Each fall and winter when the cottonwood trees turn brilliant gold and the marshes and grasses take on orange and russet hues, visitors and hoards of photographers armed with massive lenses descend on Bosque del Apache to witness and document the riotous arrival of the Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes who spend the winter in this precious wildlife refuge. The Festival of the Cranes is held annually in November and there is a steady stream of tourists who marvel at the activity in the Bosque during the winter months. When the cranes and geese depart in mid-February, there’s a brief period of odd silence in the marshes. The pace at the refuge is a little more serene and the ducks and coots, permanent residents of the refuge, seem to relish the extra space and calmness. Eagles and hawks continue to cruise the airways, and the elusive Great Blue Herons promenade along the water canals. As the weather warms, the air begins to fill with the sounds of songbirds, doves, owls, and the croaking of bullfrogs in the marshes.
A mystical charm permeates the Bosque in the springtime. Patterns of the waterways shift and create glistening ribbons that wind through the fresh green growth which contrasts starkly against blue New Mexico skies and sand colored mesas on the horizon. New groups of feathered travelers such as shorebirds and other water and wetland loving species find their way to this incredible oasis. According to the daily bird sightings posted on their website, visiting species include sandpipers, egrets, herons, pelicans, owls, gulls and a multitude of songbirds.
Managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge consists of 57,331 acres located along the Rio Grande and bordering the Chihuahan Desert. Approximately 12,900 acres of moist bottomland are the heart of the Bosque, which is an important link in a network of more than 500 wildlife refuges in North America established to provide habitat and protection for migratory birds and endangered species. Effective management of these habitats is crucial to preserve the population of these migratory birds, and to this end, Bosque del Apache NWR cooperates with local farmers to grow crops for wintering waterfowl and cranes. Farmers plant alfalfa and corn, harvesting the alfalfa and leaving the corn for wildlife. The refuge staff also grows corn, winter wheat, clover, and native plants as additional food.
As the seasons change, water levels in marshes are lowered to create moist fields to promote growth of native wetland plants, and dry impoundments are reflooded to allow natural marsh plants to grow. When mature marsh conditions are reached, the cycle is repeated. Invasive vegetation with low wildlife value is cleared and areas are planted with cottonwood, black willow, and other plants to restore native bosques that have higher value for wildlife. The irrigation canals which are so critical for adequate water flow are monitored, mowed and cleared daily to keep them functioning.
Every day in the Bosque is a unique and rich experience, regardless of season. In May, the Canada Geese are busy guiding their little offspring through the waters and marsh reeds to keep them safe. The Snowy Egrets are tirelessly flaunting their plumage to attract the right mate. Herons, swans, sandpipers feast on rich vegetation and preen in the sunshine.
Driven by a genetic memory millions of years in the making, the birds embark twice each year on long-distance journeys between their breeding areas and wintering grounds. They traverse an entire hemisphere of countries and ecosystems. Birds are said to be the ultimate indicator of environmental quality and for them to continue to survive and flourish, air and water must be clean and abundant, and the habitats along their migratory routes must be protected. Without a healthy environment, bird species will disappear, along with the quality of life for people on this planet. For New Mexico and visitors to Bosque del Apache, human and otherwise, this wildlife refuge is a paradise of tranquility, a bastion of hope for a healthy future and a treasure to be cherished, enjoyed and preserved.
(article published in Vamanos by Ruidoso News on Friday May 11, 2011)
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