Festival of the Cranes Celebrates Birds, Partnerships and Communities in the Middle Rio Grande Valley

By Amanda Keith posted 11-27-2018 02:10 PM


Snow Geese and Ross’s Geese at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge; Photo Credit: Beverly Sinclair.

You will hear the rumble of snow geese before you see them. At the first light of dawn, they cover the water of Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge and there they rest as a blanket of snow. As the sun rises, they begin to stir. You hear a low, roaring thunder and you look out. The water is moving, the birds are flapping their wings and then, they ascend above you in thousands. Their screaming calls fill the sky and block your view of the lingering stars. The geese fly overheard en masse and a moment later they are gone; a snow patch in a distant field.

At the Festival of the Cranes, in Socorro, New Mexico, this is what you were waiting for at 5:00 am on a chilly morning with your toes frozen in your shoes – a chance to watch thousands of birds take flight at sunrise. Once the snow geese are gone, the true icons of the festival, the Sandhill Cranes begin to move and talk. At nearly four feet tall and with wingspans as large as 6 feet, the cranes are unmissable. Their call is a rattling bugle that can be heard up to three miles away. In small groups of five to ten, they take off and they glide across the sky.

The Rocky Mountain Population of Sandhill Cranes, Snow Geese, Ross’s Geese and other migratory birds stay at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge from November to February to feed on pigweed, protein-rich triticale and corn, planted for them by refuge staff. There, the birds will rest until spring when they migrate north again to breed.

Sandhill Cranes on ice at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge; Photo Credit: Stan Bravenec.

This November, the Friends of Bosque del Apache celebrated their 31st Festival of the Cranes and welcomed birders, photographers and outdoor enthusiasts to the refuge to learn about these migratory birds and to support their important winter home in the Middle Rio Grande Valley.

Deb Caldwell, Executive Director for the nonprofit explained that the Friends Group has partnered with the refuge for this festival since the nonprofit was formed 25 years ago.

“When the festival first started, refuge staff wanted to better connect with the local community and share the unique value of this place; they worked with the City of Socorro and the Socorro County Chamber of Commerce to create the original festival. Over the years, partnerships have continued to be the key in making the Festival of the Cranes a success – Friends and the refuge partner with the City of Socorro, New Mexico Tech (the local university), many photography and optics companies (for photography workshops and equipment in the Expo Tent) and several conservation partners to build the multifaceted Festival of the Cranes you see today. Festival of the Cranes has grown to attract an international audience,” she said.

People from all over the world attend the four-day festival to see the birds and participate in the festival’s educational workshops. This year, the festival offered over 140 workshops which focused on birding, photography, and various elements of environmental education. While most workshops were held on Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, Friends also partnered with others for photography, birding, and hiking events – to name a few, White Sands Missile Range, Very Large Array, and Cibola National Forest. In addition, on the last day of the festival, Friends hosted a free-admission Wildlife Zone geared to families in the local community.

Refuge staff teach children about waterfowl at the Wildlife Zone during the festival. Photo Credit: Sigmon Whitener.

“While we have grown as a festival, the crux of what we offered 31 years ago still exists today,” Deb explained. “We work with over 20 conservation partners to make Wildlife Zone interesting and interactive. Kids of all ages attend the Wildlife Zone to see live birds, reptiles, prairie dogs, and learn about bird banding, habitat and conservation. Kids can try their hand at archery and atlatl spear throwing. Each year, we also hold exhibits on the Native American groups that thrived in this area and their traditional cultures.”

In addition to the festival’s role in serving as a public outreach opportunity and a local economic driver for the town of Socorro, the proceeds from the festival workshops support refuge projects that preserve habitat for the birds and other species that depend on the refuge.

