If my soul was craving autumn it got its fill the day we visited Bosque del Apache. After spending the night in Socorro, NM on our way home from our daughter’s wedding in Colorado we drove south to the refuge. While I always have big dreams of being there when the sun comes over the horizon we really didn’t get there until 8:30 AM. Still, the light was good and the birds were active!
As soon as we left the highway and we were on the road to the refuge Gus stopped the car and put the top down on his new convertible. The sky was as clear blue as a bluebird’s breast and the air just seemed to sparkle around us. In the nearby cottonwoods a murder of crows gossiped and called, welcoming us to this day and this place.
Signs of autumn were everywhere, from the silken grasses to the red-stemmed rushes in the clear blue water. Northern Pintails dominated the duck population but a few shovelers, mallards and buffleheads punctuated the scene.
As I was lost in my autumn reverie a Northern Harrier came swooping by, soaring low over the marsh searching for prey.
Across the street from the harrier a kestrel kited in the sea blue sky, then sought refuge atop a snag backlit by trees with leaves as russet as his tail. Everything seemed dressed in the colors of autumn.
But then it began to snow!
The geese were not the only birds in the pond however! A western grebe floated nonchalantly by!
Telling a Western and a Clark’s Grebe apart can be a challenge but here they are together for an easy comparison. The Western grebe in back has the black encircling its eye. It also has a dusky slightly upturned bill. the Clark’s grebe in the foreground has the black above the eye so it is quite easy to see the red eye. It has a bright yellow bill. The two species are frequently seen together during migration.
I saw Northern Pintails everywhere in the refuge. I love the soft and subtle patterning of the females and the striking handsomeness of the males.
Bosque del Apache is well know for its Sandhill Cranes and the Festival of the Cranes was going to happen next week, but today the refuge was mostly quiet with just a few cranes flying around “garoo-ing from the height of the sky.
There were literally thousands of snow geese here on this day. Snow Geese have a characteristic “grin patch” on their bills which shows up as a darker area along the line where the top and bottom of the beak meet. It is important to note this patch when trying to distinguish the snow goose from the equally white, but smaller Ross’ Goose.
I estimated there were 3000 snow geese here on this day and in their midst were approximately 30 Ross’ Geese. There may have been even more but I did not count them all.
Note the shape of heads and beaks. Snow goose has a longer head and the base of the bill is curved along the cheek while the Ross’s Goose has a more rounded head with a triangular pink beak stuck on the front of the ball!
(Yes, it took 4 hours for him to clean it after our trip!)
I thought at first that this was a Harlan's Red-tailed Hawk but I now believe it is a dark-morph Red-tailed Hawk. Harlan’s has no trace of brown in its feathers according to the bird guides I consulted. Still, it was relaxing to watch it circle lazily through the clear blue sky. While we only intended to stay at the refuge for a couple of hours we soon realized that we could not leave that quickly. We spent 4 hours just driving the north loop of the refuge! With the daylight waning we knew we had to leave. As we rounded the curve near the Farmer’s Field I finally got a closer look at a Sandhill Crane!
Just before we left I found a small flock of White-crowned sparrows in some willows along one of the ponds. I was seeing White-crowned sparrows all over the place but what made this little flock so different was the presence of at least one of them with Black lores, which is a subspecies of White-crowned Sparrow. The lores are the area between the bird’s beak and its eyes and many species of birds are identified by the color of their lores.
We came to Bosque del Apache in search of Snow Geese and while we certainly found them, we found so much more besides. I have only been here four times yet I have never been disappointed with the experience. this is surely one of the premier birding locations in the United States and I would recommend it to anyone who loves nature. While it is a long ways from most anywhere it is only about an hour south of Albuquerque, NM. You can stay in Socorro, which is closer but smaller. However it does have just about every fast food restaurant you could want with numerous hotels and gas stations.
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