Every morning I drive from my home in Albuquerque’s semi-rural South Valley to my kid’s day care and my office Downtown. To avoid traffic I take a slow, secondary route along the Rio Grande, through an odd mix of railroad yards, heavy industrial plants and farm fields, where alfalfa and animal feed grasses are grown. All through the spring, summer and fall, these fields are green and lush from a system of acequias or irrigations ditches. The green contrasts with the mesa slopes on the horizon, rising up from the river valley to the east and west, which are bare brown desert and black volcanic rock.

Between and behind the fields and factories, along the banks of the river itself, are forests of deciduous Cottonwood and Russian Olive trees. The river-side forest is known as “bosque” (locally pronounced “BOSS-kee”) which, from the Spanish for woodlands, in the desert Southwest has taken on the specific meaning of a deciduous Cottonwood forest and meadows along a river valley (as opposed to sierra: mountain forests of mostly conifer trees).

In November, the Cottonwood leaves turn from yellow to brown, and the ditches are shut down and the last crop of hay is cut. Then from November to January, an observant person will spot flocks of gray or white birds, feeding in the fields. The larger, gray birds are Sandhill Cranes. (In past years you might be so lucky as to see the extremely rare, white Whooping Crane, but despite attempts to introduce a flock in this area, no one has seen one for a few years). In addition, one can see white Light Geese, darker Canada Geese, and lots of ducks. These birds are all migratory and making their way down from their breeding grounds in Canada down to their wintering area here in New Mexico.

While the birds stop briefly in Albuquerque, most of them are headed for a wetland area farther south. So when I see the birds in the fields this time of year, I think about going down to the wildlife refuge where they congregate, about half-way to Las Cruces, near Socorro, New Mexico, at place called Bosque del Apache.

Bosque del Apache: History

From around 1300 C.E., between the collapse of the Chaco Canyon system of ancient pueblos, and the Spanish occupation of the 1600’s, Pueblo Indians known as the “Piro” settled in this area and built their characteristic stone and adobe villages. They farmed, raised turkeys, gathered wild fruit, and hunted wildlife. When the Spanish came, however, they brought new diseases, horses and muskets. The horses were used by the Pueblo’s ancient enemies, the nomadic Apaches, to repeatedly raid and run from the more civilized folk of the Rio Grande Valley. European diseases and relentless Apache raids forced the Piro to abandon their pueblos in the1600s. During the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the last few remaining Piro fled to El Paso with the Spanish, and did not return.

After the Revolt, the Spanish established El Camino Real, the “Royal Road” from Santa Fe down through El Paso and on to the province of Monterrey in old Mexico. Woods along the highway in this areas were known to the Spanish as a favorite Apache camping/ambush location, hence the name: Bosque del Apache. Remnants of Piro ruins, rock art, and traces of El Camino Real are protected now within the borders of the Bosque del Apache Wilderness.

The birds, of course, have been using this route much longer than mankind: since the retreat of the glaciers in the last ice age. Ducks, geese and crane fly as far north as they can, to breed in places where they will be relatively free of pesky predators.

Today, Bosque del Apache is an oasis of life in the technological playground of the United States’s military/industrial complex. Nearby Socorro is the home of New Mexico Tech. Weapons systems are still tested in the White Sands Missile Range, which contains the Trinity Site where the first atomic bomb was detonated, and in the mountains to the west, a cluster of white radio telescopes, called the VLA (the “Very Large Array”), forms a critical piece of a planet-wide radio detection device called the VLB (the “Very Large Baseline” telescope).

Bosque del Apache: the Wildlife Refuge

The Rio Grande used to be a wild and unpredictable river with many shifting channels, leaving ponds, marshes and meadows scattered in a lush forest across a wide valley. When the snows of the mountains of Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado melted, they created massive spring floods. By the 1800’s however, most of the forests had been felled and the wetlands drained and plowed. While New Mexico in general was very sparsely inhabited, nearly all the habitation has been concentrated in a narrow strip of fertile land, only a few miles wide, along the Rio Grande. This strip has been cleared, plowed, and irrigated extensively for at least a millenium, though the river was not completely tamed until the mid-20th Century.

In the 1930’s, several federal work projects were begun, which took decades to complete but now totally dominate and control the river from its headlands in Colorado all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. (In fact, no surface water makes it from the mountains to the ocean: the river dries up south of El Paso.) Reservoirs were erected for flood control, creating massive lakes like Elephant Butte, and diversion dams were installed, to redirect the river into extensive irrigation systems. These actions destroyed whatever habitat for migratory birds remained, and very little did remain after centuries of agricultural use of the river valley. Habitat loss, along with hunting, had reduced the sandhill crane population to a barely viable seventeen (17) individuals who migrated along this route.

