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Join the flock at Festival of the Cranes

Snow geese fill a field as the moon sets at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. (Courtesy of Keith Bauer)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Hearing that distinctive bugle call overhead and seeing the “V” pattern emerge from a flock of white slicing through the brilliant blue autumn sky can only mean one thing:

The Festival of the Cranes ( is just around the corner at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

A year-round siren-call for birders throughout the year, the 57,000-acre refuge southeast of Socorro turns into a wing-and-feathered paradise during the annual event from Nov. 20 to 23 sponsored by the Friends of Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. It is one of the organization’s primary fundraisers, directly helping support the refuge.

Capturing sandhill cranes in takeoff mode will be taught in photography seminars during the annual Festival of the Cranes. (Courtesy of Keith Bauer)

“The birds are starting to be here in larger number,” said Deb Caldwell, president of the Friends organization. “They’ll see that. We’ll have a good number of the wintering snow geese, sandhill cranes, raptors, ducks. It’s quite something to see.”

There are few sights more inspirational than the surge of birds in the mornings and evenings, she said.

“It’s spectacular to see the fly out in morning or the fly in at night, if you’re here during the festival,” Caldwell said. “And one thing I appreciated as a new bird-watcher, you can learn about what you’re seeing and understand the behaviors of the animals. You can learn about desert plants in a desert arboretum or learn about crane behavior, learn about raptors, learn to be a better photographer. You can learn about all these things in one place at one time.”

Photographers from Albuquerque, South Dakota and Florida take shots of snow geese and sandhill cranes at the Festival of the Cranes in the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, south of Socorro.

The festival, which pumps about $3 million into the local economy, features numerous seminars, workshops and classes. That includes more than 130 individual events, with about 65 photo workshops, eight hikes and birding opportunities galore, said Julia-Anna Blomquist, festival manager.

“Every year is different,” Blomquist said. “We have different classes, different instructors, different photographers. We have a lot that’s new every year.”

Many old favorites are also back, she said, including the popular Owling Expedition by BRANT Nature Tours.

“BRANT takes folks through the loops and show them owls at night,” Blomquist said. “It’s a much-adored tour, one of our most popular. It’s cold and dark, but it’s pretty magical.”

Although identifying the different owls is certainly part of the excursion, the big focus is on figuring out how to find them.

Among the more popular events are those put on by crane experts Sandra Noll and Irv Nichols.

They will be going over basic crane information as well as discussing the 15 species of cranes worldwide.

The refuge features ones species, the sandhill crane, with two varieties of subspecies: the Rocky Mountain population of the greater sandhill cranes and the lesser sandhill cranes, which migrate from as far as Siberia, the Yukon and northern Canada, Noll said.

Cranes are particularly popular with new birders because of their characteristics and size, she said.

“They’re big birds,” she said. The greater sandhill cranes can stand 4 or 5 feet tall. They’re elegant, and they have a lot of body language, and they’re cool. Because of their size, they’re easy to see.”

New this year will be workshops from National Geographic photographer and filmmaker Filipe DeAndrade, who uses “photography as a tool for conservation,” Blomquist said. DeAndrade filmed Bosque del Apache for a segment of the “National Geographic Wild” series.

Although the festival is an excellent way for the public to experience the refuge, see many birds and gain some photo tips, it is an important way to spread information about the refuge’s importance, Caldwell said.

“It is a great time for us to spread our message of conservation,” she said. “We give them environmental education about this refuge, the birds that come here, the wildlife that lives here and the wetlands and importance of the wetlands. It’s a great outreach for us.”

The big day for that is Nov. 23, when there will be a free, family-friendly event with an exposition tent filled with 25 partners to see photographic and optical equipment, an interactive wildlife zone with reptiles, rescued birds, conservation and preservation information and education.