The Bosque Is For The Birds

words + photos by Laurie Gilberg Vander Velde


“Maybe I will go to the car and get my tripod,” I said to my husband.  We were at the edge of a mostly frozen pond, standing on snowpack, bundled up against the 19 degree cold in the pre-dawn dark.  A glimmer of light was starting to show in the sky.  We had staked out a spot in the line of tripod-wielding photographers with their mega-humongous lenses  We were all waiting for the awakening snow geese and sandhill cranes to perform their morning “fly out.”  We were at Bosque del Apache, a National Wildlife Refuge near San Antonio, New Mexico about an hour south of Albuquerque.  It’s a place known to many serious bird watchers who throng to the area in the winter to watch thousands and thousands -- and thousands of snow geese and sandhill cranes come and go.

We are not avid birders, nor am I a zealous photographer.  How could I be?  I love taking pictures and dabble in PhotoShop, but I tote a point-and-shoot camera.  It’s top of the line and somewhat flexible, but it’s still a point-and-shoot, and the SLR crowd look at me with some disdain.  Much as I would love to use a digital SLR and be able to change lenses, my body just can’t schlepp that much weight.  And my husband, despite my batting my eyelids at him, has turned me down flat.  It was hard not to be intimidated by the very serious looking phalanx of expensive equipment lined up on tripods waiting for “the moment.”

Our home is now in Santa Fe, so we made the easy two plus hour drive to the Bosque (means “forest” in Spanish) the night before, aiming to get there in late afternoon in hopes of seeing the “fly in.”  This is the time during the golden hour before the sun sets and the moments after sunset when tens of thousands of snow geese and sandhill cranes fly in.  A foot of snow had closed the refuge a couple of days before, but the plows had sort of cleared the roads.  The observation decks were still snow covered.  The big problem was that there were limited areas of open, unfrozen water in the ponds, and the birds want to land on open water where they are safer from predators.  The helpful folks at the visitors’ center can tell you where the birds landed the night before, but the birds don’t file a flight plan, so we can only guess where they might land tonight.

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Peru: A feather for any birder’s life list

by Rachel Dickinson

You might characterize me as a casual birder, which is one-step up from an armchair birder. I am married to a man who once headed the Sapsucker team for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in the World Series of Birding so just through sheer osmosis I should be a much better birder than I am. But that would mean I’d have to pay attention.

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Travel Is For The Birds

by Jean Kepler Ross


The last time I was in Bali, I stayed with a friend on the outskirts of Ubud, up in the foothills. I kept hearing about a fabulous heron/egret rookery where the birds came in by the thousands to roost in the trees for the night. I wanted to see the spectacle and my time to go was growing short, so I succumbed to a spontaneous urge late one afternoon, borrowed my friend’s bike and took off down the lane through the rice fields. 

I found the rookery, a few miles away in Petulu. The roosting was a spectacular scene as wave after wave of the showy wading birds arrived and competed for space in a squawking, flapping ritual.

I hadn’t figured on how dark it is at night in Petulu, which I discovered as soon as the sun set. No street lights, no light on the bike, no one knew where I was and I didn’t have a cell phone on me. It was pitch black and I was sorry I hadn’t planned better. I was saved by a local guide on a motorbike and his Australian client - they led the way and I followed their light as they guided me home.

Why had I been so reckless? How did I become such an enthusiastic bird watcher? I was afraid of birds in my childhood. I grew up on a farm in Iowa and it was my duty to collect the mail from the mailbox out by the road. In the summer, I was terrorized by baby black birds that fell out of the trees and, in their terror of me approaching across the broad, grassy lawn, would suddenly flap and screech and scare me. 

Later, I lived near wonderful woods in Ohio, walked there often and learned to know the wildflowers. Then, I wanted to know the name of the brilliant blue bird I saw diving into a stream, so I got a birding guidebook and signed up for a birding class. I also realized that birding is a great way to learn about other places and that I could see a wide variety of birds in the course of my travels.

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Migrating South

by Rachel Dickinson

This time of year when I drive along the road toward the school – the road I know like the back of my hand because I’ve been traveling that road for fifty years – I always notice the starlings on the wire. As the weather turns and the nights get cool and the purple asters and yellow goldenrod fight for space in the meadows, the starlings begin to gather. First there are just a few, balanced precariously, claws gripping the telephone wire as they sway in the wind. But soon it’s like a party up there with hundreds of birds chit-chatting as they cling to the now-drooping wires.

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