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Posts Tagged ‘New Mexico autumn’

Sandhill Crane Up Close ©SR Euston

Sandhill Crane Up Close ©SR Euston

Evening approaches at Socorro County’s Bosque del Apache. We hurry to the northern end, where the cornfields and shallow wetlands are. Across the field we spot an enormous, restless, white, honking swath. Looking closer, we see it’s a giant gaggle of snow geese, recent arrivals from the north.

Overhead, ragged streamers of huge gray sandhill cranes circle, their gravelly voices filling the dusky sky. They land and mingle gracefully among their smaller cousins, all of them feeding contentedly.

But the show is just beginning. At some command, unheard by human ears, the snow geese and sandhills, almost as a whole cloth, rise up in a deafening rush of white and gray and black wings. They move just southeast and, with quieting calls and honks, settle in for the night among the ducks in the shallow darkening water and bent reeds across the road.

Dusk and Cranes ©SR Euston

It’s a remarkable experience of pure wildness. And it’s a show that happens at the Bosque twice each day, from November through February—sunrise as the flocks leave, and sunset, when they return.

Some winters upwards of 80,000 birds converge on the Refuge, a birdwatcher’s paradise of ducks, snow and Ross’s geese, and the Bosque’s most famous visitor, the Sandhill Crane.  And it is one of New Mexico’s great environmental success stories with the revitalization of a severely damaged Rio Grande ecosystem and the resulting rebound of the once endangered sandhill crane population. 15,684 were counted in February of this year.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), about 20 miles southeast of Socorro, is a 57,000+ acre chunk of prime riparian and mountainous desertland. Created in 1939 to restore migratory waterbird habitat, it is protected and managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  Much of the upland is an officially designated wilderness. But 7000 acres of intensively managed and irrigated farm and wetlands along the Rio Grande are open to the public. Here, along a 12 mile dirt road loop lies a remarkable mix of desert, mountain vistas, irrigated fields, marshes and cottonwoods.

As well as ample blinds, decks and pullouts for watching the avian winter show.

Bosque Autumn ©SR Euston

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“The Water Rat was restless, and he did not exactly know why….ever observant of all winged movement, [he] saw that it was taking daily a southing tendency….It was difficult to settle down to anything seriously, with all this flitting going on.”  from Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.

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Journey's End: Backyard Leaves

All this “flitting going on,” as Ratty describes it, isn’t limited just to his little piece of English countryside. Here in Albuquerque, we’ve been noticing a great deal of flitting ourselves.

Throughout the summer our backyard birds are limited to the usual southwest urban suspects: white-winged doves, sparrows, the occasional thrasher.

But since last week, as the air has turned ever crisper, autumn blue, new visitors have arrived at our waterbath. Migrating flocks of tiny plump Audubon warblers, yellow rumps with white wing bars catching the early morning sun, flit around the terra cotta bowl, snatching quick drinks with their pointed beaks. Larger rufous-sided towhees work the ground, their orange and black perfectly timed for Halloween. Their cousins, the less showy brown towhees have reappeared as well. Robins arrive in messy flocks, throwing water around, ruffling their wet feathers as they bathe. There are chubby black-capped chickadees, and rosy throated house finches. Tiny bushtits in small flocks strip the arborvitae clean of insects.  Raucous scrub jays shout from juniper hedges, and an occasional woodpecker, always somehow on the far side of the trunk, taps away.

Perfect backyard birdwatching. Still, like Ratty, I can feel they will soon be gone. That “southing tendency” is definitely in the air.

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Backyard Pyrocantha

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Backyard geometry

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Sandia Gold

Sandia Gold

You know it’s autumn in New Mexico when you find yourself standing in a grocery store parking lot next to a rotating wire mesh barrel, watching the new chile crop turn from bright green to charred black as it roasts. You can see the gas-fired heat waves shimmering up into the deep blue October sky.  And oh that aroma! Some folks may go for the cinnamon in a baking apple pie, but as for me, I’ll take that pungent, unforgettable autumn scent of roasting chile any day.

But then, after all, I am a New Mexican. A daughter of the American West. Oh not by birth but definitely by choice. As Emma Brown points out in a profile of Annie Proulx in High Country News:  “Proulx moved to Wyoming from Vermont in 1994 and right away went about challenging the notion that you can’t know the West — or write about it — unless you were born and raised here.” As Proulx herself continues, “… the stories just are there because the place dictates what happens.” (For this entire fascinating interview go to : April 13, 2009 issue of High Country News at www.hcn.org)

I know I’m no Annie Proulx but I do know I’ve loved my thirty years living and exploring the West. From its great open emptiness of basin and range, to Figueroa Street in downtown Los Angeles, from saguaros to sagebrush, from broken glass strewn roadsides to pristine glacial lakes, from my desert’s annual eight inch rainfall to my southern Oregon coast wintertime cottage’s 75…where do I begin to tell you all about it?

Right here. On an aspen-viewing hike to Sandia Crest, the mountain rampart that holds Albuquerque, my hometown of choice, in its hand.  From above, looking down into an inaccessible canyon, waves of yellow gold autumn leaves mixed with the green of those not quite yet ready to give up their chlorophyll, the scene is as breathtaking this Wednesday as it has been for myriad October hikes past.

So come. Join me as we Wander West. Let me show you around my Home on the Range.

PHOTO ESSAY:  SOUTHWEST AUTUMN

Magdalena Backroad

Magdalena Backroad

Autumn Wetland

Autumn Wetland

Sycamore Bronze - Gila Country

Sycamore Bronze - Gila Country

Chamisa Dunes

Chamisa Dunes

Rio Grande Cottonwood

Rio Grande Cottonwood

October in Deming, NM

October in Deming, NM

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