Cold, really cold, dark and quiet except for a very low, almost imperceptible, muted sibilance, like voices at a distance, heard but not understood. Waiting for the day to give enough light to see and then photograph the hundreds of birds also waiting out the dark on an iced over pond in the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Winter here brings tens of thousands of ducks, geese and Sandhill Cranes to the wetlands and farmed fields along the Rio Grande River south of Socorro, New Mexico. Morning does arrive and the cold is forgotten as the thousands of lives in front of us unfold in a myriad of ways.
I don’t look at morning in quite the same way as I had since reading “Becoming Animal” by David Abram. Actually his perception and sense of the world should change the readers perception about a lot of things but the chapter titled The Discourse of The Birds describes morning (and evening) in a way I had never before imagined. As the light of day chases the dark of night endlessly around the planet, so too does bird song bring day to our ears. Late afternoon is followed by dusk accompanied by the continuous voices of birds. Abram says it best: “Such is the strange world we inhabit: an immense sphere around whose surface two long lines of birdsong are steadily sweeping – always opposite one another, two breaking waves of vocal exuberance rolling ceaselessly around the planet.”
The refuge brings not only huge numbers of birds but also large numbers of wildlife photographers and birders to witness a very rare sight in this country today, masses of wildlife on a scale that takes the breath away. To see and hear a mass ascension of Snow Geese numbering in the thousands is never to be forgotten. Brilliant white birds with black tipped wings roaring through the sky only a few dozen feet overhead, those muted voices now raised to a deafening wall of cries, probably hurled skyward by the sudden appearance of hunting coyotes, leaving clusters of Sandhill Cranes standing undisturbed.
Before the scrim of ice is melted off the ponds by the sun and morning breezes, Bald Eagles look for easy targets among the massed geese, sometimes having to settle for the carcass of a bird that didn’t survive the night, sharing breakfast with Chihuahuan Ravens and Northern Harriers.
There are plenty of opportunities to photograph the wildlife found here with about 15 miles of roads open to the public (depending on weather, heavy snow will shut things down for a bit but is pretty rare) as well as several trails that give access to areas vehicles can not get to. Keep your eyes open for Javelina, Roadrunners and the raptors that some days seem to be everywhere. And this is a wonderful place to watch coyotes hunting mice and gophers on the ditch banks and, the real show, Snow Geese.
Here you can have a front row seat to the ageless contest between predator and prey. A decoy coyote (do they take turns?) will get the attention of the geese feeding near a stand of brown and gold corn stalks while one or more (usually 2 or 3) leap wildly at the birds as they bolt skyward. A collision that disables, or a goose slow to fly will feed the coyotes and possibly a raven or two. Make no mistake, the coyotes will feed but it may take a full morning of running, leaping and hiding before they feast.
Here is the primal power of the wild with all of its beauty and mystery, easily accessed and should not be missed.