Just before 6 a.m., in a crystal clear pre-dawn chill that numbed her fingers and toes, Allison Frost, a 27-year-old theater professional from Long Island, NY, was waiting in anticipation beside a Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge wetland.

As thousands have done over the past quarter-century at the New Mexico refuge’s Festival of the Cranes, Frost was waiting for the stars of the show— thousands of Rocky Mountain sandhill cranes and tens of thousands of snow geese—to fly out from their nighttime roosting spot for another day of foraging in the Rio Grande Valley.

“Just to see that many cranes flying overhead was awesome,” Frost said afterward. “It’s not something you can find in your backyard. It’s something totally unique and cool.”

“It’s a magical moment,” says Bosque del Apache Refuge deputy manager Aaron Mize. “It’s like when people visit the Grand Canyon. You can photograph the Grand Canyon all you want, and they’ll bring you back pictures, and they say, ‘But it doesn’t really do it justice. You have to see it.’”

The morning flyouts are just one part of the Festival of the Cranes, which turns 25 this year and will be held Nov. 13-18.

The festival began as a one-day affair in 1988—as a way for then-refuge manager Phil Norton to raise the refuge’s profile in nearby Socorro. “When we first started, we had what is known as GP medium military tents that held maybe 20 people,” says refuge work leader Dennis Vicente, who has attended all 24 festivals. “You could smell the green oil they put on it. Now we have big art tents. We have electricity running to them.” And the five-day festival is Socorro’s biggest event of the year.

“Welcome, birders” signs adorn businesses all over town, a testament to the revenue the festival brings to city coffers. It attracts an estimated 6,000 visitors from around the world to celebrate the refuge, conservation and the cranes.

It celebrates 57,331-acre Bosque del Apache Refuge, a sliver of which is the 140 wetland units intensively managed along the Rio Grande for cranes, geese and other migratory birds.

“It’s mimicking a natural process— what the river has done for thousands of years. And those birds have been programmed since the beginning of their time to seek out that habitat. People who worked here before me, who were far smarter than I am, figured out how to make a system function again and make it look as close to a natural process as Mother Nature did,” says Mize. “The birds are programmed to look for that habitat, and, when they see it, they just know this is where they’re supposed to be for the winter.”

The festival celebrates conservation at about 100 events—workshops, seminars, speeches, art sales, hikes and guided tours—sprinkled at venues in Socorro and at the refuge.

And, of course, it celebrates greater sandhill cranes, grayish-white birds that pair for life and can fly 365 miles nonstop, averaging 38 mph. For millennia, they have wintered in New Mexico and Chihuahua, Mexico, and nested in the northern Rockies.

“Today, this refuge represents one of the few wild havens along a muchaltered Rio Grande,” says a display near the festival’s peaked white art tent. “As we face the challenge of meeting both human needs and wildlife needs in a finite world, we might look to our elders for guidance—the cranes. They have millions of years of experience in sustainable living.”

The festival is put on by Friends of the Bosque for three reasons, 2011 coordinator Robyn Harrison says: to educate people about the refuge and the birds; to get people outside (“We offer a large number of hikes, and I’m happy to say most of those fill”); and to have fun.

Still, it’s mostly—but not entirely—about the cranes.

“They’re so graceful. When you see them flying overhead and you hear them, they are the indicators of the change of the season to me, and I always forget how much I miss them until they start showing up in October,” says Harrison. “I love the cranes, but I have to tell you, you can’t beat [snow] geese for a flyout.”

And what does Vicente, the man who has been to all 24 festivals, say about the cranes: “In my culture, being Native American, the sacred bird is the eagle.”