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Below is an e-mail conversation that I had recently with Bosque del Apache NWR biologist John Vradenburg (JV). His letter detailing the current conditions a the refuge was sent to me by refuge manager Tom Melanson and is reprinted here with his permission.

AM: Hi John, re:

JV: Hope all is well.

AM: Is thanks and ditto. How is the family? Didn’t you have a new addition not too long ago???

JV: Things are looking fair at this time but is has been a rough year for Bosque. I will try and discuss each of the areas where your workshops focus and give you the good and the bad as well as things that have been done to help the Refuge visitors.

AM: Thank you much.

JV: As you have likely heard this is predicted to be one of the biggest fall flights of waterfowl in recorded history. In any year this would translate into high numbers at Bosque however this year this will likely be compounded by drought conditions throughout much of the southwest and Playa Lakes area pushing large numbers of those birds west towards the Middle Rio Grande Valley. We are planning for record populations this fall and winter and are hoping they arrive. Cranes are moving along the river as I write this now.

AM: All good I assume.

JV: The drought that has persisted over the past 2 years compromised our water availability this spring and summer. By mid-June the Refuge was receiving little water and this hit the farmers pretty hard. Early corn growth was stunted so crop height is lower than most years. This places us in a pinch when we try and manage where the birds feed. Compounding this problem one of our cooperative farmers experienced an almost complete failure of corn. We disked in all failed fields and had milo planted which did well in some areas and not good in others. This crop should help us reduce the food deficit due to the corn failure but how the birds will use it is up in the air.

One of the more difficult issues with the corn failure is that these are the fields on the tour loop so at this time there is little food on the loop. We have taken a few measures that we hope will help provide a quality experience but I will go into that later. Our second cooperative farmer did much better but did suffer high loss/damage from elk and trespass cattle. This is likely going to be a long term problem so were are looking into management alternatives to address it. At this time I suspect the corn yield will be around 500,000 lbs (a little more than ½ what we need), milo should add another 2 – 300,000 lbs so there will be enough food for the birds but we need to get creative in how we provide Refuge visitors an opportunity to get around the birds. We have developed a couple ideas that will help visitors have a quality experience during this tough year without causing increased stress to the wildlife. 1. We are developing a temporary alternate tour route which will take the visitor further north of the existing farm loop where crops did better.

AM: I was once in that area as a guest.

JV: We will provide this alternate route for short periods (2-3 weeks) throughout the winter. The first opportunity will likely occur the week after Festival.

AM: That may work out well for me as IPT is scheduled for SAT 19 NOV through FRI 25 NOV. I would love it if you could confirm that the alternate route would be open from MON NOV 21 through at least FRI 25 NOV. Would that be possible? In addition if you could come up with a firm schedule I could publish it in a variety of spots so that folks could plan their trips from out of state to coincide with the times that the alternate route is open.

JV: 2. We will flood the corn/milo fields that have been mowed. We anticipate that this will create another feeding opportunity for the birds which should in turn create a unique visitor opportunity.

AM: Good for the birds and the visitors.

JV: Outside of the Refuge this was one of the biggest corn production years in a long time with over 1,500 acres in corn.

AM: That does seem to give credence to the theory that since the big fiasco several years ago when the excellent farmers who had been working with the refuge for many, many years were betrayed by a regional higher-up from the FW&S that they chose to stop working with the refuge. My understanding is that that now only the worst area farmers are willing to work with the refuge because the excellent farmers lost trust with the refuge folks. In the good old days of Bosque (mid-1990s to the early 2000s) there was tons of corn by the road no matter drought or blight or elk or cattle….

JV: Most has been cut for silage but there will be some late harvest. Waste grain will be great for the birds so I am hopeful we still get the numbers of birds roosting in the traditional ponds which make for a great morning lift off and evening fly in but may reduce bird numbers during the day.

AM: Me too. Bosque without pre-dawn blast offs would not really be Bosque…. And yes, two years ago things were dismal after the cranes left the crane ponds as there was pretty much nothing to photograph. The situation is even worse for visiting photo groups like mine because it is impossible for a group to photograph hard to approach subjects from a vehicle. This is a great strategy for folks visiting on their own.

JV: The wetlands did really well this year despite the drought. We had one of the highest food production years on record which will translate into great duck use. The downside is due to drought our mowing/irrigation for non-desirable plants was not effective which means more fall mowing. The positive side to this, for the visitor, is more open wetlands than in the past. The downside is we must flood these mowed units slower so the up close experience that visitors enjoy may be delayed by as much as 2 weeks to allow the birds to maximize their feeding on the seeds. I know you will be excited to hear that the flight deck pond has been opened up and very little standing vegetation is out there. Again, the downside will be slower flooding but we started flooding today so the wetland should be at full pool by Festival.

AM: That will be great assuming that there are birds .

JV: As in most years we have had a slew of projects that needed to get accomplished so we had to prioritize and do less in other areas. One noticeable area is the mowing of ditch banks. We are starting to catch up but we will likely still be behind in November. To offset this we are trying to make sure popular viewing sites are done now and we will go back later and catch up with those we have had to skip earlier. We have a good amount of the windows completed, I would say more than in the past in some locations but we are still trying to catch up. We never heard from the volunteer windows crew so Refuge staff has been trying to get this accomplished.

