The “crown jewel” of our National Wildlife Refuge System, the Bosque del Apache, has been my annual pilgrimage site for a decade. The cranes migrate to the Bosque late in the fall, and I visit them in December or January. This winter, as I began to prepare for my trip, I was confronted with these garbled-sounding words:
Pursuant to 50 C.F.R. §§ 25.2l(e) and 36.42, as of December 26, 2018, all units of the National Wildlife Refuge System nationwide are closed to public visitation and use.
While some areas of the Bosque and other refuges remain open, reports of mounting trash, vandalism, and sanitation disasters are sufficient to keep honest visitors away. The shutdown has had a painful impact on 800,000 federal workers and their families, among many others. I wondered how the Bosque rangers were faring. In 2017, they had initiated a program to grow crops to feed hungry Sandhill cranes. Were some rangers now eating at soup kitchens, as I had seen photographs of federal workers doing? For the last 11 years, the Bosque rangers have sportingly answered my queries about cranes and other animals, and dispensed hot tips on, say, where the snow geese are hanging out this afternoon. As I scrapped my travel plans, feeling irritated that the Bosque of all places had got entangled in this messy shutdown, a question nagged me: Why do I visit the Bosque every year?
My first winter in New Mexico, in 2007, I ran into a fellow photographer at a photo shop in downtown Santa Fe. Not surprisingly, we talked about my imminent trip to the Bosque. “Make sure you book a spot at the Casa Blanca,” she said. Alas, the Casa Blanca Bed & Breakfast was booked months in advance, and I had to face my first day birding at the Bosque fortified by a breakfast burrito stuffed with stale fries. I don’t care to remember the name of the motel.
The sweeping view of ivory-white snow geese and bluish-gray Sandhill cranes made up for that, however. I had seen these cranes with cardinal-red crowns in Southern California, and at the Reifel Bird Sanctuary in British Columbia, but they descend on the Bosque in staggering numbers. In the evenings, you stare at long-necked cranes flying in over skies streaked rosy-pink and clementine. New Mexico’s skies can be striations of color approximating infinity, but these numberless flocks of cranes and geese outdo the theatrics of the sky. When the cranes begin their fairy-like descent onto milky blue sheets of water, you find yourself in a place where humans are far outnumbered by birds.
The refuge is 80 miles south of Albuquerque, near the quaint town of San Antonio, New Mexico. Cradled between the Chupadera and the San Pascual Mountains, the core of the 57,000-acre refuge, some 13,000 acres, sits beside the Rio Grande River, at the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert. Last winter, as I explored the arroyos, cornfields, and clusters of ponds in the refuge’s North and South Loops, the cranes were slate-gray in the dusky light. As they fed, their curved necks moved insistently against the grass. There was ample food this year, and they honked contentedly — a rich, rounded, baritone sound, the basis of their onomatopoeic name.
Earlier in the day, a refuge volunteer had told me that the cranes were sitting “fat and lazy” in the fields. At these words, a ranger with a crinkled face had smiled. “Last year, a ranger from a farming family in Montana, changed everything here, crop-wise,” she said. “Before, we had an arrangement with neighboring farmers, who would supply us with crops to feed the birds. But there was never enough food.” A crane eats a pound of corn a day, so 7000 cranes need an impressive amount of corn grown for them. The Montana ranger assessed the food shortage and took the lead in planting the Bosque’s fields. They had a bumper crop.
“We’ll never go back to the old way again,” the ranger said.
In addition to corn, the Montana ranger grew triticale, a cross between wheat and rye. The cranes also eat grasses such as millet that grow naturally in this area. As the day’s last light slipped, the coyote willow along the ponds grew rust-tinged. I was nearly at the end of the North Loop, about to exit the refuge, when the enormous sun disk shone unabashedly into my face. I shut my eyes.
Five years back, in July 2013, when news broke about the sighting of a Rufous-necked wood rail at the Bosque, I wanted to slip away to get there. I kept hearing about who else was there. The Big Year record holder Sandy Komito had come and gone. Birders from around the country were flying or driving to the Bosque for the secretive wood rail’s first recorded sighting in the US. It wouldn’t have surprised me if someone had parachuted in. For me, however, even a tiny window that might allow the three-hour drive south wouldn’t crack open.
