Article and photos by new Friends member, Mel Coulson from Smithers, British Columbia.
I first heard about Bosque del Apache in 2005 from current Friends Board President, Jonathan Manley’s dad, Peter, when we both attended a choral festival in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Peter had recently visited Bosque with Jon and was so fired up and enthusiastic about the place that I resolved that I had to go see it for myself. Little did I know that it would take eighteen years to realize that ambition! The chance came with an invitation from Jon to attend the 2023 Crane Festival.
I live in northern British Columbia, 2,200 miles north of Socorro, so to justify such a long journey I really needed to extend my visit beyond just the three-day Festival and for that, ideally, I would need a guide. Jon mentioned this to Friends Executive Director, Deb Caldwell, who connected me to three fantastic guides to enhance my experience during my eleven-day stay. I toured with a birding guide, a cultural guide for the Pueblo Indian ruins and petroglyph sites and a retired geology professor, who showed me some of the region’s fascinating geology. Thus primed, I was set for a most interesting and enjoyable visit. In fact, I could not have had a better introduction to southern New Mexico.
During my time in Socorro I was able to tour Bosque del Apache four times, and each time I saw something new. Perhaps the most impressive sight was the morning “fly-out”. Sandra Noll, my guide, picked me up at the ungodly hour of 5:45 am, when it was still dark. I had been warned it could be a little cold in New Mexico, but I did not expect 23 degrees Fahrenheit! As we approached the wetland roost where the action was about to unfold, I was amazed by the number of photographers who were already in place with cameras on tripods with huge lenses, all poised to get the perfect shot of departing cranes against a rising sun; there must have been close to thirty.
Unusually, according to Sandra, we were treated to both a “fly-in” and “fly-out” of snow geese, followed by the “fly-out” of sandhill cranes. It was a breathtaking experience. I could not believe the number of snow geese that came in. They were in the thousands. It felt like we were in a snowstorm. Once they had settled on the pond it was wall-to-wall snow geese. What a great introduction to Bosque del Apache!
Sandra is so knowledgeable about the antics of cranes, having worked with them for so long, that it is a joy to tour the refuge with her. After the fly-in we were able to watch a confrontational interaction of two crane families, expertly explained by Sandra.
In the next few days leading up to the Festival I was fortunate to able to experience many uniquely southwestern adventures. I visited the sage and scrub habitats of the Chihuahuan Desert with Sandra and her birding friends, Sharon Fullingim and Daniel Perry. There I was shown aspects of the area’s geology and plant diversity, as well as chalking up a whole new slate of birds. I accompanied falconer Matt Mitchell on a hunt with his two Harris’s hawks, Minnie and Etta, and watched them take down a jackrabbit!
I took a guided tour of the Quebradas with Dr. David Love, where the the terrain is so tortured that one can see 1.4 billion year old Pre-Cambrian rocks and 400 million year old rocks juxtaposed side by side.
I visited the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument sites of Gran Quivira, Quarai and Abo, plus the petroglyph site at Three Rivers and the Valley of Fires lava flow with guide Kim Score.
And I traveled to the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque with friends, where we saw a traditional dance performance by the White Mountain Apache Tribe.
It was a busy few days yet I only scratched the surface of what New Mexico has to offer.
The Festival itself is what I came for, of course, and it did not disappoint. There was a good variety of seminars and events to choose from and the Macey Center on the New Mexico Tech campus was an ideal location to host them, in my opinion.
As I record bird songs and have produced instructional bird song CDs myself, I greatly enjoyed Holly Merker’s “Learning the Language of Birds” and Alex Harper’s “Birding by Ear” presentations. Also, Alex’s “Winter Raptors of the Southwest” ID session was informative for me, as some of the birds Alex covered do not appear in north central BC.
As a retired engineer, I found Dr. Mostafa Hassanalian’s talks on biomimicry and efficiency of flight outstanding. Friends of Bosque del Apache is so lucky to have him as a Board member!
Returning to the crane theme, “Cranes of the World” and “Evening with the Cranes” with Erv Nichols and Sandra Noll were both very enjoyable and I learned so much. On this field trip we were able to see the reverse of the morning “fly-out”, this time a “fly-in” against a setting sun.
Also much appreciated was the afternoon Refuge Tour, this especially so since Gerad Montoya, the refuge water manager, was on the bus and explained to us the complexities and challenges of trying to maintain viable habitat in the face of reducing water availability.
Of course, the Friends Annual Dinner was great! Good company, good food and an excellent and entertaining keynote address by Dr. Rich Beilfuss, President & CEO of the International Crane Foundation (ICF). I had never given much thought to the challenges organizations like ICF must face when trying to implement conservation projects in countries with politically unstable governments. What a great job they do!
So, what did I take home? Certainly a much greater appreciation of the work that Friends does and of the vital need to have an organization like this to work in tandem with government agencies to provide alternative viewpoints that may temper government decisions. I was brought face-to-face with the huge problems the refuge faces in trying to operate in an era of declining water resources caused by climate change and upstream use. This seems almost insurmountable, given that resorting to groundwater supplies usually leads to expensive and ultimately futile attempts to keep up with the dropping water table by having to drill deeper and deeper wells. It may also cause acidification of soils, thereby altering the vegetation. Friends Regenerative Agriculture (BEAM) Pilot Project is a step in the right direction. I am totally impressed with the number of Friends volunteers and how young many of them are! It is a perennial problem with the organizations that I am involved with here in Canada to get younger people to participate. And I love the “River for Monarchs” / Pollinator Habitat Enhancement Project – what a great idea!
Finally, I must say that I was overwhelmed by the friendliness, kindness and generosity of everyone I came into contact with. I was treated like a long-lost returning uncle! For that I am truly grateful. Well done, Friends, for putting on such a great Festival!