AM: My bad; I forgot completely about the Open Windows Volunteer Program this year and I think that they expected to hear from you. If you get in touch with me next summer we I am pretty sure that I can get a crew together.

JV: We have a new wetland that you might be excited about. On the south end of the Marsh Loop the new John Taylor Trail leads to an overlook that gives a good view of the south farm and some of the restored habitat. To the south of that we have been working on a small wetland. I do not imagine it will be a great bird area this year but anticipate in the next few years this will be a location that will provide great birding and photography.

AM: I will take a look at it this year. It is important to realize that for the most part locations where viewing only to the south is possible are generally very poor for photography on clear days as when you are looking south you are pretty much looking into the sun. I would be glad to let you know my thoughts.

One final thought: if there is any way to have the alternate route open full time after MON 21 NOV at least until the corn is all knocked down it would likely go a long way to ease the disappointment and frustration felt by folks who bought their plane tickets far in advance and find few if any birds along the tour route during daylight hours. For me those 9am blast offs from the corn are the epitome of the Bosque experience.

May I have your permission to publish your letter?

Thanks and later and love, artie

cc: Tom Melanson, Phil Norton, Gary Ruoleau

Though I never heard from John Vradenburg I did receive the following e-mail from refuge manager Tom Melanson:

Artie, The extended alternate tour route will be open November 21 – December 11, 2011 and then again January 14 through February 20 2012. We will not be opening this extended route in future years. You may forward/reprint John’s habitat summary. Tom Melanson

It remains to be seen how productive the alternate route will be. Great, I hope. Folks choosing to visit refuge this year will likely be best trying to time their visits with the periods that the extended alternate tour route will be open. I am unsure as to why opening the extended route has been ruled out in future years especially in view of the fact that the 2010-2011 season will be the second year in the past three with no corn by the tour route. Assuming that there will be large numbers of geese roosting in the refuge ponds there will be many great opportunities for pre-dawn blast-offs and fly-outs and many great opportunities at the crane pools in both early morning and very late afternoon.

Whatever the conditions you can maximize your Bosque experience by purchasing a copy of our Bosque del Apache Site Guide.

For a greater appreciation of this composite image, click on the photo. Click on the enlarged version to close it.


For the past ten years or so I have hosted a Thanksgiving Day midday meal, in part to honor the memory of my late-wife, Elaine Belsky Morris, and in part because I love meeting others who love Bosque as I do. At first it was held at the wonderful and relatively elegant Val Verde Steak House in Socorro, now defunct. Then it was held at the lovely and historic Luna Mansion. Luna Mansion closed a few years ago and recently re-opened but will no longer serves Thanksgiving Day. In 2009 we had fun and a fine meal at the Stage Door Grill but that wonderful little joint recently bit the dust also. Socorro is a tough place for businesses to survive. In 2010 we went a bit upscale and dined in the New Mexico Ballroom at the Hilton Albuquerque hotel. There was tons of food and it was all delicious.

The Hilton is now a Crowne Plaza and the good news is that they are having the buffet again this year. I will be picking up the tab for the IPT group, but as always, all visiting birders and photographers are invited to join us. If you would like to take part in the fun and camaraderie this year please send a check for $40.00 per person made out to “”Arthur Morris”” to cover the cost of the buffet that will include all the traditional items plus lots more as well as tax and tip. Drinks are on you. Please mark ““Thanksgiving Buffet” on your check and mail it to; BIRDS AS ART, PO Box 4041, Indian Lake Estates, FL 33855. Be sure to include your e-mail address on your check and in a short note. Sorry, no PayPals or credit cards. I do hope that you can join us.

I have group reservations for Thanksgiving Day (of course). Those joining us will need to be at the hotel at 11:30 am sharp. It is located at 1901 University Blvd NE, Albuquerque, NM 87102, about an hour up I-25 from the Super 8 Motel in Socorro where I have stayed happily with my groups for well more than a decade. I do hope that you can join us.


  • Jan Weld

    I would love to join you for your Bosque workshop but my schedule doesn’t allow me to get there till January. Any idea what conditions may be like Jan7 thru the 15th. That’s my window for possibly being there. I would be flying in fron Illinois so wouldn’t want to spend the money if its not worth it. I would appreciate any advice you can give. Thanks Jan

    Hi Jan. I have never been in January but have heard that it can be good. I would recommend two things: 1: Keep your eyes on the Bulletins and Blog posts for the latest info in November. 2: Get yourself a copy of my Bosque Site Guide; it will prove to be invaluable. You will feel like a ten-year veteran knowing where to be when in what weather depending on the light and the winds. You can learn about all of our Site Guides here.

  • Mike Cornwell

    I’m mailing a check today for $80 for me and my friend Suzy Lewis.

    Super. We are getting a nice group together. Champion photography blogger/radio host Scott Bourne (PhotoFocus) and Canon Explorer of Light Vincent LaForet are planning to join us. artie