I missed all the fuss over the wood rail, but I returned in January 2014. This time we took a tour of sprawling fields planted with clover and corn for the birds. Our guide told us about a biologist, John Taylor, and his resolve to remove invasive, water-slurping tamarisk (salt cedar) trees from the fields, to make space for edible crops. After studying the problem, Taylor had the tamarisks bulldozed, then burnt, and, when all else failed, he had herbicides applied to the field. Hardy tamarisks with their feathery branches still grow along the edges of the fields here. In 2004, Taylor had a fatal stroke at the age of 49. Our guide pointed out a trail named after him.
The next morning, we hiked the John Taylor trail with our toddler. At the head of the trail, a sign warned that there were mountain lions in the area. There was an additional warning for parents of small children. This gave us pause, but we had encountered mountain lion signs on the trails we’d hiked in California. This was going to be a short hike through a cottonwood savannah. After we had walked some distance, I let M stand on a bench so she could look at some Ross’s geese. She naturally wanted to jump from the bench. A little later, at an overlook at the end of the trail, M wanted to leap from another bench. There were more light geese (Ross’s and snow) to look at here. A red-tailed hawk circled above us. But Michael didn’t want us to linger. He was still anxious about that mountain lion sign. We turned around and began to hike back through the salt grass.
When we returned to the first bench, M ran to jump from it again. I scooted over to catch her because the ground was uneven and gnarled with thick protruding cottonwood roots. She was in her freedom or bald eagle phase, however. Insulted that I had steadied her as she touched down, she began to wail.
Michael picked her up, but she wanted down. He worried that her crying would attract a wild animal. Mountain lions go for small, vulnerable prey, those who are wounded or in distress. “We’ve been here a long time,” he said.
The chill he’d been feeling suddenly infected me. I looked around. Shimmering cottonwoods with thick striated trunks surrounded us. If an animal were watching, we might not know until it was too late. We intuitively took turns carrying our cranky toddler the rest of the way. We speed-walked to the head of the trail. When we got into our car, my sense of relief was profound.
At the Visitor Center, a wide-eyed ranger told us that last month, a mountain lion was sighted on the John Taylor trail. A man hiking the trail had seen the mountain lion and had photographed it with his iPhone.
“The lions in this area are collared. And this lion’s radio collar was easily visible in the photograph.” She shuddered. “That was a little too close.”
We eyed each other, stunned.
“When I go hiking alone, I attach some chimes on my knapsack so that with each step I take, I make some noise,” she said.
All at once, we felt dispirited about how cavalierly we had gone on that hike. In our pre-baby days, in California, if we’d hiked a trail with a mountain lion sign, we might ask a ranger or another hiker about the sign and would be assured that no one had seen a mountain lion here for years, and the sign was to warn people to not linger, say, at dusk. Now that we had a toddler, the rules had changed. It was no longer safe to just get out of the car and go on a hike in the way we did in the old days. On the other hand, if we are only to take M to Disney-esque places, how will she grow a relationship with wild spaces and wild things?
That evening at the Bosque, I saw a gathering of Sandhill cranes and light geese unlike any other I had seen here. The water was powder blue and rose pink, and multitudes of cranes and geese flew in for the night and congregated upon the painted water. Some estimates have it that at its peak, there are 40,000 geese in the refuge. When I looked up, geese streaked the sky everywhere, punctuated only by the cranes flying in like robotic fairies. Our car was parked along the water’s edge, in a long line of birders’ cars. I pointed out two cranes wading in the water, but M was busy chatting up some older birders.
Earlier that afternoon, I had wandered through the Bosque desert garden to gaze at a mesmerizing variety of cacti, and I had read here that cranes are “Messengers from the Past.” In Greek myth, the God Hermes invented the alphabet by watching a flight of cranes. At the water’s edge, I kept my eyes trained on the cranes, flying in now in groups of three, or in larger groups, which I counted as 17. An acquaintance of ours once claimed that cranes fly in prime numbers. Some poked their beaks in the water, searching for food. In the pearly light, their crowns were a saturated rust color. The painted sky, reflected in the water, lent the scene a supernatural setting. The sun, an enormous ball of reddish mauve, flashed into our faces. Apollo, the sun god is said to have disguised himself as a crane when he visited mortals to signal that spring, and light, was coming. Two silhouetted cranes cavorted against the regal sun disk.
Cranes are among the oldest living bird species, dating back some 50 million years. Ancient rock art in this area shows that the ancestors of Sandhill cranes used to migrate to the Bosque before calendars existed. The naturalist Aldo Leopold wrote about the sound of cranes: “We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution.” I listened as the chorus of trumpeting cranes and honking geese seemed to saturate the Bosque. In Norse mythology, the one who understands the language of birds is considered to be a wise person.
