After the last trip on New Years Day to ‘Bosque Del Apache’ to see some of the millions of migrating birds from Alaska, Siberia and Canada. Birds that stay in New Mexico during the winter, wife and I decided to see some more on Saturday 11 January 2014. Bernardo is south of Albuquerque about 50 miles from our home. We left about 3 PM in 58 degree sunshine, to arrive during evening Fly-in. We figured it was like BDA with large spans of acreage periodically under water.
Not so, as we discovered later, the ‘Ladd S Gordon Wildlife Refuge’ is where the birds from Bosque Del Apache fly-in to Feed… in the mornings and throughout the day. As we arrived at I-25 highway exit 175 south of Belen NM, there were no visible signs to point out the entrance, so we mistakenly kept driving past several ponds and fields of the surrounding Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, with hundreds of big birds on the right (south) side of hwy 60 and missed the correct turn-off.
After a few miles to the east, crossing the Rio Grande, we saw the sign pointing to La J(h)oya. Recalling signage along I-25 of a bird wildlife reserve near La Joya, we turned on that highway, coming to the little historic town of La Joya, no birds. The reserve is on the I-25 side of the Rio Grande with no bridge connecting. Maps do not indicate the lack of a bridge :>)
The little town, similar to countless old settlements in New Mexico, looks like it forgot to advance past the 1920’s… or earlier. Last census indicates 0 population, which translates they would not answer their doors or return questionnaires. There we several 1950’s trucks sitting near little houses. One really ancient Greyhound bus seemed as a derelict, far from the interstate highways it once majestically ruled over.
During the 300 years of Spanish settlers, La Joya was the very busy last stop, a trading post, a Walmart of sorts for the numerous Spanish travelers along El Camino Real. They provisioned, restocked their weaponry, fed their animals, greased the axles on their high wheeled Caretas, tending to any last details before the dangerous long lonely haul, following the Rio Grande to El Paso.
Remote location indicates not many people today have ‘real’ jobs. The houses are adobe, with some old adobe walls with no roofs. Most are nicely maintained, one was even for rent. Many are rundown, but quaint in their own way.
The owner that redirected us the way to the bird reserve, was busy laying flagstone under the front porch roof. Metal roof and nice doors with recent stucco made it pleasant, even if basic. Wife liked the other house with a long, south facing glassed ‘clear story’ to let in light and help with heating in winter.
Exposed external, log roof Vegas (natural log support beams every 18″ to 24″ to hold the lattice work, that flat roof membrane is spread over) were topped with sheet metal to prevent sun and wicking moisture rot. Territorial homes were quite large, many times extended families, generations resided under Patrons. Spanish Land Grants are still honored.
Every New Mexico settlement has a Catholic Church, a Sanctuario, finding an end to the pavement just past the old church (100 years is a ‘new’ church in NM), we turned back toward the direction we were informed went to the Bird reserve.
Back west on 60, close to the I-25 exit 175, then turning on frontage road, continuing about two miles north, we found the entrance with a large wrought iron overhead grill trellis structure. This main gate was intertwined with images of Sandhill Cranes. we were excited to see Sandhills feeding as soon as we entered the Ladd Gordon Wild Bird Sanctuary. It is well funded by Hunting and Fishing Licenses, taxes and fees on guns and ammunition. The Sandhill Cranes were in large groups, pecking at standing corn, planted just for their exclusive pleasure.
Wife took pictures every few yards :>) The large (some five feet tall) gray Sandhill Cranes (both ‘Greater’ and ‘Lesser’, referring to the distinct types and sizes that intermingle), didn’t mind, so we drove within about 30 yds of the large flocks at a couple of points of interest. There are elevated platforms to observe and take excellent pictures from high vantage points if desired.
The arid western slopes (east facing sides are forested) of southwestern mountains, give a more dramatic background to the Rio Grande (River Grand) Valley. A river that extends from mountainous Creede Colorado, south through New Mexico, past El Paso Texas, then on south and east to the Gulf of Mexico, near Brownsville Texas. A distance far in excess of a thousand miles. One understands the prehistoric magnetism, the irresistible allure to the massive flocks of migrating birds, even from Siberia over the Arctic Circle, that have for countless thousands of years followed the ‘Grand River’.
