THE sun flares over the mesa and turns the silver pools to indigo blue. Thousands of white snow geese suddenly rise into the sky, their high-pitched cries fracturing the morning stillness. From a corner of the marsh, a flock of sandhill cranes, their skeletal legs extended behind them, climb and are briefly silhouetted against a waning half moon. It is dawn at New Mexico's Bosque del Apache wildlife refuge, a superb spot for a special kind of bird watching.
Not far away, I see a couple standing beside their car, peering into the marsh. They are oblivious to the icy wind scything across the water, absorbed instead in photographing the countless red-winged blackbirds swooping past them. As the swarm increases, the birds nearly conceal the couple like a long black veil. All at once, the blackbirds alter their flight path, and we too are engulfed in an undulating blur of black and red.
``Birds,'' my two-year-old daughter, partial to understatement, announces.
Birds indeed. Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, 90 miles south of Albuquerque, harbors other creatures as well -- more than 400 species of mammals, amphibians, and reptiles. But birds draw most of the 70,000 annual visitors to this flooded stretch of the Rio Grande Valley.
``I don't believe there's anywhere you can get closer to birds for observation and photography,'' says Bosque's Bob Edens, an outdoor recreation planner. ``I've come from South Dakota where you have greater numbers of some species. But the accessibility to the wildlife makes this place unique.''
Bosque's ponds and marshes, some artificially constructed during the depression by the Civilan Conservation Corps, lure 295 species of birds, including the endangered bald eagle and peregrine falcon. In the past decade, the refuge has become renowned for its whooping cranes: nearly one-third of the world's wild whoopers winter at Bosque.
One New Mexico conservationist who visits the refuge each year offers her recommendation for the journey: ``Go at both dawn and dusk. There's no better time than the winter months when the migrating waterfowl are present. In the morning the birds leave to feed in nearby fields; in the evening they return -- tens of thousands at the same time -- filling the air with flapping wings. Each time I go, it takes my breath away.''
When my wife, daughter, and I arrive one afternoon, shadows are beginning to stretch across the refuge; the tamarisk bushes and plumed cane grass are gilded in the late sunlight. The sanctuary offers hiking trails, but the weather is so brisk that most visitors travel in their cars, and we do likewise, following the thin dirt road that loops around the core of the refuge.
After traveling the high-speed asphalt of Interstate 25, it takes a moment for us to learn a slower pace, to discern the subtle movements all around us: the family of mule deer emerging from the mauve and rust-colored underbrush; the congregation of Canada geese and mallards behind a stand of willows. What I take for a stake suddenly comes to life, metamorphosing into an ash-gray sandhill crane. It looks at us, this solitary long-necked specimen, then plunges, pterodactyl-like, deeper into the marsh.
Cottonwood trees fringe one side of the road; this is the bosque (Spanish for woodlands) where Apaches once made their hunting camps. Hunting continues here -- as in half the nation's wildlife refuges -- by regulation. In recent months, quail, rabbits, and a thousand snow geese have been shot in remote corners of the Bosque. On this day, however, no gunfire shudders through the air, only faint and sporadic rumbles from a different federal reservation not far to the east: White Sands Missile Range.
As we drive slowly on, my attention drawn to the incoming waves of snow geese, my wife, Deborah, makes a discovery: In a field to the south, standing out as distinctly as a distant lighthouse, is one of the world's 120 wild whooping cranes.
The bird, with pure white plumage and scarlet crown, is surrounded by smaller, gray sandhill cranes. Its companions are predictable: two of them may be the whooper's foster parents. Whooping cranes here are participants in an ingenious program designed to save the species (which numbered only 15 in the world in 1937) from extinction.
The key to the rescue effort is that female whoopers lay two eggs but raise only one. In 1975 wildlife biologists began taking the ``extra'' eggs and placing them in nests of sandhill cranes. Hatched and reared by these surrogate parents, 30 whooping cranes are now following the sandhills on the latter's traditional migration route between Idaho's Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge and Bosque del Apache.
We drive only a little farther this afternoon after our glimpse of the whooper, then turn around. The sun has slipped behind a range of lavender mountains and the temperature is plummeting. In a few minutes the refuge will be closing; we will be leaving for our motel room in the nearby town of Socorro, to return here at dawn.
When we pass the same field, I look again for the whooping crane, but it has vanished into the underbrush, leaving behind a darkening expanse drained of color. The ponds, teeming with ducks and geese, have grown glassy in the last light of day.
I watch the other cars heading toward the exit gate, their headlights flashing over the marshes, and I sense that this is indeed a sanctuary. Humans can visit, and they are encouraged to do so, but creatures are Bosque's raison d'^etre; these federal acres provide food and water and a rare pocket of tranquillity.
We are among the last to leave; no humans will be allowed to enter until dawn. Bosque is quieting for the night and before long it will be silent. Silent, that is, except for the occasional cry of the snow geese, and the beating of a million wild hearts.