Sunday, August 16, 2015

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge was our wintering volunteer gig. It was chosen for several reasons:

1: it allowed us to be close enough to Kathy's mom if her health issues diminished and we needed to return to Texas quickly.
2: it would be warm enough for Joy yet be close enough to the mountains so Kathy could enjoy some snow.
3: it was close enough to a town instead of a sixty mile drive for groceries like the offer from Choco Canyon, near the Four Corners region of New Mexico.
4: cellphone service! 
5: BdA offered lots of amenities for volunteers, including a lounge with pool-table, piano, shower,  kitchen, and laundry as well as free wi-fi.

We were excited again, after our touristy side trips, to get back to a work setting, so we pulled in a few days early to introduce ourselves and see the refuge. When we walked into the Visitor Center, four volunteers were standing around the counter. They were all friendly.

Ranger Christina came out, introduced herself and offered us our site early. We took it!  Fellow volunteer Jim took us to our site, which was an unusual one that required us to pull in at an angle in order to reach the utilities. While we were setting up, two other volunteers, Mary and Fay, came over to explain the site had previously had an out building on it and had been overgrown with brush and low hanging branches.  They had diligently cleared the site and were a wonderful welcoming committee.  Who knew these two fun ladies would become such good friends!

We really liked that our site was further back in the volunteer RV village and that we only had two neighbors.  The Volunteer RV village has two "loops."  Our loop had five spots but there were never more than three regular volunteers housed there during our stay.  The first loop had 17 volunteer sites. There are also two portable buildings which house one maintenance ranger and various visiting biologist and presenters. The seasonal maintenance ranger, Andrew, seemed to enjoy his time with the volunteers during campfire gatherings and other celebrations in the lounge.

Over time, because we were basically parked in the sand, the nose of the RV would sink and make us unlevel.  Since we planned on visiting other parts of the state on our days off, re-leveling wasn't too big of a deal.

We were finally able to meet Ranger Chris Leeser, the volunteer coordinator, who we had been corresponding with via e-mail for a few months.  As we gradually met the other volunteers, we began to put the pieces of the puzzle together of what life would be like living just south of San Antonio, New Mexico.

Bev and Jim were nearly permanent residents as they had been on the refuge for over a year. They both helped with office work. Our closest neighbor, another Jim and an enthusiastic birder, was married to Kathleen, the mother of three dogs with their own folding lawn chairs and pen. John, an avid photographer, was married to Betty, the social coordinator for the volunteers, and both were avid card game players.   Wayne organized the shared library and specialized in jigsaw puzzles.  He lead hiking tours through the canyon and assisted with birding tours.

Mary and Fay became our best friends during our time in New Mexico and we have kept in touch with them, and have actually seen them, since leaving the refuge. Mary drove the refuge tractor and worked on various maintenance projects and Fay worked the fee booth with Kathy. Both are avid cards players and after whooping them several times in spades, we finally had to learn canasta so they would have a chance at winning for a change.

Not long after our arrival, Ranger Chris hosted a volunteer ice cream social which allowed us to meet the rest of the other volunteers. Bill and Cheryl, first time volunteers, had just come from working at a campground in the Rio Grande valley of Texas. Joe and Margaret, volunteers with over 2500 hours for US Fish and Wildlife, came ready to work but had to leave early due to a family emergency. James and Diane came in late in the season to take over for Margaret and Joe when they had to leave, Paula worked with Joy at the visitors center while her husband, Bud, worked with Mary in maintenance.

There were also four singles ladies.  Vickie, who left not long after we arrived; Priscilla, a repeat volunteer; Elzie, a biologist looking for work; and Carrie, who moved into Kathleen and Jim's site after they left. The volunteers actually outnumbered the employees at the refuge, which says a lot about funding for our federal lands.  The staff rely heavily on our abilities to work independently and get things done.

Celebrations on the refuge ranged from regular Tuesday night social gatherings to large pot luck Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners to volunteer recognition ceremonies. NWR volunteers receive free annual interagency park passes for 250 volunteer hours per year. Volunteer Coordinator Ranger Chris does an excellent job honoring the volunteers by tracking hours and handing out recognition pins after staff contributed meals. It's nice being recognized for hard work in this way. Our work at BdA consisted of customer service, cashiering, and interpretive roving. Kathy worked in the fee booth, a 8' X 10' building at the entrance to the 12.2 mile scenic driving loop.  Joy worked in the visitor center, a large building with museum-like displays, a gift shop, meeting rooms, and staff offices. As volunteers, we were the front line staff of the refuge. We greeted visitors, assessed their needs, provided them information about local current wildlife and sent them on their way to explore. 

During our shifts, we were allowed to drive the refuge and meet with visitors as they sought wildlife. This was a great opportunity to photograph landscapes and wildlife ourselves, as well as to learn about the variety of flora and fauna with which we were not familiar.

In November, The Festival of Cranes is THE big event and after a brief orientation we were allowed to sign up to work at different workshops and events.  Joy signed up for several workshops held at the fie house in San Antonio, NM, a small town 8 miles north of the refuge. The workshops were presented by private groups, such as Hawks Aloft, who talked about local hawks and their behaviors, using several live birds of prey for demonstration.  We both worked the "fly in," which we had heard about for weeks.  We rode on refuge buses out to the "flight deck" area of the refuge and walked back into a closed area about a half mile off the main road. As the sun set, the birds began to arrive. Slowly, in small groups at first, but then more frequently in larger groups.  The sky filled with prehistoric shapes of large winged animals, legs flowing behind as hundreds of sand hill cranes flew in and landed on their overnight roosting spots. It was an experience we will never forget.

Meeting visitors on the refuge is sometimes fun and other times tumultuous. It's fun showing excited birders a new species for their lifetime checklist or having them report unusual sightings, such as bobcats and mountain lions. It can sometimes be tumultuous when dealing with an overzealous photographer trying to get his or her money shot, disregarding boundaries and the animals they seek out. Sometimes we ended up being the Blue Goose police. The "area closed" signs have the USFW logo of the Blue Goose and we remind visitors that the signs reflect boundaries established to protect wildlife. All in all, most everyone visits the refuge for the animals so they get the idea that it is really a sanctuary area.

Obviously, the refuge mission has worked in restoring riparian habitat so the varied waterfowl species continue to flock to an area that is otherwise desert. Wet soil management is the major function of BdA because of the extensive use of the Rio Grande River water by farmers. Bosque del Apache is the premier refuge to see both greater and lesser sandhill cranes, as well as light geese. People literally come from all over the world to watch these glorious birds on their wintering grounds as they fatten up in preparation for the spring mating season. In fact, the oldest fossils found in New Mexico are thought to be sandhill crane bones. As you can see from our pictures, this is a wonderful area in which to spend winter and we absolutely loved it.