Sandhill Cranes take flight during the Landing of the Sandhill Cranes and Ugly Mug Contest event held at Bitter Lake Wildlife Refuge, Saturday. (Mark Wilson Photo)
The promise of hot cranberry punch and cocoa served in an ugly mug was all it took to draw a crowd to the Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, early Saturday evening. At least 50 people showed up for the first annual â€œugly mugâ€ contest and to watch cranes fly overhead into the ponds of the refuge.
The Friends of Bitter Lake NWR, a nonprofit organization, hosted the family-friendly event to promote public awareness of the refuge and to increase membership.
â€œSome folks havenâ€™t been out here in years, or at all,â€â€ˆJimmy Masters, a board member of the nonprofit and a volunteer at the refuge, said. â€œSo we wanted to let them know we have a national wildlife refuge in their own backyard.â€
Masters added that at least four people signed up to be a member of the Friends nonprofit.
â€œThatâ€™s four more than we had before,â€â€ˆhe said.
Participants were served a hot beverage and then watched an orientation video about the refugeâ€™s unique environment called â€œOasis in the Desert.â€ A winner of the ugly mug contest â€” the mug was a dark blue with a black dog on it â€” was awarded a NWR mug and Starbucks coffee and cocoa. Then, the bird-watchers drove out onto the tour loop to watch seven to 8,000 Lesser Sandhill Cranes fly in for the evening.
â€œTheyâ€™re so wild,â€â€ˆJeanne Jordan, 89, of Roswell, said. She came to watch the birds roost with her son and daughter-in-law.
It was Anna Laneâ€™s first time coming to the refuge.
â€œThis is my first time out here, and Iâ€™ve lived in the area for 86 years,â€ Lane, 86, said.
The cranes began to fly over by 4:15 p.m. Each winter, beginning in November, thousands of cranes migrate from western Alaska and Siberia to Mexico, stopping at various refuges, including Bitter Lake, on their natural migratory route called the Central Flyway of North America.
Established in 1937, the 24,536-acre refuge serves as an important breeding and wintering ground for various birds, fowl and geese.
When the birds fly over, Bitter Lake NWR public use officer Steve Alvarez said, itâ€™s a sight to see.
â€œItâ€™s a natural spectacular phenomenon that occurs every fall,â€â€ˆhe said.
Alvarez noted that the birds flew over in record numbers this season. Aâ€ˆteam of bird surveyors count the birds by sight, he said.
â€œWe counted 28,000 cranes in one day,â€â€ˆearlier this year, he said.
The Lesser Sandhill Cranes migration ends in February. Nesting Shorebirds will begin to arrive in late spring, and hummingbirds, songbirds and dragonflies will begin to appear over the summer.