I have a fun post for you today. If you live in the Albuquerque area, one place that you really should visit is the Bosque del Apache wildlife refuge. And you should really visit it between November and February, because that is when thousands of migrating birds winter there each year. They have some great photography and lots of interesting information on their website, so if you are interested for sure check it out.
It is a few miles south of Socorro, NM, so it's about a 90 minute drive from the middle of Albuquerque where we live. We have been there before, but it's been quite a few years, so I was really excited to go again (with my long lens! Photography heaven). Now, when you talk to someone who knows about this refuge, they will tell you that you need to go at sunrise. Since it is a 90 minute drive, we have young(ish) kids, and it's really cold here at sunrise in the winter, that is something that my family has never even really tried to do. This year I realized that it would also be nearly as incredible at sunset, and this is my first bit of advice for families with young kids. You do not need to go at sunrise for an amazing time - sunset is at a pleasant 5:00pm right now, and it was perfect.
We arrived at least a couple of hours before sunset. We went first to the visitor's center, which is really nice and has lots of fun things for kids to do and learn about. One of the better visitor's centers for children that I've seen from the NPS. You can rent binoculars if you forgot to bring yours (AGAIN). And your kids can get a pamphlet to fill out to become a JUNIOR RANGER. Yes, a real Junior Ranger, complete with a badge.
I would have taken a picture of my daughter with her badge, but she lost it too quickly for that (don't remind her, she will be sad if you do). But it was extremely rewarding for her to do some observations, record her answers, and get the special badge when she was done. I think the NPS does a good job with this program (pat on back). My son was too obstinate to do it and my older daughter didn't realize that she wasn't TOO old - nevertheless, a success. My kids are interested in conservation and biology any time (badge or no badge).
The park itself is kind of a driving tour place. There are place to stop off and go on hikes, shorter and longer. We hiked on a boardwalk that was very pretty, with nearly no birds at all except this little one.
The main touring loop is breathtakingly beautiful. It's really a driving kind of place, but we had a little time while we were waiting for my daughter to go back to the visitor's center and get her badge, so some of us took a short hike. We just knew we'd seen a blue heron a little ways back. So we walked back and sure enough, saw this gorgeous big blue heron - which immediately flew away before I could take a picture. Oh well. (Here is where the heron isn't.)
As the sun began to get low, the birds took to the air.
My kids got to climb up on top of the car when we stopped, so much fun.
There are something like 17,000 sandhill cranes at the refuge in the winter. They have the most interesting call (actually they have more than one call, but there is one especially distinctive one). You might hear it in the bosque around Albuquerque as well. You can hear a nice recording of it here.
And the snow geese are absolutely beautiful. There are more than one kind of white goose wintering at the refuge, but these are mainly snow geese. They migrate from as far as Siberia and northern Alaska and Yukon Territories. All the way to our little neck of the woods (my kids were very impressed at this distance).
As the sun set, more and more birds flew. It was breathtaking.
And on our way home we stopped at the Flight Deck boardwalk, for one last bit of heaven. (Kid perspective - "hey Mom, these binoculars work for free!") A really great day trip, and you don't need to leave at 5:00am for a very impressive show.
This is kind of an afterthought, because I really just wanted to talk about the Bosque del Apache. But since we didn't need to be there early, we decided to take a side trip to the VLA (Very Large Array). We've been wanting to visit there forever and never quite managed to do it. It's about an hour from Socorro, so we decided to go there first.
There is also a nice visitor's center, a movie that we liked, and you can go on a short but informative walking tour. We learned a lot about radio telescopes (well, my husband probably already knew that stuff, but the kids and I didn't). You can go right up to one of the dishes - it's ginormous.
From a photography and kid perspective, I think the coolness of the VLA depends a bit on the orientation they have the dishes in. There are 4 arrangements, ranging from very close together to a maximum distance of 22 miles across the Y orientation. We got to see configuration B, which is kind of spread out but not as far as it goes. I believe they change the configuration every 6 months. So, to me, it would have been a little cooler if the dishes had been closer together. But we still enjoyed it a lot.
The visitor's center there is open almost every day, so you can visit any weekend. But they also offer guided tours on the first Saturday of the month. More information on their website.
I love finding good things to do outside in nature with my kids - in winter! And, if you decide to visit also, my last hint is: find your binoculars ahead of time! :)