Winter crowds gone at refuge, wildlife abound

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Most of the sandhill cranes and snow geese have flown north — along with the human crowds they attract — but there’s plenty left to awe and inspire visitors at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge as spring approaches.

A recent morning visit revealed black and white Bufflehead drakes (males) in stunning spring plumage, a herd of 14 javelinas (including four babies), an adult bald eagle and three juveniles, a coyote pair, a variety of hawks and sweet solitude. Wild turkey and deer abound all year round. Tour loops closed during the winter are now open, allowing more wildlife viewing opportunities and fewer encounters with fellow humans.

It’s not too late to catch the last of the cranes, geese and eagles. A few cranes, about 400 snow geese and 14 bald eagles are hanging on at the refuge.

“The eagles are getting ready to move out,” said Refuge Biologist Ashley Inslee. “Seventy-five sandhills are up on the north field, and light geese are still migrating through.”

Eye-catching western and eastern bluebirds haven’t moved out of the valley yet and the hawks are “kettling” — grouping together — for their flights north.

“We have a lot of hawks — ferruginous, harriers and red tails,” Inslee said.

Last week, 38 raptors were observed at the refuge.

Bird watchers will have a small window of opportunity to glimpse rare visitors.

“Marsh birds, such as phalaropes, ibis, dowitchers and avocets, will be migrating through within the next few weeks,” she said.

About 15,000 ducks live year-round at the refuge, and the drakes are decking themselves in brilliant colors as the spring mating season approaches.

“They are all in breeding plumage — bright red cinnamon teals, orange and green shovelers. The peak is usually the end of March, but most of them are looking good now,” she said.

The best duck-viewing areas are near the Marsh Deck and north along the tour loop leading to the flight deck.

By the middle of March, bright-green Canada geese goslings will be making their appearance at the refuge, and the number of year-round goose families makes sighting the babies a sure thing.

“They’re the first ones to hatch,” she said. “We’ll probably hold close to 200 Canada geese this year.”

Inslee said American coot babies are also fun to spot, even though they are “incredibly ugly.”