“Oh my,” Chris said as we pulled into the main part of the refuge and turned towards the Flight deck where hundreds of Snow Geese were resting in the water next to the road.
I had not been to the Bosque del Apache since this time a year ago, and wanted to make the trip down to the refuge before the Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese started migrating back to their breeding grounds. Last February I led a group of Central New Mexico Thursday Birders to the refuge on February 7. A little over a month later New Mexico shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and I confined my birding to Bernalillo County. It felt good to be ‘on the road again.’
I invited my sister Chris to go with us since she has severe back pain and can’t get out and walk very far, so has mainly been at home for the past year.
We met up with our friend Barb in San Antonio and friend Bonnie at the refuge. Bonnie had left me a voicemail message letting us know “there’s a bunch of Snow Geese by the flight deck and a Bald Eagle sitting up in the snag that your sister might enjoy seeing. I’ll see you there when you arrive.”
While I went to greet Bonnie, Barb sidled up to Chris’s open window to share information about the geese.
“See the dark one?” Barb explained to Chris. “It’s still a Snow Goose that has a different color variation.”
The geese in the water began raucously calling to an approaching flock that was coming to join them.
“That new group appears to be Ross’s Geese,” Barb explained to Chris. “They are slightly smaller and have shorter bills that don’t have ‘black lips’. Unfortunately, as they settled into the existing flock, it is more difficult to pick them out.”
After watching the geese and other waterfowl for a while, we headed south, pausing to check out a tree where a Northern Shrike has sometimes been perched for the past month. Bonnie and Barb, lagging behind Chris and I, spotted a Loggerhead Shrike, but no Northern.
We drove slowly by the pond while I pointed out the Buffleheads and the long tails of the Northern Pintails to Chris.
Once we passed the Dabbler Deck, there was no more water. Due to last year’s drought that is continuing, the refuge had to make some hard choices about which areas to fill with their greatly decreased water allotment.
We stopped at the Boardwalk. The willows lining the adjacent drain glowed in the winter sun,
and an American Kestrel perched over the pond.
Chris was able to walk out a short distance, but then had to return to the car. Barb, Bonnie and I continued. The water level was much lower than normal and the preponderance of ducks were Green-winged Teal.
“Look, a Long-billed Dowitcher,” I pointed. or maybe a Greater Yellowlegs since it has an eye-ring rather than an eyebrow line.
Two Least Sandpipers were foraging at the edge of the mud flat.
“Let’s continue around the south loop,” I suggested as we returned to the cars. “Even though there is no water, maybe there will be some mammals.”
I stopped to take a picture of dry pond at the far south end.
Unfortunately, no water also meant no mammals.
As we headed north again, a Great Blue Heron looked forlorn standing on the edge of a dry ditch.
Further along, I stopped to point out a Red-tailed Hawk perched in one of the trees – one of several we saw that day.
“I can see the belly band,” Chris said triumphantly with her new ID knowledge.
I gasped as we approached the Old Rookery. The refuge staff are taking advantage of the opportunity to burn out the over-grown cattails. Instead of a picturesque pond, it was dried mud and burned stubble.
“There are two Bald Eagles on the snag,” Bonnie announced while we were eating our lunch socially distanced at the three picnic tables. An immature one was perched lower down and blended into the tree branches behind it until we looked at it with our binoculars. After a while, it gracefully flew off and headed south.
We stopped to use the porta-potty at the east end of the two way road before starting around the North Loop.
Thousands of Sandhill Cranes were busy feeding along the north loop.
“Keep an eye out for Wild Turkeys in the shadows,” I suggested to Chris. “They tend to hang out along the edges.”
Sure enough a flock of Wild Turkeys hovered next to a wind break of trees between two fields. I parked the car so we could walk back and look at them.
“I counted 17,” Barb announced.
A Cooper’s Hawk flushed from a snag next to the road to a tree further in.
Later I saw it flying across the field, stirring up the Red-winged Blackbirds foraging between the cranes.
As we approached the Flight Deck pond, we stopped to watch a group of Cinnamon Teal that had chosen that corner as their dabbling grounds.
The Snow and Ross’s Geese were still hanging out in the southwest corner, only they had moved out of the water and settled onto half of the road, seemingly unperturbed the passing cars.
“Look at the coot,” Chris gestured to an American Coot stepping between the snoozing geese.
A ‘blue goose’ woke up, giving us a final look at its dramatic profile before we left the refuge.
It had been a beautiful day and it felt good to be visiting the refuge again.
“Today’s excursion has really given me the bug to get out and explore further again,” I told Chris as we drove back to Albuquerque – hopefully soon.”