One cannot readily forget the cacophonous trumpeting and raucous honking sounds of thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese as they take off in unison each morning at sunrise.
This memorable event occurs daily at the Bernardo Waterfowl Area, one of four waterfowl management areas overseen by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish. Comprising of 1,675 acres—of which 450 are annually cultivated in corn, winter wheat, sorghum, and alfalfa—the area serves as the winter home to as many as 12,000 sandhill cranes and 25,000 snow geese.
These waterfowl spend the summer breeding season in northern Canada, Alaska, and the Arctic tundra, and during their annual migration south for the winter, from around mid-November to mid-February, many stop in the New Mexico Rio Grande Valley.
The Waterfowl Area has a 3-mile driving loop and a number of elevated viewing platforms from which the thousands of ravenous birds can be observed and photographed during the day, eating in the planted fields and performing their ritualistic jumping and dancing. It also has a multitude of other wildlife, including mule deer, pheasants, hawks, eagles, and the ever-gluttonous coyotes who are forever on the hunt for an easy meal.
At around sunset, the birds take off, often in unison, and head for nearby ponds and lakes, where they spend the night safe from predators. Thousands of snow geese and sandhill cranes lifting off nearly simultaneously produces a deafening cacophony of sound that will never be forgotten. The pond at the Bernardo Waterfowl Area has a number of blinds from which the birds can be observed and photographed at sunset and sunrise without disturbing them. They spend the night together on the pond and then, around sunrise, take off once again and head for the planted fields.
Know Before You Go
The Bernardo Waterfowl Area (part of the Ladd S. Gordon Waterfowl Complex) is located 50 miles south of Albuquerque, New Mexico. From Interstate 25, take exit 175 and turn left on NM 116 for about 3 miles. The area is on the right. It is open to the public daily from one half hour before sunrise to one half hour after sunset. There is no admission fee. The waterfowl are present from mid-November to mid-February. It is best to arrive before sunrise and head to one of the blinds around the pond where you will see the birds blasting off for the fields. Temperatures in the early morning are typically in the teens or lower, so dress accordingly.