Our daughter Mary was home from college for a few weeks over her holiday break. My wife, Dawn, and I often push for family walks with varying degrees of success or enthusiasm from Mary. About 10 days ago, we hit the jackpot.
Our daughter Mary was home from college for a few weeks over her holiday break. My wife, Dawn, and I often push for family walks with varying degrees of success or enthusiasm from Mary. About 10 days ago, we hit the jackpot. We suggested a drive down to Ladd S. Gordon Wildlife Refuge, about an hour south of Albuquerque, and sold the idea of a walk around the birding loop that most folks drive. She agreed.
Down we went. Oddly, when we arrived, there was a dusting of snow on the ground, the clouds were thick and a bit of a cold breeze greeted us as we stepped from the car. Usually you can count on warmer, sunny days at the refuge. I stayed cheery but was not sure how Mary was going to take the less than ideal conditions. The loop is about 2.5 miles. We were pretty much alone at the refuge. One or two cars passed us as we walked.
The start was chilly, but something happened about 10 minutes in - the birds blew us away. Maybe it was the colder than normal temperatures, maybe the snow, maybe the clouds, I'm not sure why - but we saw many hundreds of sandhill cranes standing thick among the fields only yards away from our path, their distinctive rattling call filling the air. Flock after flock of hundreds, maybe thousands of snow geese flew over us, low enough to really get a good look.
A group of six deer crossed the road in front of us as we skirted a meadow lined with stands of trees. Ponds, often dry, were filled with water. The whole thing was amazing. We forgot about being cold. We agreed that it was the most beautiful day we had ever seen at this refuge - and on any day, it's a beautiful place. Had I known before we started out that the weather would be less than perfect, I might not have suggested it. I'm so glad I did.
We got closer than normal to hundreds of one of the tallest birds in the world, the sandhill crane. This elegant bird, with long legs and neck and a scarlet red cap, is a real stunner. With a wingspan of up to 7 feet, they are even more beautiful in flight.
We are lucky to have them winter in New Mexico along the Río Grande and other waterways. Now is the time to get a good look at these beautiful birds. Whether you head to Valle de Oro Wildlife Refuge, at the southern end of Albuquerque or Ladd S. Gordon - or even all the way down to Bosque del Apache - you just can't be disappointed with sandhill cranes.
Snow geese are a little more hit or miss for me, but when I am lucky enough to see them in the winter, I see them by the hundreds. Small by comparison to the sandhill crane, the snow goose is about 3 feet long with a 4-foot wingspan. They travel in large flocks in the winter and are all white with distinctive black wing tips.
Sandhill cranes and snow geese are often seen at the same places in New Mexico in the winter, near undisturbed fields near waterways. They will both start migrating north in February.
Anne Schmauss is the co-owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Santa Fe and she loves to hear your bird stories. She is the author of "For the Birds: A Month-by-Month Guide to Attracting Birds to Your Backyard" and "Birdhouses of the World."
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