Visiting Bosque del Apache

— on December 17, 2018 by in nature | Photography

If I’m honest, this was not my first trip to Bosque del Apache, but just the first one that matters. Last spring I stopped by, but long after all the migratory birds had left. This time, I was there during the middle of peak season.

Sandhill cranes sit in marsh water in Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. A cottonwood tree is in full fall color.

All About the Birds

Bosque is all about birds. It’s a major migratory stop over for sandhill cranes, snow geese, an occasional whooping crane and a few other species. It is easy to get close to 100s of cranes and tens-of-thousands of snow geese.

Snow Geese Blast Off

One of the big attractions of Bosque is the early morning “blast-offs” of snow geese. They collect in large groups, tens-of-thousands, on water around dawn. And then, all at once, they take flight to head off to forage in the fields. It’s basically the worst rush hour ever in fifteen seconds.

Snow geese fly overhead on their way to find fields to forage in. 

Catching the snow geese on the ground requires an early start. I was up every morning at 4:45 AM. The goal was to arrive before they “blasted off”. They gather in water to protect themselves from predators. At some point, a signal goes out, and they all take flight at once.

That happens other times besides dawn. My first day there I witnessed a large blast off near sunset. The geese had been collecting in a field. At some point they all took flight. It’s hard to miss. It’s loud…

1000s of geese take flight near sunset at Bosque del Apache.
1000s of geese take flight near sunset at Bosque del Apache.

I actually only saw one good dawn dawn blast off. It was on the last morning I was there. It’s always a little bit of a guessing game as to where the geese will be in the morning. And in fact, we didn’t see them take off from where they slept. They gathered together flying in small groups of a few hundred birds each.

The blast off on Wednesday (my last day) morning started with no birds present. We drove the north loop of the refuge and found no large gathering of birds. We ended up at the large lake (that I call “bald eagle lake” thanks to the almost continual presence of a bald eagle on a dead tree in the middle).

We’d heard from others that they had consistently been there in the morning. 

When we pulled in, there were no geese present. About 2 minutes after we arrived, geese started streaming in. Over the next 10 minutes, the lake went from empty to full. We waited, cameras prepped for The Event.

Snow geese sit on a small marshy lake at sunrise waiting to take flight.
Snow geese sit on a marshy lake at sunrise waiting to take flight.

Waiting is what wildlife photography often means. In this case, it was 18F outside and 5:30AM. Luckily we were not disappointed.

Thousands of snow take off from the water during a morning "blast off".
1000s of snow geese take off from the water at one time around dawn.

Sandhill Cranes

The sandhill cranes ended up being what I photographed most. They were more consistent in the morning and at sunset. Rather than aggregating into one huge group, smaller groups of several hundred cranes could be reliably found in a couple of locations.

Sandhill cranes sleeping before dawn at Bosque del Apache.
Sandhill cranes sleeping before dawn at Bosque del Apache.

The cranes woke up and left in small groups of 1 to 6 individuals instead of on-mass. That made photographing them a much calmer affair. There was time to consider, try different things and use different light.

Sandhill Cranes flying in a pair at dawn. Abstract and blurry.
An abstract image made from predawn light and sleeping cranes.
Panning shot of a sandhill crane in flight at dawn.
A sharp photo of a sandhill crane flying in crisp dawn light.

Sunset was equally reliable with the cranes returning to a couple of spots every night. Once you realized where they would be, all you had to do was be there in position and ready about 45 minutes before sunset. Individual and groups of cranes stream in until just after dark.

A crane flying out of a sun flare near sunet.
A sandhill crane comes in for a water landing with glowing wings backlit by the sun with a fall colored tree in the background.
4  Sandhill cranes glide through the air infront of the mountains of New Mexico.
A sandhill crane glide through a gap in the trees in a panning photo.
A sandhill crane forages among the grass table in a field with many other cranes.

About Those Blurry Photos

You may noticed that many of these shots aren’t sharp. Why? It isn’t a lack of ability. Modern gear is spectacularly good at focusing and tracking animals and it requires only basic technical skills to get a frozen shot of a bird. Rest assured, I got plenty, as you see in this post. 

However, I didn’t feel like taking ONLY tack sharp images. They are very literal and totally fail to capture the frenetic chaos of a large bird colony in motion. I wanted to show the energy and chaos of a large bird colony.

Getting “blurry photos” I liked involves a lot of trial and error. I guess at the right slow exposure time, then attempt to track a bird or group of birds with my 500mm lens.

If you are thinking “that sounds like it won’t work” you are right most of the time. Lots of factors have to line up. I have to predict the bird’s path right, I have to move the lens very smoothly, the backgrounds have to bee appropriate at the moment of shutter click, etc.

Here is an example of one burst of shooting all processed the same way for consistency:

This sequence was taken at 1/15s shutter speed. Some of the images are ok, but most are “misses” destine to be deleted. Here is the “winner” from this particular set, cropped and edited individually:

This is NOT spray-and-pray. I’m making a conscious choice to use the specific settings to get an effect. I also know that it will take 10 to 20 photos to get all the factors to line up.

Other Birds

While the cranes and geese are the main attraction, Bosque has a huge population of other birds such as:

A mature bald eagle sitting in a tree.
Mature Bald Eagle 
A northern Harrier on the hunt.
Northern Harrier
A road runner on the side of the road.
Road Runner
A red shouldered hawk leaps into the air from a tree.
Red Shouldered Hawk
4 imature bald eagles in a large tree.
Immature Bald Eagles
A small song bird in a mesquite tree.
Small Song Bird
A bluebird in a tree.
Blue Bird
A great horned owl sits hidden deep in a tree.
Great Horned Owl
Wild turkey forage among the corn stalks.
Wild Turkey

We saw others I didn’t manage to photograph like American Kestrals, ducks for days and Canadian geese. Pretty much everywhere you went there were birds crowding in.

There and Back Again

I road tripped to Bosque from San Diego. It was a mere 12 hour drive. Counter intuitively, Bosque is about equidistant from Austin and San Diego. However, the drive from San Diego is much more interesting, at least if you get off I-8 and take highway 60 from Pheonix AZ to Socorro NM.

Along the route you pass through some pretty spectacular landscapes particularly east of Phoenix. You will pass through the Tonto National Forest, the Fort Apache Reservation and go through the Salt River Canyon just to name a few.

Salt River Canyon at sunset from about half way up the switch back road.
Salt river canyon from about half way up the side.
Salt River Canyon at sunset from about half way up the switch back road.
Sunset at salt river canyon.

Never heard of the Salt River Canyon? I’m not surprise. Neither had I. I suppose that isn’t surprising in a state with the Grand Canyon in it. Anywhere else, it would be a well known natural wonder.

I didn’t have the time in my schedule to do more than pull off and take a couple of snap shots. I need to go back at some point soon and spend some time in the area.


The photo club I helped found, NAPfS has new leadership for 2019. One of their goals is to run more excursions. 2019 NAPfS VP Randy Dykstra organized the trip. 

Randy Dykstra points while explaining what to expect at Bosque Del Apache.
NAPfS VP Randy Dykstra explains what to expect at Bosque del Apache

If you live near Austin, you should check them out. They are a great group and I don’t just think that because I helped found the group.