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There are many and varied reasons that New Mexico is known as the Land of Enchantment.
High on that list, the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge is a gathering sanctuary for the denizens of the sky and those who passionately adore them.
And there’s no better time or way to appreciate all that the 57,000-acre refuge southeast of Socorro has to offer than attending the 29th annual Festival of the Cranes Nov. 15-20.
It’s a glorious pageant of nature celebrating the annual migration of birds as they head south for the winter.
“We’re recognized as one of the best birding festivals in the whole country, one of the best wildlife festivals in the country,” said program director Michael Hanauer. “Large birds, sandhill cranes coming in, snow geese and all the ducks; then you get eagles or coyotes flushing them and you will have thousands of birds flying right over your head. You feel like you can almost touch them.”
Naturally, as a stopover on the flyway south, “birding is leading the way, followed by photography, but we also have multiple other things associated with the festival other than birding or photography,” he said.
Over the course of the festival’s six days, nearly 160 events (friendsofthebosque.org/crane/2016schedule.html) are on tap; some free, some costly and all intriguing, Hanauer said.
“Our program is super-strong this year,” he said.
Many of the free events are targeted at youths and young families, Hanauer said, hoping to encourage and foster a lifelong love of outdoors and wildlife.
Among those is an introductory course in bird-watching that includes ways to enjoy and succeed as a birder from Stephen Ingraham, ZEISS Senior Brand Advocate for Birding and Nature, Hanauer said.
Likewise, the Duck Banding Project and Young Birder’s Walk are tailor-made for youngsters and their families, he said. In duck banding, biologists annually participate in a central flyway project to mark ducks to trace migratory patterns. And the guided walk around the refuge headquarters will reveal numerous birds sure to enthrall the younger set.
Of course, when it comes to many of the other events, the appeal goes to the experienced.
Given the stunning natural beauty of the area, coupled with the ever-enticing wildlife and bird life aspect, the festival naturally draws those with an experienced photographic eye, Hanauer said.
“You can really experience stuff that is a wonder,” he said. “The views, not only of the mountains and not only the river, but the trees are turning and you have the early-morning and later-afternoon sun, wispy clouds, and you get these colors that are just amazing. Then you add the next layer with the wildlife is so close, it becomes a very special moment.”
To help visitors capture and preserve that moment, many of the events are geared toward photography.
Award-winning Albuquerque photographer Keith Bauer (keithbauerphotography.com) has been shooting in the area for more than 25 years and will be leading two classes. One will focus on digital post-processing with Photoshop and Lightroom, and the other will be on capturing birds in flight.
“I’ll be teaching people how to optimize their images and get the most out of them,” he said. “And I’ll be teaching them how to capture birds because they’re fast-moving subjects. Bosque del Apache is one of the best places in the Southwest, and sometimes the whole United States to do that.”
When it comes to the latter, it’s imperative to know your subject, Bauer said.
“One of the most important things is understanding the birds’ behavior so you understand when they’re going to do something,” he said. “It gives you a head start when they’re going to fly. We’re looking for a tail that tells us it’s going to fly; understanding their behaviors so you’re ready for the action when it happens. You don’t have time when it starts. It’s too late. You have to be ahead of the game.”
All this activity can make one hungry, and one of the special treats of heading to or from Bosque del Apache is taking a side trip to eat. The San Antonio Owl (sanantonioowl.com) and the Buckhorn Tavern (buckhornburgers.com) are both nationally renowned for their unmistakably New Mexican green chile cheeseburgers. Either joint will dish a meal that will sate the hungriest traveler or nourish the biggest adventurer.