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.
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.
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…
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.
Waiting is what wildlife photography often means. In this case, it was 18F outside and 5:30AM. Luckily we were not disappointed.
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.
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.
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.
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.
While the cranes and geese are the main attraction, Bosque has a huge population of other birds such as:
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.
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.
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.