Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

Lift off at dawn at the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge in NM


Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in central New Mexico is one of the premiere wild-bird locations in North America. Late every fall bird watchers, photographers and wildlife lovers come from all over the world to view thousands and thousands of ducks, Sandhill Cranes and Snowgeese who are in the midst of their winter migration. Bosque del Apache is a 60,000 acre preserve along the Rio Grand River. There are many, many ponds, large cottonwood groves and other woodlands and many acres of corn planted specifically for the birds.

November is usually the peak month to view this annual spectacle of cranes, geese and ducks of all kinds. Since the Bosque is right down the road from us, we almost always plan a visit in late November, usually around Thanksgiving. Right now is the time to plan a trip to the Bosque del Apache. The numbers of birds peak in late November and December. Late November is usually best.
Bosque del Apache is located nine miles south of Socorro, NM just off of I-25. From the north (Socorro, NM), drive nine miles south on I-25 to exit 139, go east one-fourth mile on US 380 to the flashing signal at the village of San Antonio, turn right onto Old Highway 1, and drive south nine miles to the Visitor Center.

We usually plan the trip so we arrive in Socorro at about noon. We get a motel room there, have lunch and then drive out to the refuge. There is also a very nice RV park just before you enter the refuge itself.

There is some bird activity all day long, but the big shows at the Bosque happen at dawn and dusk. While you are waiting for sunset there is lots to see and do. There are two big loops to drive that first afternoon you arrive. Drive around them to get the feel of what the Bosque is like. You will see lots and lots of cranes, ducks, and geese flying, floating in the many ponds and eating corn in the corn fields that are planted solely for the birds. There are also mule deer, coyotes, bald eagles, wild turkey and road runners.

Sandhill Cranes flhing in formation against a background of autumn colors.

This is a good time to figure out where you want to be at sunset to watch the birds as they fly in for the night. There is also a very nice visitor center where you can talk to the rangers about the best viewing sites, browse the great book selection and look at the exhibits. Be sure to pick up a map of the refuge. There are also hiking trails at several locations around the Bosque.

As the sun gets lower head over to one of the main ponds. We usually end up at a boardwalk area called the flight deck which is not far from the visitor center. Shortly before or after sunset the birds fly into ponds like this for the night. They do this to protect themselves from predators. It’s hard for a coyote to sneak up on you if you are floating out in the middle of a big lake.

For a long time nothing special happens at sunset and then suddenly the birds start dropping down from the sky by the hundreds and then by the thousands and sometimes by the tens of thousands. This is an absolutely unforgettable experience. The bird calls, the setting sun, and the thousands of birds dropping out of the sky all around you are a truly magical.
The next morning be sure to get to the Bosque well before dawn and arrive at your chosen spot before the sun rises. It will be cold so be sure you’ve got a lot of layers under your downy along with hats and gloves. If you go to the Flight Deck again you will be facing east, into the rising sun. This means to can get endless shots of cranes, ducks and geese silhouetted against the dawn sky with reeds and grasses, often all bathed in pink and purple light.

Snow Geese flying over a corn field in the Bosque Refuge.

The big event at dawn is what is called the lift-off. First one or two birds will fly off into the sky, and then a few more and then suddenly every bird in the pond, often thousands, will explode into the dawn sky, with a tremendous roar all at the same moment. This doesn’t always happen quite so dramatically but often it does. And when it does, it is one of the most beautiful, exhilarating things you will ever experience. The whole atmosphere of quiet rosy dawn, the subdued honking and gabbling of the birds and then boom, the sky explodes with birds lifting off into the dawn in a glorious spectacle you will never, ever forget.

After the dawn lift-off, we usually head south from the flight deck and drive both of the loops. There is a long pond just south of the flight deck where there is a large dead cottonwood snag about a hundred feet off shore. Very very often there is a pair of Bald Eagles sitting in the snag.

As you head around the loops thru ponds, cornfields, open woods and meadows there will be all kinds of beautiful views of birds flying, landing, circling and posing for you. From dawn until maybe 10:00 you will find some of the best bird viewing and photographing you could ever hope for.

Fred Hanselmann
November 6, 2013
Rocky Mountain Photography


9670, Three Cranes and Water, Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

9689, Bosque del Apache, Purple sunset with trees, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

9692, Dawn Crane Silouettes

9669, Sandhill Cranes and Blue Sky

Sandhill Crane and Cornfield, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

9742, Two Bald Eagles and Snag, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

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