Dear Bird Folks,
Actually, there is no question this week. In an effort to avoid the Cape’s recent rash of snowstorms (thanks for nothing, groundhog), I decided to take a trip to New Mexico and visit one of my favorite birding spots. I first birded the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge twenty-two years ago and remember being overwhelmed by the birdlife, and have always wanted to return. When I mentioned the idea to my wife, I knew in advance what her answer would be. Asking her if she wants to travel is like asking the dog if it wants to go for a walk. She was at the door with her bags packed and her tail wagging before I could complete the sentence.
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge
is located in the center of New Mexico. However, that was not our first stop. We needed to begin our trip in nearby Las Vegas, NV (a mere 600 hundred miles away) because my wife is addicted to Wheel of Fortune slot machines. (She keeps saying that she’s going to seek help, but it was too late for this trip.) After two days and an entire roll of quarters later, we finally left Vegas, hopped into the rental car and started birding. Our first destination was beautiful Zion National Park. If anyone wants to see an assortment of cool birds, Zion is the place to avoid, at least in February. The only birds we saw were two Common Ravens, and I think they were lost. In fairness to Zion, we were only there half a day and spent most of our time staring at the snow-capped mountains. Zion’s snow-capped mountains are way different than the ones on Cape Cod.
Our next stop was Arches National Park and it was an exact repeat of Zion. There was lots of scenic beauty, but no birds, except for those same two ravens. However, on our drive between the two parks we came upon something exciting. As I drove down a back road we passed two huge birds eating a road-killed deer. I slammed on the brakes and spun the car around. (FYI: In case you didn’t know it, nobody in the world, whether he or she be a cop, a taxi driver or a lawyer who has just witnessed an accident, can make a U-turn faster than a birder who has spotted a strange bird.) Five seconds after passing the birds, we were turned around and found ourselves face-to-face with a pair of Golden Eagles. The eagles stood their ground. They weren’t about to give up their deer and we weren’t about to challenge them. Besides, the eagles didn’t have to worry about us stealing their dead deer. I don’t eat meat and my wife had just finished lunch.
After three days of traveling we finally made it to New Mexico and headed straight for the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Only about an hour south of Albuquerque, Bosque del Apache is super easy to find. It’s not like Florida, where all the bird sanctuaries are surrounded by retirement communities, strip malls and traffic. Bosque del Apache is surrounded by absolutely nothing, and maybe even less. Keep that in mind if you go there and happen to be low on gas or you’ll have to listen to “I told so” for the next few hours. Trust me on this one.
Once you arrive at the refuge you’ll see what makes Bosque del Apache so special. The middle of New Mexico is almost entirely made up of sagebrush, tumbleweeds and rusting pickup trucks. But through the center of Bosque del Apache runs the renowned Rio Grande River (who knew it was in New Mexico?) and it is the Rio Grande that creates these critically important wetlands. Bosque del Apache is like an oasis in the middle of a desert, but instead of attracting camels, this place has birds, lots and lots of birds. How many birds? The 57,000-acre sanctuary has a life list of 377 species, some of which can be seen in spectacular numbers. On any given day, from the middle of October until mid-February, you may see over 20,000 Snow and Ross’s Geese, 10,000 noisy Sandhill Cranes and a huge assortment of other waterfowl. Even non-birders will be impressed.
Upon arrival be sure to check in at the beautiful visitor center. On the day we arrived two knowledgeable volunteers greeted us. They answered all of my questions and never once made fun of my Massachusetts accent. (They got extra points for that.) After paying the $5.00 entry fee we started the twelve-mile auto-drive. The first bird we saw was the very speedy Greater Roadrunner. My wife jumped out to try and snap a photo, while I kept an eye out for Wile E. Coyote. (I wanted to make sure that a keg of Acme dynamite wasn’t about to go off.) In the course of the drive we saw thousands of ducks, including pintails, shovelers, coots and several ultra-handsome Cinnamon Teal. But what we didn’t see were the thousands of Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes that I had expected. I returned to the visitor center to ask what happened to all the cranes and to demand my five bucks back. (I figured that even I can intimidate a volunteer.) It seems New Mexico’s mild winter convinced a lot of birds to head north early this year. I missed them by just a week. Stupid global warming. Now I really don’t like it.
Despite missing the cranes this time, Bosque del Apache remains one of my favorite birding spots. I totally recommend it to anyone who is birding the Southwest during the winter. Just remember two things: Arrive before early February. And don’t start off your trip in Vegas or you could end up kissing an entire roll of quarters goodbye. I’m still working nights and weekends trying to make that money back.