The New Mexico Game and Fish Department’s Bernardo Wildlife Area, just 33 minutes north of Socorro, offers rich viewing opportunities for bird watchers who want to get up-close encounters with sandhill cranes this week without the human crowds the Festival of the Cranes attracts.
At least 1,000 cranes were observed from a vehicle on the Bernardo tour loop road mid-morning on Nov. 15 by veteran birdwatcher and former Festival of the Cranes coordinator Mary Nutt. Only one other vehicle was sighted.
Bernardo Wildlife Area manager David Wilson estimates the total crane count at the 1,675-acre refuge to be around 3,000 birds this week.
An exact count is not possible, since birds are moving up and down the valley from the Bosque del Apache NMR in the south to the north valley Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area near Belen and the Rio Abajo Wildlife area near Casa Colorada, which are both closed to the public.
“The cranes are moving back and forth, and they are still moving south (from Colorado),” said New Mexico Game and Fish Department Public Information Officer Ross Morgan.
The biggest draw for the Bernardo Wildlife Area birdwatchers is the chance to observe cranes right in their feeding areas. Bernardo’s three-mile driving tour loop crisscrosses the corn and alfalfa fields where cranes are currently spending the day feeding and interacting with each other.
“Our tour route goes through our agricultural fields,” Wilson said. “The Bosque del Apache’s loop comes around the south edge. Here at Bernardo, you see more cranes, and closer.”
The corn crop has not been knocked down yet to attract hungry birds at the Bernardo refuge, he said. When it is, many more cranes and light geese will arrive.
“We hold about 30,000 snow geese and 8,000 cranes,” he said.
Around 50,000 geese call the area between the Bosque del Apache and the Bernardo Wildlife Area home between December and March. Last winter, he said 35,000 snow geese on average were wintering at Bernardo.
Farm manager Milnor Lucero and worker Martin Martinez were out collecting samples in the fields Nov. 15.
“We’re taking corn samples to calculate yields,” Lucero said. “We are also in the process of filling the big viewing pond with water. It should be full by Thanksgiving.”
He said visitors can observe ducks at the pond.
Sandhill cranes arrive first at Bernardo, and this year they seem to have arrived earlier than usual.
“Cranes started coming in earlier this year,” Lucero said. “Usually they come after Thanksgiving, when it gets cold.”
The snow geese will be arriving soon.
“The geese are on their way here,” said BWA farm worker Martin Martinez. “They are either north near Albuquerque or at the bosque. Once we get really cold, the geese numbers go up. We will have the ponds filled, and the geese and cranes will spend the night in the ponds and the days feeding.”
The Bernardo Wildlife Area is part of the New Mexico Game and Fish Department’s Ladd S. Gordon Waterfowl Complex, which includes three other wildlife management areas not open to the public for bird watching: the Belen and Casa Colorada WMAs near Belen and the La Joya WMA south of Bernardo.
The Bernardo Wildlife Area is open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, except on Dec. 28 and 30, Jan. 19 and Feb. 16. Besides waterfowl, visitors may see bald eagles.
Bicycling, horseback riding and camping are not allowed. Hunting is by permit on special days. Handicapped accessible rest rooms are available, but no water. There is no entrance fee.
The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish works cooperatively with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge to provide habitat and feed for migrating waterfowl, thus minimizing the negative effect of wintering birds on neighboring farms, according to New Mexico Game and Fish Department publications.