As the sun slowly sinks behind the distant Chupadera Mountains, a rhythmic beat of wings and guttural call echoes the silence of the marsh. A gently swaying line of sandhill cranes is silhouetted against a blaze of orange and crimson. The birds circle and gracefully land, creating a network of ripples that radiate across the shallow water.

From Nov. 19 to 22, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, 20 miles south of Socorro, N.M., will celebrate its annual Festival of the Cranes.This four-day event welcomes the return of sandhill cranes after their 1,000-mile migration from the wetlands of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

Bosque del Apache was established in 1939 as a "refuge and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife" and as a wintering area for the then-endangered sandhill crane.

Now, countless species of birds winter here, including more than 14,000 sandhill cranes, 50,000 snow geese and 60,000 ducks, together with many different amphibians, reptiles and mammals.

The sandhill cranes and endangered whooping cranes draw the crowds to the refuge during the festival.

In fact, the crane (worldwide there are 15 species) has fascinated people since earliest times, and it is woven into religion, folklore and mythology in many parts of the world.

In Japan, cranes are symbols of happy marriage, fidelity and longevity. In Vietnam, it is said that they carry the souls of the dead to heaven.

Crow Indians thought that little birds migrated on the backs of cranes, and that the chirping of the passengers entertained their hosts during the long flight.

Many American Indian tribes copied the crane's expressive courtship patterns in their dances.

Cranes are among the largest birds on earth and thought to be the oldest living species. Whooping cranes stand about five feet tall and have a wingspan of up to seven feet. They mate for life and live up to 20 years.

Fifty years ago, only 19 "whoopers" were left in the wild. In the 1970s, a foster-parent project was started to increase the flock by placing whooping crane eggs under nesting greater sandhill cranes at Gray's Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho.

The young whoopers successfully imitated the migration patterns of their foster parents, but failed learn the correct mating dance and to breed with others of their kind. Today, there are about 250 worldwide including two or three that it is hoped will winter at Bosque del Apache.

Refuge manager Phil Norton recounts, "A few years ago, a whooping crane male got tired of hanging around for a whooper female and mated with a sandhill crane. We ended up with a young hybrid." For a while this bird could be seen among the sandhill cranes.

Early morning and evening, from November through February, are the best times to view the wildlife at Bosque del Apache. Numerous sandhill cranes and snow geese blanket the sky as they commute between the daytime feeding grounds of corn stubble and the night's roost in the safety of the marshes.

A 15-mile, one-way tour loop (with a two-day cutoff halfway along) allows motorists to enjoy the wildlife of both riparian and desert habitats. With good binoculars and a long telephoto lens, one can observe and take photographs without disturbing birds or animals. They are used to traffic along the loop, and a car makes an excellent blind. A number of observation platforms (wheel-chair accessible) overlook the marshes and fields.

Four easy trails with benches and observation points enable hikers to explore differing ecosystems.

Traveling through the refuge, one is constantly surrounded by the calls of birds reverberating back and forth across the open spaces.

An undulating flight pattern announces the presence of a northern harrier. A coyote prowls through the undergrowth. A mule deer disappears into the thicket of cottonwoods and willows alongside the road.

A lone great blue heron stands motionless in the lake. Behind it, across the broad Rio Grande Valley, rise the barren, broken mesas of the Chihuahuan Desert.

A little farther on, a golden eagle soars soundlessly in a deep blue sky, eyes fixed on a field of white dots below. Suddenly, five thousand snow geese explode into the air honking nervously.

In a field of corn stubble, sandhill cranes spend the day socializing and building energy for the northerly spring migration. If one looks carefully, one might spot a large, white whooping crane among them.

Clouds of red-winged blackbirds swirl here and there among the geese like tiny tornadoes.

It's no wonder that this nature lovers' paradise draws more than 12,000 visitors a year to the Festival of the Cranes.

Co-sponsored by Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge and the Socorro County Chamber of Commerce, more than 90 events are scheduled for this year's festival. Featured are guided bus tours to areas of the refuge not normally open to the public, workshops led by experts in such topics as nature photography and backyard birding and arts and crafts exhibits by local artists.

As the outline of the mesa softens in the darkening western sky and the desert stars appear unbelievably close and bright, thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese settle in the dim water for another safe night from predators. One by one, carloads of visitors leave the refuge to the wildlife.

*****

Additional Information

Utah wildlife refuge Open house

New Mexico isn't the only place birds of a beather flock together. Fish springs National Wildlife Refuge in Utah's west desert will host its annual open house Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Activities will include air boat rides, Pony Express history talks (the refuge is on the Pony Express Trail), environmental educational games, American Indian history speakers, bird tours, native plant tours and more. To get there, follow the Pony Express Trail west from Vernon. There are no services along this all-gravel route. That means no gas station, no convenience store, no official rest stops. For information call 522-5353 (from Salt Lake City) or 1-435-831-5353, Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

If you go

Getting there: Socorro is 75 miles south of Albuquerque and 150 miles north of Las Cruces on I-25. From Socorro take I-25 south to the San Antonio exit, go east to State Highway 1 (the caution light), then right (south) eight miles to the refuge. If you are heading north on I-25, take the San Marcial exit and drive 10 1/2 miles north on State Highway 1.

Visitor center: The best place to start your visit to the refuge is at the visitor center. Here you will find current information about what festival events are happening at the refuge, up-to-date data on bird sightings and populations, videos, displays and a bookstore. Weekday hours are 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Weekend hours are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Call 505-835-1828.

Entrance to the refuge: The 15-mile-long tour loop is open from one hour before sunrise until one hour after sunset daily, including Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. November through February are the best months to visit. A fee of $3 per passenger vehicle is payable at the entrance. The refuge honors Golden Age, Golden Eagle or Golden Access passes.

Where to stay: The nearest hotels are in Socorro. A selection includes: Econo Lodge, 713 California St., 1-505-835-1500 or 1-800-4CHOICE, and Economy Inn, 400 California St., 1-505-835-4666.

Camping: Bosque Birdwatchers RV park is on the road (N.M. 1) between San Antonio and the refuge, 1-505-835-1366, and Socorro RV park is on the Frontage Road, just south of Socorro, 1-505-835-2234.

Where to Eat: Socorro has a good choice of restaurants in all price ranges. Most are on California Street, the main street through town. A selection includes several fast-food restaurants, El Camino Restaurant, Owl Bear Cafe and Steakhouse and Val Verde Steakhouse.

What to bring: Socorro lies at an elevation of 4,600 feet. The weather is usually cool and dry in mid-November with highs between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit and lows near freezing. Bring warm clothing for evenings and early mornings.

Good binoculars or a spotting scope are necessary for maximum enjoyment of wildlife. A limited number are available for rent at the visitor center.

Pictures of birds and small animals taken with a point-and-shoot camera or one with a 35 mm to 80 mm lens may prove dissapointing. A camera with a telephoto lens of 200 mm or greater will produce better close-ups of wildlife.

For more information: For a catalog of events and pre-registration forms for the 1998 Festival of the Cranes, and information about accommodations available in Socorro, contact the Socorro County Chamber of Commerce at: Festival of the Cranes, P.O. Box 743-F, Socorro, NM 87801; 1-505-835-0424.

Pre-registration for all events closes Nov. 1, 1998. Or register in person at the Chamber of Commerce at Socorro. Many events, however, have limited space and fill up quickly.

Christina Williams