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Symphonic cacophony: Located on the New Mexico-Texas border, cranes and other birds put on a feathered show at Grulla National Wildlife Refuge

Lesser sandhill cranes are a photographer’s dream during the morning’s magic hour at Grulla National Wildlife Refuge. (Courtesy of Jude R. Smith/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

Grulla National Wildlife Refuge is so far east that it could be Texas and as a matter of fact, a little bit of it does leak onto the other side of the border.

But for shutterbugs and bird hounds, the unusual 3,230-acre refuge is a haven rich in wildlife.

About two-thirds of the refuge (fws.gov/refuge/grulla) southeast of Portales is filled with a spring-fed, saline lake.

While not for drinking, it does attract plenty of grullas – the Spanish word for crane.

Mule deer are among the wildlife that can be spotted at Grulla National Wildlife Refuge.

“They’re actually discharge lakes,” said Jude R. Smith, refuge project director. “Water comes up from springs in the ground and fills them. It’s the remnants of an ancient ocean and the water doesn’t have anywhere to go. It’s an odd formation. Historically, the lakes used to stay wet nearly all the time until we tapped the groundwater for irrigation for domestic use.”

Still, even if there are just a couple of inches of water, the cranes and other birds on the wing dominate the refuge this time of year.

Badgers are predators that lurk at Grulla National Wildlife Refuge.

“I had a high count of 100,000,” Smith said. “That big old lake was wall-to-wall sandhill cranes. They use it to roost and as a resting place. They really don’t need that much water; if there is only an inch or two inches across that water, they love it.”

A nighthawk perches on a railing at Grulla National Wildlife Refuge, where nearly 90 different bird species have been identified.

That type of congregation is a thrill to see, especially in the mornings as they leave en mass to feed nearby.

“You can see a long ways and the cranes come into the lake at night,” Smith said. “They group up to roost. They hear or see any of the predators trying to get to them. In the morning they’ll take off, feed in a cornfield or alfalfa field or prairie dog town. Stay out for a few hours, and travel back and hang out for the rest of the day. About four in afternoon, fly off again, and then just all come in and roost at that lake at dusk.”

About two-thirds of Grulla National Wildlife Refuge is filled with a saline lake filled by underground springs such as this.

Not surprisingly, it is quite the symphonic cacophony as cranes are milling about.

“It’s noisy,” Smith said, although he cautioned this may not be the best of seasons. “We’re probably not going to have a tremendous year unless we get some rain in October. When they’re all gathered up like that, that’s all you can hear is them old cranes talking. You can hear them from half a mile away. It’s neat. When they start stringing out, if you look on the horizon, you’ll see thousands of cranes going to feeds. It’s truly impressive in a good year.”

As many as 100,000 lesser sandhill cranes have been seen at Grulla National Wildlife Refuge in one season.

But cranes are just a part of the feathered show. Golden eagles, nighthawks, whooping cranes, quail, swans and white-faced ibis are just a handful of the nearly 90 bird species that have been recorded at Grulla since it became a refuge in 1969.

“Sometimes you can hear prairie chickens from the parking lot,” Smith said.

Coyote, badger, bobcat and other predators lurk in the surrounding prairie grass, while mule deer make frequent appearances.

There is no hunting or camping on site, although the refuge is open day and night. There is one short, semi-established trail that wanders from the parking lot to a lake overlook, but the entire refuge can be safely walked. The goal at some point is to add another trail along the state line, Smith said, so visitors can walk with half their body in New Mexico and the other half in Texas.

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