It’s a cold, crisp predawn, with the temperature in the 20s in the central Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico. Then the silence cracks, with a single quack from the rustling snow geese, then another and another. Soon, a cacophonous chorus of snow geese and sandhill cranes fills the morning air — the signal the fly-out is about to begin.
One or two, then a dozen snow geese leave their overnight resting place in a marsh at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, followed by hundreds, then thousands. Snow geese rise off the water, blocking the glow of the wakening sun on the horizon, saturating the air with the sound of wings. It gives you goose bumps — pun intended.
Within a few minutes, the thousands of snow geese are followed by the sandhill cranes and other birds taking winter refuge at the Bosque. The destination: selected feeding grounds of corn and grains, which have been specially cultivated for them by the staff at the national wildlife refuge and by area farmers.
The refuge is one of the premier wintering spots for an array of birds. On a recent November weekend, 20,300 snow geese, 28,841 ducks, 41,000 sandhill cranes and one bald eagle, all shared the 57,191-acre refuge located near San Antonio, N.M., according to a bird count provided by refuge volunteers.
The refuge is about 20 miles south of Socorro on the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, sitting astride the Rio Grande river valley.
The birds spend most of their time on 12,900 acres of moist bottomlands, including 3,800 acres in the Rio Grande flood plain. On the other 9,100 acres, diverted water has created extensive wetlands, farmlands and riparian forests.
The rest of the refuge includes arid foothills, boarded by the Chupadea Mountains on the west and the San Pascual Mountains on the east. These ranges create a great backdrop for photographs.
Photographers and birders alike flock to the refuge, along with visitors who just want to see so many birds in one spot and marvel at the mass flights of dawn and dusk.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the refuge and provides a 15-mile auto tour loop and numerous trails, where visitors enjoy the birds, elk, prairie dogs, bobcats, javelinas, coyotes, deer and other animals as well.
But in the early winter, the snow geese and the sandhill cranes dominate the show. For the most part, they tolerate human intrusions, just don’t try to get too close or move too fast.
To view the morning fly-out, refuge volunteers recommend getting to the flight deck area about an hour before sunrise. The flight deck area is located just north of the main entrance to the refuge on the farm tour loop road. On a typical weekend morning, 25 to 50 people fill the flight deck waiting for the fly-out. Other vantage points lie along the main loop and off New Mexico Highway 1 just outside the refuge.
The graded, 7.5-mile-long farm loop brings visitors up close to many birds, especially cranes and geese. A car can serve as a blind when touring the refuge, but many people do get out of their vehicles. Visitors must stay on designated roads. In the spring and summer, both loop roads provide opportunities to see waterfowl.
Visitors can take leashed dogs on the many numerous trails, but most leave pets at home for the early morning fly-out. The fly-in begins an hour or so before sunset, but the birds don’t always perform on schedule, a wildlife volunteer said.
Entrance fees are $3 per day, with monthly and yearly passes available along with maps and guided tours at the visitors’ center and a gift shop, open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekends.
Reaching the refuge from Payson involves a lovely, scenic, five-hour drive through eastern Arizona and western New Mexico, a journey worth the trip even without the feathered payoff at the end.
Five hours — Payson to the refuge:
Take Highway 260 out of Payson through Springerville. Take 60 from Springerville/Eagar to Socorro.
Take Interstate 25 south to San Antonio
Take Highway 1 south to the refuge.
Accommodations and food
Socorro has plenty of motels and some campgrounds. An RV park in San Antonio caters to refuge visitors. Pie Town on Highway 60 has great food, at two restaurants including the original Daily Pie Café, with a selection of 12 to 20 pies. New Mexico magazine featured the café, which has visitors from around the world.