Nov 2008: Flight of the Sandhill Cranes @ Bosque Del Apache

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I grew up birding- we had some lakes/ ponds around where we grew up (Nashik, India) which were in the migration corridor for birds from Siberia. So many a cold winter mornings were spent watching the winter visitors ….. That was a long time ago. Last year when my parents were here – I was looking for some birding locations and ran across Bosque Del Apache and I mentioned it to Dad. What I did not realize -May was not a good time – this will proved to be major oversight on my part . While I was rafting the canyon, Guru took them to Bosque and they saw a grand total of 6 birds! ( This place is supposed to be know for tens of thousands of birds!) and I heard about it for the rest of their trip. Needless to say Guru duly reminded me of that often…I did a bit more research and yes indeed – this was a birding paradise from about Nov – Feb. Thanksgiving provided the opportunity for me & Bosque to redeem ourselves with Guru – we were going there for 2 days to watch birds and Guru made it clear that there better be some birds!!!

Fairly confident, we rendezvoused in El Paso and drove out there ( Albuquerque is a better location to come in if you are just birding) and sure there were birds …..close to a 50,000 of them! They were still not even in peak season – 26000 ducks, 16000 snow geese, 7780 sandhill cranes, a few hundred other waterfowl and 4 resident bald eagles! Whew! I was off the hook….

If you have never seen this amount of birds — it is something else! The cacophony of calls if deafening and the place is so full of energy. Action is everywhere …. As the sun dipped low; the sand hill cranes start arriving – 1st in small groups – gracefully descending to the lake and finding their happy spot…as the shadows lengthen ; they start arriving in larger groups – back from a day feeding in the fields – they soar by and circle and meet up with others on the lake surface ( These birds are waders so they seek the shallow bogs for the night) .

Snow geese arrive in flocks of 100’s – honking and you can hear the swish of their wings as they soar by in perfect formation. They circle a while and then descend in a different area and soon the lake surface is covered in a moving blanket of white.

Its been overcast all day and the sun makes a brief stand at the end – warm light floods the lake bed and illuminates the arriving birds – its magical and for a few moments there is quiet.

The flash of light disappears as quickly as it comes and soon the velvet darkness descends. The birds are still calling …

We return early next morning to watch the fabled morning fly -out. This is the mass departure of 1000’s of birds at dawn for feeding. We are positioned for prime viewing on one of the flight decks – we are there about 45 mins before sunrise . As the eastern skies brightens over the San Pascual Mountains, you can see 1000’s of these birds blanketing the lake – many more have come in under the cover of dark. They are very close to the viewing platforms – they are everywhere…. The first indication that that flyout is about to begin is the gradual crescendo of cackling and honking that peaks they begin moving as one – facing into the wind they take one elegant step then another. The energy level builds and it feels like something “big” is impending …

The early light shows 4 bald eagles and 100’s of starlings on a snag in the middle of the lake. They are surveying the lake – it seems they are being ignored by everyone else…. Suddenly something snaps hundreds of wings begin to flap all at once & 1000’s of cranes and geese rise in unison off the pond and take flight. Its a flurry of whites and greys, you can feel the wind draft it creates and soon they are soaring by you – wingtips a few inches from you ….they circle the lake a few times rising and soon they wing north to the feeding grounds. They form V-formations and head out – This is a sight to behold. Something makes another wave of geese rise and soar. We watch in silence — this is something else!!!! I forget to take pictures.

As the eastern skies light up – you can see the lake. There are still 1000’s of birds and these fly out in small groups over the next hour. The starlings have disappeared as have 2 of the eagles. The other 2 roost & watch. They look so incredible in warm morning light.

Another days work in the field for the birds …and we take the 2 drives around the many bogs and canals in the wildlife preserve.

We see the birds feeding – a field full of geese, 100’s of ducks of all kinds, the cranes in the field and even a greater grey heron! If you get a chance to see a fly – out do so; it something else !!!

Enjoy the pictures:

On gear: I did return with a serious case of lens envy. There were 20 or so serious bird photographers that had some BIG lenses (f 2.8 @ 500mm!) . Shooting the flying birds was hard – my camera lenses were not fast enough or big enough for getting tight bird shots. I shot most in action mode ( only mode that was fast enough for all the action in low light. ) and had to sort through ~ 2000+ images ( shot in burst mode so that at least some of the frames were in reasonable focus). I had my 400mm lens (f5.6) and shot hand held for a good majority of the shots. This mode of shooting is very different from what I usually do – it was hard and I had to think on my feet – very little opportunity to plan your shots

Friends of Bosque Del Apache
US Fish & Wildlife Site:
Situated against the backdrop of the Chupadera Mountains in Southwestern New Mexico, Bosque Del Apache is one of the premier places to see and photograph the teeming populations of wild birds of the desert wetlands along the Rio Grande River. Some birds are there for the winter, like the Snow Geese, and others, like the raptors, are there to prey on those birds and other creatures. And still others are part of the year round population.
Desert USA – Bosque Del Apache Feature:

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