The sun was setting, so they were marshaling for their flights down river 40 miles, to Bosque Del Apache. Thousands of Sandhills, all forming into large and small V’s, flew over and around us. Wife was busily snapping her little camera at whatever flew within range. Only one other car and one official truck, so this fascinating place is not busy.
Talking to a friend that lives north of the reserve in another small farming village, Las Padillas, along the Rio Grande. She tells of the nuisance from crop destruction, all of the way north along the river. The big birds are a parasite to valley farmers.They have timer, automatic sensor equipped propane cannons, to scare the birds away. During some mass fly-ins, it sounds like war from the booms every few minutes.
Sandhills can fly at night by moonlight. During migration it is often their unique calls that are heard as they fly well above 10 thousand feet. They kept heading out late, flying low across the treetops, even as the sun fell below the horizon.
I walked into the corn fields to see what size ears of corn the reserve farmers were growing for these big birds. The stalks are skinny, no more than five feet tall, so I expected small ears. Surprisingly, the ears are plump, due to the kernels being normal sized,
‘Dent’ corn is the dry kernels with dents in the tops, due to the moisture absence at harvest time. Sweet corn has lots of moisture so humans can eat it, Pop corn has moisture so it ‘Pops’… no dents.
There are govt subsidized and managed experimental farms all along the Rio Grande Valley. They are planted to ascertain what various crops do well in the irrigated arid southwest. At present Alfalfa is one of the crops. Obviously these short corn stalks, similar to the type grown by the original Spanish settlements, are doing very well. Being a child where ‘Corn grows as high as an Elephants eye’, these stalks and ears are pygmies in comparison.
The Sandhill Cranes are about four to five feet tall on average. No problem feeding in these fields, where they knock down ears for the shorter birds and small animals. I can imagine what wildlife invades these fields at night. I would love to set a tent and camp out here :>) Deer are regular visitors to any corn field.
A gray shadow of big birds is spread around the edges of each corn field and also the stubble where alfalfa, sorghum and grain had likely been harvested. Some of each crop is left for winter month’s feeding of the migrating flocks.
Sandhills have sharp long beaks for self defense and feeding. When in flight they have long outstretched legs trailing and long necks leading. Almost prehistoric in appearance. They periodically duel with their ‘swords’, dancing like in courtship. Never seems antagonistic, more fun than battle.
These wildlife reserves must be working farms by law, to have legally adjudicated ‘water rights’ (the arid West farms are governed by Water Rights) for sustaining the ponds and irrigation.
These hundreds of miles long, flyway strings of corn and grain fields will last the migrating birds until spring, when they depart for the north, following along, picked up by their relatives as they pass through. Millions of friends and relatives returning from their chosen winter grounds further south (Mexico).
The big birds peck at the ground and mill around on their long legs, always watching for predators. A coyote would have a fight to take down these strong healthy big birds… if they could even sneak up close enough.
As I was examining the Corn and harvesting one ear for myself, the big birds watched me intently. They make a loud ‘Purr’, rather than a goose type call. When they are are all ‘Purring’ it gives us the giggles :>)
Leaving, we drove the old highway up the Rio Grande Valley toward Albuquerque, rather than the I-25 along the high escarpment. Los Lunas NM, about 20 miles south of ABQ, is now thriving with New Homes, a new Walmart. Pleasant to take the old historic side routes from time to time. Lets us see the old ways that are still as they were over fifty years ago. Abeytas is one of the villages as well as J(h)arales. A stop in Belen at Taco Bell for a bite, was allowing dusk and a band of sunglow to quietly engulf the western horizon’s hills and canyons above us. The evening temperature dropped from 58 down to 47 degrees as we drove toward ABQ.
There is a large vineyard along the highway for several miles. A small remote winery apparently processes the grapes. They had a wine tasting sign at ‘Black Smuggler’. A few cars had made the short trip through an old tunnel under the railroad tracks, but we passed on this trip :>)