eye. Her choices for souvenirs are colorful, maybe a little quirky, and more appealing than the offerings we’ve seen in the national park concession stores. Got a little holiday shopping done too!

The Visitor Center is closed due to COVID, but the Gift Shop is open

The manager points us to their desert arboretum as a place to find birds and lizards. The Goldfinches and Eurasian Ring-neck Doves clearly favor hanging out among the variety of cactus and well, bird feeders. Small dust colored lizards scamper through the display plantings. A palm-sized rusty orange and black spider zig-zags over the baked earth. What do tarantulas look like?

Dave examining just how sharp cactus spikes really are
American Goldfinch

The drought and long hot summer have taken a toll on the refuge. Upstream, reservoir water that the refuge relies on has been pumped out and diverted for agriculture and other uses. The winter rains have not yet arrived. The seasonal wetlands are currently wide pans of cracked, dry, mud.

The refuge managers are hoping the winter rains will bring the water the birds need for their wintering grounds. Sandhill Cranes roost in water and feed in moist soil — something they can stick their bills in to get crustaceans and other bits of food. If the rains do not come, they will be forced to use expensive to run pumps to source water from wells. Speaking with a couple of volunteers, we discover that the one pond with water in it in the south end of the park filled just three days ago when water from the Rio Grande happened to be diverted through a canal that also feeds the pond. Lucky timing for us!

The freshly flooded marsh is visited by Great Blue Herons and a Great Egret wading near the vegetation. One can hear the hundreds of Cat-tail Caterpillars munching on the reeds! (Eventually these colorful caterpillars become Henry’s Marsh Moths, a supremely undistinguished looking pale colored moth.)

Great Egret and Great Blue Heron fishing
Great Blue Heron
Cat-tail Caterpillar

Over the next few days, this area turns out to be most prolific for bird sightings for us. One morning we watch a huge raft of American Pelicans resting on the water. 196 pelicans (a volunteer counted) sleep wing to wing as they drift around. As the sun rises and reaches their corner of the pond, the pelicans are restless, stretching their necks and beating their wings. Suddenly, the flock lifts into the air and flies south.

a shoulder-to-shoulder raft of birds
196 sleeping American Pelicans
waking up
getting restless
Dave’s capture of the pelicans leaving
a blizzard of white

Apparently the pelicans use the refuge as an overnight stopping point on their migration route. The refuge does not have enough of the kind of food pelican’s eat so they cannot stay long. A volunteer tells us it is unusual to see that many at one time (lucky us!) but the ones that visit usually move on by 9 am. Right on time.

We encounter several firsts here too. Dave spots an American Coot waterbird in the reeds. I hear a very talkative bird that I cannot see in the reeds, that is later identified as an elusive Marsh Wren. A Belted Kingfisher likes to hunt from the boardwalk railing. I just love watching him launch and dive. Although the turtles are not out sunning themselves, but we do see them pop their noses up every once in awhile.

the sound of a Marsh Wren
Belted Kingfisher with breakfast
turtle with insect passengers

At the very far end of the pond several kinds of duck are paddling around. These are my first Green-winged and Blue-winged Teal ducks. A few Pintails are mixed in. I don’t know what they are until I enlarge the photos and compare the blurry forms with my bird book.

Blue-winged Teal Ducks — believe it or not there are blue feathers on the shoulders of their wings

While admiring the ducks through my long lens, I hear an awful racket overhead. It turns out, it was our one and only Sandhill Crane! They are day migrators — traveling during the day and stopping to rest at night. This one was not stopping at Bosque del Apache, it has reservations further south. Oh well.

our one and only Sandhill Crane, seen with 500mm lens and zoom cropped in Photoshop! 😀

In another part of the park, we discover a small bit of water collected in a low spot of a field. At first just a tall, thin, dark shape catches my eye. It turns out to be a White-faced Ibis. Nearby, in the branches of a fallen tree, I see some birds. They look like ducks! It turns out, we are seeing our first Wood Ducks, with American Wigeons, Mallards, and Pintails paddling around underneath. I had no idea ducks would fly up into trees until I saw one do it!

young, non-breeding White-faced Ibis
Wood Ducks in a tree, snoozing Mallard below
I think these are female Northern Pintail ducks

Along the ring roads of the refuge are viewing platforms offering visitors a raised view across the fields where thousands of waterfowl, marsh waders, and shorebirds will congregate. For now, we mainly see the grasses that will eventually feed them.

But the roads themselves turnout to be our second best animal viewing area. A bull elk pursues a female with calf across the road in front of the truck. On a side service road we spot a mule deer with several young. A dozen Wild Turkeys forage in tall dry grass along one loop. Red-winged Blackbirds riot in the branches of two small bushes roadside. Dave spots two Greater Roadrunners at the road’s edge. Walking back to the truck I surprise a Collared Peccary (not a pig). It runs across the road to another Peccary and they both disappear, the brush swallowing them quickly.

Wild Turkeys
Red-winged Blackbirds
one of two Greater Roadrunners we saw — and No, no Wile E Coyote
a shy Collared Peccary by the side of the road

The skies over Bosque del Apache give Dave some wonderful sunrise landscapes to capture with his camera. He takes advantage of our scouting trip to have a couple locations selected before we even get in the truck to chase the morning’s sun.

At the end of our quiet visit, we have seen 31 different bird species, ten for the first time. I think we will look for more photography opportunities like this in the future.

A few last photos …

very large spider
morning meadow
morning comes to the marsh

To see more of Dave’s photos from our visit, please click the link for our SmugMug Photo Album at: https://underwayshiftcolors.smugmug.com/Photos-By-Location/Bosque-del-Apache/

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