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Stories from our Travelers

Winter Retreat at New Mexico's Bosque Del Apache Wildlife Refuge

Sunset at Bosque del Apache

Sandhill cranes pause by a pond

Steve and Greg still focused after 5 hours of bird watching
by Amy Lewis

[From Spring 2011] While birds from all over North America migrate south to New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, my husband and I and two friends, Marcy and Steve, sought refuge from the snow and cold of Santa Fe to bask in the 60-degree warmth of a calm and sunny Saturday in January. Although the powder on the slopes in the north was calling us, the mystique of wildlife had a stronger pull. Our foursome migrated south on I-25 at a civilized 10am, not in a V-shape but in our station wagon, with mountain bikes on the roof. We arrived around 12:30p for a picnic at the visitor center, and instantly felt like celebrities: our friend, Steve Cary, is a well-known lepidopterist. Other scientists recognized him and we had the pleasure of meeting Stephen Fettig from Bandelier National Monument, who is, according to Steve, one of the best ornithologists in the state of New Mexico. We also met Mark Watson, a wildlife photographer from the New Mexico Department of Game & Fish.

After a pleasant lunch on the Refuge’s patio, we unloaded the bikes and headed out. We biked at a leisurely pace on the 15-mile graded dirt-road loop that circles the 12,900 acre-Rio Grande bottomland (no hills). Right away, we stopped to see a bald eagle perched on a large snag in the middle of a pond, then observed a coyote finishing his picnic of a feathered friend, then to take a picture of the beautiful colors of grass and the rise of the Chupadera Mountains to the west, then to see a flock of elegant pintail ducks and a trio a sandhill cranes in an irrigation ditch right by the road. You get the idea that there is a lot to see, so this was no bike race.

The only competition between us was who would be able to identify the most birds. Marcy and I were disqualified right away, since we thought the sandhill cranes were ostriches or turkeys. Steve, who works for New Mexico Audubon, was keeping a list of the birds we saw: red-tailed hawks, northern harrier hawks, American coots, Canadian geese, blue herons, crows, ravens, snow geese (by the thousands), green-winged teal, gadwalls, shovelers, and mallard ducks. Unexpectedly, we ran into other friends from Santa Fe, who reported seeing hooded mergansers, and yet another friend reported seeing a bobcat.

No other cyclists circled the loop that day, but the vehicle traffic was slight and moving slowly. Many folks were staying in one place for long periods of time, to paint or capture the perfect picture with their seemingly 3,000,000 mm zoom lenses. Visitors were from all over the country, and included a wide range of the American demographic, from outdoorsy types to couch-potato types, but we all shared a reverence for the beauty of the wildlife, the setting, and the spectacular weather.

As the sun dropped lower on the horizon, we picked up the pace to head back to the car and drive to a pond where the birds come in for the evening. Armed with my Canon EOS (and a mere 300 mm zoom) we watched with fascination as the ribbons of birds snaked across the sky with the backdrop of the San Pascual Mountains to the east. Occasionally, something would startle the snow geese and sandhill cranes and they would all take off at once, creating a cacophony that made it impossible to talk and be heard.

After sunset and our departure from the Bosque, we headed north to the nearby city of Socorro in a steady stream of cars all departing at once. Along the drive, we talked about the economic benefit that the Refuge provides to the Socorro area. We stopped for dinner at the Socorro Springs Restaurant and Brewery, where the restaurant was packed with other birders, many of whom were planning to stay overnight to see the mass ascension. [Each morning, the birds all take off at once to find forage during the day.] After a wonderful meal accompanied by handcrafted ales, we headed back to Santa Fe, home in bed by 11pm after an easy and fun day.

If You Go:
The Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. From the north (Socorro, New Mexico), take I-25 south to San Antonio exit 139, then route 380 east .5 mile, then State Highway 1 south 8 miles to Refuge. From the south (Truth or Consequences, New Mexico), take I-25 north to San Marcial exit 124, then north on State Highway 1 for 9 miles to the Refuge. Entrance fee is $ 5/day per passenger vehicle (we were charged $5 for the 4 bicycles).

Dining and Lodging:
Socorro Old Town Bed & Breakfast,114 Baca St W, Socorro NM, 575-838-2619, Owned by JP & Terry Moore
Casa Blanca Bed & Breakfast, 13 Montoya St, San Antonio, NM 575-835-3027
Fite Ranch Bed & Breakfast, San Antonio, NM, 575-838-0958
Socorro Springs Restaurant & Brewery, 1012 N California St, Socorro, NM

Photographs by Amy Lewis

Editor's Note: The New Mexico-based Friends of the Bosque works on behalf of birds and wildlife, helping to protect the critically important habitat of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, and helping to educate and inform the public about the value and beauty of all life at the Bosque.

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