Bosque del Apache

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Bosque del Apache

Marfa Public Radio

Broadcast on January 20, 2011

Sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache

Sandhill cranes begin their morning at Bosque del Apache NWR. (Photo by Megan Wilde)


Sandhill crane

A sandhill crane. (Photo by Megan Wilde)

By Megan Wilde

On a freezing dawn at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, thousands of sandhill cranes are slowly and noisily beginning their day. In small groups, the cranes hoist their hefty red-capped forms from glimmering ponds. Then they glide elegantly over amber-lit grasslands and cottonwoods, and disappear against distant mauve mountains. As pristine as this wildlife spectacle appears, the setting is far from natural. What is this place? And how has it been specially crafted for these birds?

Just south of Socorro, New Mexico, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge straddles about 57,000 acres of the middle Rio Grande valley. This wetland habitat at the Chihuahuan Desert’s northern edge has long been an important stopover for migrating birds. Shorebirds and brilliantly colored neotropical birds from central and south America pass through during spring and summer. And huge congregations of sandhill cranes, snow geese and other waterfowl make the refuge their winter home. It’s this gathering that draws most human visitors here.

As many as 18,000 sandhill cranes winter at Bosque del Apache every year, having migrated from their summer breeding grounds in the Rocky Mountains and Dakotas. And between 45,000 and 60,000 snow geese stop annually on their way south from northern Canada and the Arctic.

Shawn Gillette is the refuge’s chief of visitor services.

Gillette: Early in the morning, as the sun’s making its way over the mountains, the snow geese will launch in large groups. These groups are so big they can literally blot out the morning sun.

These masses flock to Bosque del Apache to rest and eat, so come spring they’ll have the fat reserves and strength to make the long migration back to their northern breeding grounds.

For eons such winter visitors were sustained by a feast of native vegetation, served up by the fertile middle Rio Grande valley. The river’s annual floods scoured the river channel and enriched the surrounding soils, thereby cultivating this natural cornucopia for wildlife.

But several centuries ago, people began tapping the valley’s fertility for agriculture. And ever since, they’ve altered the river to accommodate their needs— building levies, dykes and dams and diverting water for crops and towns.

Gillette: All of this changed the natural flooding regime of the river and prevented it from flooding the way it used to. When this occurred the abundance of natural plants that used to grow here—and grew as a result of that flooding—was sharply curtailed. And the migratory birds, when they would come down, were finding less and less fodder and food. Therefore the refuge was established in 1939 to do mechanically what Mother Nature used to do naturally. That is to move water, to inundate some areas, and to create the conditions that were perfect for growing a variety of natural plants. These plants are what the birds live on while they come down here in the winter.

And so Bosque del Apache is as much a refuge for habitat as it is a sanctuary for wildlife. Resource managers create this habitat in a variety of ways: moving soil and water, constructing wetlands, mimicking seasonal floods, and strategically burning certain areas with controlled fires.

Besides creating conditions for native plants to grow, they also plant corn and other agricultural products. About 1,000 acres of the refuge are set aside for farming cooperatives, which last year produced 1.2-million pounds of corn. Growing that corn helps keep birds within the refuge and out of neighboring agricultural fields, Gillette explains.

Gillette: So what you’re seeing when you come to Bosque is a manipulated, man-made landscape that is trying to recapture what mother nature used to do herself very well for many thousands of years.

Have a question or comment about this episode? Contact Nature Notes Coordinator Megan Wilde at mwilde@cdri.org. Or discuss this episode on Nature Notes’ Facebook page.

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Nature Notes is sponsored by the Meadows Foundation and the Dixon Water Foundation and is produced in cooperation with Marfa Public Radio.