During this year’s 31st annual Festival of the Cranes, the Friends of Bosque del Apache also celebrated its 25th anniversary. Over its 25 years, Friends has provided substantial financial and organizational support to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. Through funds generated via memberships, donors, grants and other fundraising activities, Friends has contributed to the improved appearance and effectiveness of the refuge. To name a few contributions, Friends has: purchased and added 140 acres to the refuge and expanded a trail; increased the visitor center by 2,100 square feet; added water infrastructure via installation of an improved surface-water delivery system for wetlands and croplands; installed rainwater catchment systems, solar panels, and expanded the refuge’s Desert Arboretum; and made it affordable for children to get environmental education on the refuge via bus scholarships.

“While It’s Magical to Come Here, this Refuge Does Not Happen By Magic”

Bernard Lujan, Deputy Refuge Manager, explained that the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is a heavily managed public land that requires effort year-round in order to provide enough food and habitat for migratory species.

Each summer, the refuge expects the Rio Grande thru Socorro to dry up. In response, refuge staff preserve groundwater and flood management units at critical times to guarantee the survival of the crops for wildlife and to ensure the birds have proper habitat for the winter. While these management efforts may come across as creating an artificial space, Bernard explained that these efforts are crucial in mimicking the hydrologic cycle that was once achieved by the Rio Grande before it was dammed and used by people in Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico.

“The cranes have used the Middle Rio Grande Valley (MRGV) as a flyway for thousands of years. These are historically wetland areas. Since the Rio Grande is also a needed resource for people, however, there is no longer enough water for this refuge to provide water and crops without assistance,” he said.

The refuge also plays an important role in keeping migratory birds out of private farms in the local area. Sandhill Cranes are adapt at digging through soil and uprooting nutritious tubers. For farmers, it can be problematic for a flock of cranes to land in their fields.

In response, a coordinated plan of the Middle Rio Grande Valley Waterfowl and Sandhill Crane Working Group comprised of agency representatives from the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service -Wildlife Services was updated and is in the final stages of completion.

"The plan is fully compatible with and supportive of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan and species-specific management plans currently in effect," Bernard said. "This plan sets forth management strategies to provide enough crops and habitat so that cranes and light geese utilize designated public lands majority of the winter minimizing depredation on private lands."


Sandhill Cranes feed on plowed corn at the refuge. Photo Credit: Birgit Davidson.

Celebrating the Flyway through Partnerships

Many of the bird species seen at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge travel more than 3,000 miles from Alaska down to Mexico each year. For the Rocky Mountain population of Sandhill Cranes, these birds travel from Idaho, through Montana and Colorado and down to New Mexico. In the 1940’s, this population was at a dwindling 400. Thanks to partnerships and consistent recovery efforts, they are now at more than 20,000.

“Friends of Bosque del Apache has reached out to partner with the International Crane Foundation (Baraboo, Wisconsin) and with Friends of the San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuge (in particular, Monte Vista, CO) to join forces in educating the public about the importance of cranes and their protection. We’d like to expand our reach to partnering with Friends organizations across the whole flyway for the Rocky Mountain population," Deb explained.

In addition, the Friends Group has also partnered with two other wildlife refuge nonprofits in the Middle Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico. Friends of Valle de Oro and Amigos de la Sevilleta support two distinctly different wildlife refuges from the Friends of Bosque del Apache, but all three nonprofits support sites within the flyway for the Sandhill Cranes.

This year, the festival included field trips to Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge and to Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge to help attendees gain a better understanding of the connection between the sites.

“Collectively, our Friends Groups often work together across these 'Refuges of the Middle Rio Grande', Deb said. "We are three contrasting national wildlife refuges, all along 90 miles of the same river. Valle de Oro is the gateway that connects urban audiences to conservation, education and recreation opportunities. Sevilleta is New Mexico’s most diverse refuge with 230,000 acres of prairie, mountains, shrub-steppe and desert, with the Rio Grande running through it. Bosque del Apache is nestled between mountain ranges and harbors a wild stretch of the river and a ribbon of cottonwoods. We work together in conservation and education efforts, and together our refuges offer an amazing and diverse experience for visitors.”

For more information about the Friends of Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, visit their website at