That night, at the Socorro Springs Brewery, we ordered a pizza. As I chewed the artichoke-topped crust, the cranes reigned in my mind. They would begin to leave next month. Most would fly north to their next major migratory stop: Nebraska’s Platte River valley, a threatened habitat in North America’s Central Flyway. The lesser Sandhill cranes would go as far as Siberia, while the greater Sandhill cranes would travel to Montana or Idaho. Like us, they are temporary visitors here. But for the sight of cranes performing their elusive dance, I have seemingly seen all there is to be seen at the Bosque, yet I keep returning each year. It’s as though I too migrate to the Bosque.
“What was that?” Michael put the car in reverse.
It is January of 2018, and we are on the Bosque’s North Loop. I wonder if he saw an accipiter at the edge of the cottonwood grove. Instead, in a clearing between the grove and a dry ditch, stand a herd of javelinas. Charcoal gray, with pink snouts, and across their shoulders the cream stripe that lends them the common name, collared peccary. Two juveniles break into a run, kicking up a shower of dust, after which the portly, tailless creatures run up a storm. They recall the wild boars in Princess Mononoke, the Japanese animation film that pits the natural world against our brutal industrial realities. In the film the boars have been corrupted by greed.
I take in their unreal, speckled-gray bodies. One javelina uses its back paw to scratch its ear. A couple of babies in the herd. Some stare right at us. Our single pair of binoculars are in hot demand, and exchange hands fast, though the javelinas are only some thirty feet away. Then I make a mistake. I rarely photograph animals, believing instead in the primacy of the experience. But this time, the photographer in me is aroused, and I request Michael to get our camera from the trunk. A javelina is spooked by the sound of the trunk being shut, and it runs like a streak of lightning. The others stir and vanish into the cottonwood grove. Only two javelinas linger, as do we, until they also leave.
We drive past a golden cornfield, now the sky is the color of the softly sapphire ponds and capped with pale magenta. A red tailed hawk watches us from a bare tree. At a quarter to six, the water is like glass, reflecting the blue and pink in the sky. Minutes later, the remaining light slips away, and the water and the reeds take on a ghostly air.
Late at night, my thoughts turn to the herd of javelinas and the unexpectedness of the sighting. The dozen of them in a little clearing in the forest had a whiff of the ancient about them. They didn’t have the pink domesticity of pigs, they are not even related to pigs. They belong to the peccary family and are found as far down as South America. They were the color of stone and seemed just as wild and mysterious. The word “bosque” means “forest” or “woodlands” and has a suggestion of the unknown. Forests are among the few places whose charms have not been stripped by the frenetic merry-go-round of civilization. That which is wild may have its fury, but it also has grace. While observing the javelinas, I had sensed the tenderness within their wild coat of armor. They were curious about us, they seemed to inch toward us. Their children were playing, while the adults gazed at us, while also rightly being wary of us.
Our last morning at the Bosque, a fresh sight awaits. A cloud of snow geese in the sky, so many that our necks crane up and our mouths open in silent awe.
“They look like glitter … so tiny and beautiful,” M says.
“You mean like confetti?”
“Like fish flying in the sky.”
There are hundreds here, easily, maybe four flocks have convened. Somehow there is no chaos when they all fly together, they don’t collide into each other, instead they seem to coexist in harmonious formations.
It is past five p.m. and we still haven’t left. The water is like glass, as the bright orb of the sun slips behind the chocolate mountains. A skunk, its tail erect like a black-and-white question mark, scuttles forward along the side of a dry arroyo. Three baby-boomer photographers race after it with the gusto of paparazzi chasing a new starlet. The skunk shows them its rear and disappears in some brush. Pied-billed grebes float unmolested on the placid water as the sky blushes pink. Suddenly, among the numberless cranes at the edge of a cornfield, one group opens its wings in a dance formation. At last! Oh, what an ingenious, spirited dance! One pair of dusky wings splashes open, then in a choreographed sequence, the next crane flashes its wings, and the next, in slow-motion. Just then, the snow geese, a wide band of glittering white on the sky-blue water, take off. The sky springs to life with dazzling wings tinged with black. The birds hover above us and drift in a cloud formation, like an armful of cosmic blessings, as we leave our refuge.
Images by Priyanka Kumar
Priyanka Kumar is the author of the birding novel Take Wing and Fly Here and the writer/director of the feature documentary The Song of the Little Road.