Rohn and I spent the 2020 MLK weekend in New Mexico at the winter birding dream location of Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.
We spotted more than 60 bird species, including 17 individual Bald Eagles and 1000's of ducks, cranes and geese. Squadrons of javelina were sleeping in the warm sun and a pack of coyotes fought over a dead Sandhill Crane. Snow Geese filling the skies took our breath away and skittish little Gambel's Quails entertained us near the well-kept visitor's center. One lonely Tundra Swan swam aimlessly around a pond while Red-tailed Hawks and Northern Harriers scared the huge variety of waterfowl.
One of the most exciting moments this weekend involved trying to get a good Bald Eagle photo. On Sunday morning, we spotted a mature eagle in a dead tree out in the Flight Deck pond, where we have seen eagles sit before. We stopped to take a photo of him when we realized he wasn't alone. A larger eagle was perched below him. So we snapped more photos of the two of them in the tree and then went on our way. We soon looked back at the tree to realize that the larger, female eagle had flown up to perch right next to her mate. They proceed to snuggle, groom each other, talk, squawk and sing. Only one other photographer was watching them, so it felt like a private performance that the impressive pair staged just for us. You can see the progression by sliding through the pictures below.
Every morning during November through February, thousands of white geese follow some silent, secret signal and all take flight at the same time somewhere around sunrise.
Bird photographers arrive at Bosque del Apache about 30 minutes before sunrise for the Snow Geese fly out. They set up their tripods and 600 mm lenses along the Flight Deck area and then wait for the show.
This weekend, the geese were lazy and didn't take off until after sunrise, meaning that a lot of birders and photographers were stamping their feet and swinging their arms to try to warm their extremities in freezing temps as they waited for that magic moment when the sounds of geese honking and 10,000 wings beating in unison would reverberate throughout the refuge.
For Texas Panhandle birdwatchers, Bosque is an easy 5.5 hour drive straight west on I-40 and then south on I-25. This was our fourth visit to the refuge, but the most enjoyable by far, probably because we are new bird nerds and there was some kind of avian excitement around every corner. The light for pictures was perfect. High winds often plague us as Panhandle birders, but the winds speeds were low and the days were sunny in Bosque del Apache.
Pro tip: Sign up for a tour led by refuge volunteers. Although the van seated 8, only four of us "in the know" spent three hours with veteran volunteers John and Betty Olsen on Saturday morning's Wildlife Tour. The free tour took us well beyond the Auto Loop that is open to the public into areas of the refuge visitors can only see on the tour. John and Betty knew where to spot the Rio Grande Turkeys, the adorable Javelina and a Phainopepla. They gave us hints of where to look for other species on our own. And because John is one of the most heralded nature photographers on the Refuge, he always pointed out great photo opportunities and turned the van so we could have the best light and view for our photos.
Even if your loved ones or friends don't like birding, there are easy hiking and biking trails along the Rio Grande. And the scenery at Bosque del Apache is so spectacular that just breathing it in should keep them entertained.
You can also take your traveling companions into the little village of San Antonio, about 8 miles north of the refuge for lunch at The Buckhorn or The Owl, two dives which constantly duel for the title of best Green Chili Cheeseburger in New Mexico. And you can combine your trip to Bosque with a drive west to tour the Very Large Array, an otherworldly series of radio telescopes that scientists use to study deep space.