A pair of sandhill cranes enjoy the water at Bosque del Apache.
Russell Huffman | El Defensor Chieftain photos

The wetlands and environs of Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge are once again teeming with sandhill cranes, snow geese and other wintering birds by the thousands. Stymied by the coronavirus pandemic the last two years, the annual Festival of the Cranes celebrating the return of the sandhill cranes begins its three-day in-person itinerary today.

Although some festival events were held virtually on Nov. 18-19, today through Saturday, the in-person Festival of the Cranes will offer workshops at not only Bosque del Apache NWR but also New Mexico Tech.

Staying true to form, Festival workshops will focus on photography, birding and environmental education, augmented by hikes and a bit about the area’s history.

As usual, all field workshops will be held at the refuge. One exception is that the popular Expo Tent will move indoors to the refuge’s Visitor Center. The Expo Room features photography and birding companies, environmental organizations, and a booth by Friends of Bosque del Apache. The Expo Room will still feature many of the same great vendors as in years past. For example, Hunt’s Photo and Video will have a booth and plans to assist with many of the photography field tours as well, so registrants will have another expert in their workshops.

All indoor seminars will meet at Macey Center at New Mexico Tech, which, organizers promise, will keep the event COVID-safe and ADA-accessible while providing instructors with more reliable internet connections for their presentations.

The Wildlife Zone, on Saturday, Dec. 3, is also moving to Macey Center with raptors, reptiles, and prairie dogs up close, and is still cost-free. Families can see live reptiles and learn about them from the NM Herpetological Society and also learn about native plants from the NM Native Plant Society.

“Many of our partners will join us to showcase rehabilitated wildlife, share activities, or paint your face to resemble your favorite wild animal,” said Deb Caldwell, Executive Director of Friends of Bosque del Apache NWR.

She said this weekend was chosen as the in-person event to help ensure there will be even more wintering birds at the refuge.

The Festival of the Cranes will feature workshops on birding, photography and environmental education.
Russell Huffman | El Defensor Chieftain

Photo opportunities are limitless this time of year, but one has to know where, and when, to point the camera.

“The morning fly-out is something that has to be seen to be believed when thousands of cranes and geese take flight,” Caldwell said.

The tour loop entry fee for private passenger vehicles has been waived through Saturday.

Prices for attending programs range from $8 to $80, with several activities and demonstrations for free. All proceeds go toward the Friends of the Bosque which works on behalf of birds and wildlife, helping to protect the critically important habitat of the Refuge, and helping to educate and inform the public about the value and beauty of wildlife in the region.

There will also be a few activities or workshops held at other venues in Socorro County, including the Owl Bar, Fort Craig, Very Large Array, and Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge.

“We designed this festival keeping diverse interests and needs in mind and are excited to welcome everyone,” Caldwell said. “Though the Friends of Bosque del Apache are the main organizers of Festival of the Cranes, it takes a lot of collaboration with the refuge, New Mexico Tech, the City of Socorro, and our many partners in conservation, birding, photography and local history, to pull it off.”

Caldwell pointed out that all the cranes and geese haven’t arrived yet.

“It’s going to keep building as we move into winter,” she said. “We’re lucky here in Socorro that we’ve got it in our own backyard. People can come down anytime and get up close and get great photographs.”

The Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge has been home to the festival since 1993, when the newly formed Friends of the Bosque got permission from the refuge.

The refuge is 57,191 acres located at the northern edge of the Chihuahuan desert and straddles the Rio Grande, approximately five miles south of San Antonio. The heart of the refuge is about 12,900 acres of moist bottomlands – 3,800 acres are active floodplains of the Rio Grande and 9,100 acres are areas where water is diverted to create extensive wetlands, farmlands and riparian forests.

Elsewhere, the refuge is made up of arid foothills and mesas, which rise to the Chupadera Mountains on the west and the San Pascual Mountains on the east. Most of these desert lands are preserved as wilderness areas.

Managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bosque del Apache NWR is an important link in the more than 500 refuges in North America. The goal of refuge management is to provide habitat and protection for migratory birds and endangered species and provide the public with a high-quality wildlife and educational experience.

“We are thrilled to invite people back in person for the first time since 2019,” President of Friends of the Bosque Mary Ruff said. “We hope people come to immerse themselves in this unique environment and enjoy the community built from a shared love of this place and these animals, and the beauty of the middle Rio Grande Valley.”