In 1939, the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge was created, to set aside a refuge and breeding and feeding ground for migratory birds. Given the man-made transformation of the entire ecosystem, creating the refuge was not simply a matter of setting aside some swamps for birds. Ponds and wetlands were artificially engineered with an extensive system of dikes and ditches. Creating the Bosque del Apache was an enormous, Depression-era work project, and like other water projects in the Southwest during that era (think Hoover Dam) was an amazing feat of labor-intensive civil engineering which probably could not be duplicated today simply because it would cost more than we would be willing to spend on parks or wildlife.

Today there are probably 17,000 sandhill cranes, and tens of thousands of ducks and geese, along with a variety of raptors including the national symbol: the American Bald Eagle.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge now consists of 57,191 acres of protected land, both east and west of Interstate 25 (the main north-south highway between Denver and Las Cruces, which forms part --indubitably the best-maintained part-- of the Pan-American Highway, a road which runs more or less continuously the entire length of the Americas from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego). Most of this land is up in the arid mesas and foothills, rising up to the mountains to the east and west, between which flows the Rio Grande. About 7,000 acres, however, is down in the flood plain of the river itself. In 1975, the United States Congress designated a portion of the Refuge, around 30,000 acres, as a “wilderness area”, which among other things means no motor vehicles are allowed.

Fortunately for tourists, the prime bird-watching areas down in the flood plain are not designated wilderness, and you can drive into them. In fact, the birds are so accustomed to motor vehicles that you can use your car as a “duck blind”: just stay in your vehicle if you want a really closeup view. You can, and probably should, get out of your vehicle, however. There are several very nice “blinds” or viewing stands located around the main ponds where most of the birds flock in winter, and several very nice hiking trails.

Just as the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge had to be artificially constructed to replace lost habitat, it needs to be artificially maintained. Recently, entire fields of non-native “salt cedar” (tamarisk) trees have been removed. They were originally imported from Asia because they are attractive and fast-growing and thus good for erosion control, but the species has proved to be extremely invasive and difficult to control and consumes far too much water. Since salt cedar needs to literally be eradicated --plucked up by the root-- to get rid of it, this was quite a task and made for quite a spectacle of destruction.

The land is used for alfalfa production during the summer. On some fields, a corn (maize) crop is planted for the birds in the fall. The corn is then “bumped” (the stalks are broken, but left partly standing) so that the cranes can eat the corn, but the geese cannot. Corn fields in other parks in New Mexico, outside the Refuge, are mowed down to encourage the geese to feed there. (There are so many geese that they are beginning to overcrowd both the Refuge in winter and their Arctic Circle breeding grounds during the summer. The damage to fragile Arctic ecology has reached a crisis point, and limited hunting has been authorized for January 2003.) Other fields are flooded to create marshy conditions, to support a variety of plant life.

When to Visit

The best time of year to see birds is from November to mid-February, and the best time of day is around sunrise or sunset. The flocks of birds spread out during the day to forage for food, but collect at night to sleep floating on the ponds at the center of the refuge. (The birds sleep out on the water to foil predators like bobcats and coyotes.) To see the birds mass in flocks of tens of thousands, you have to be there right after the sun comes up or right before it goes down. Since the park is about an hour’s drive south of Albuquerque, I must admit I have never got up an hour before sunrise to see the Bosque del Apache at dawn, but I would imagine that it is very nice then, if you don’t want to share the experience with a lot of other yahoos.

And rest assured, at sunset between November and February, there will be a lot of other people there. Indeed, the special blinds located at strategic place near the ponds, all the prime viewing spaces will be jammed with photographers with big cameras on tripods equipped with huge telephoto lenses. You can hardly blame them. Oh sure, there are many places in the world where you can see lots of birds milling about. Flamingoes and budgies may be more colorful. But in New Mexico, the clear, dry air in winter is crystal sharp, the sky lights up in psychedelic colors at dawn and dusk, and snow capped mountains frame the distant horizon. Cranes look kind of awkward and silly on the ground, but when they open up those enormous wings and soar, they have a nobility which puts mere ducks to shame. The tens of thousands of ducks quacking and geese honking make a most amazing symphony.