Way out in the central New Mexican desert lies a magical place. Bounded by mountain ranges on the east and west, the Rio Grande River flows through the desert scrubland and brings live-giving water to the desert.
Socorro, New Mexico is much like any other small town in the United States. There’s a quaint little downtown area, a Wal Mart, and a smattering of hotels and restaurants. What sets the town apart from most small burghs is what lies a few miles south of town - the Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.
From its size, you know that this refuge is special. At just over 57,000 acres, this refuge is a big one. However, just a tiny fraction of the refuge is what attracts the attention of most. In the refuge’s interior, just next to the visitors center, lies a couple of thousand acres of managed wetlands that, each fall, attracts waterfowl by the tens of thousands.
For the most part, the refuge is a wildlife haven year around. However, when the weather turns cold, the refuge is home to one of the most amazing wildlife spectacles in North America as thousands of ducks, snow geese, and sandhill cranes filter into the refuge to feed and winter in the desert along the Rio Grande.
When I was there the numbers of birds were comparatively light but still impressive nonetheless. In the refuge’s main lake, cranes and geese roost overnight. Standing in just a few inches of water, the birds begin to stir at twilight and a near constant buzz overtakes the wetland as the snow geese prepare to leave the marsh to feed in the nearby farm fields. Each morning, just before sunrise and for reasons I cannot articulate, the snow geese on the marsh take flight all at the same time. That’s right - they blast off in unison for no apparent reason.
Imagine 50,000 snow geese taking flight all at once. The cacophony of geese honking is deafening and the sight of all of those birds in air at the same time is truly amazing. Then there are the cranes.
Tall and graceful, the sandhill cranes cruise from the farm fields to the ponds and back in graceful flight. Since so many people visit the refuge, the birds (and all the wildlife) are oblivious to humans and you can watch them do their thing from just a few feet away. The sight is so incredible, I find it hard to adequately explain in words.
Besides the wildlife, the area is full of other attractions like the Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope just a few miles west of Socorro or the Trinity Site just southeast. For military buffs you may remember the Trinity Site as the location where the world’s first nuclear bomb was detonated and movie buffs may recall the VLA in the Jody Foster flick, Contact.
On my way out of the refuge at lunch on Saturday, I found one more place to stop. In San Antonio, New Mexico is the Buckhorn Tavern. The Buckhorn proudly proclaims itself as having the #7 hamburger in America. Therefore, we stepped in and ordered the burger that Bobby Flay challenged on an episode of Food Network’s Throwdown - the Green Chile Cheeseburger.
I think the Buckhorn is being modest in their claim of being #7. After all, the burger defeated Bobby Flay’s in the head to head challenge. Leaving full, we head back out to the refuge for one last evening of exploration. At last light I see a coyote heading towards our truck and I quickly snap a few pictures. For a coyote, he came unusually close to us and I took advantage of his curiosity by snapping plenty of images. Maybe he could still smell that green chili cheeseburger.