Bosque Del Apache
© 2003 Laurie Excell
Arriving under the cover of darkness, we douse our headlights as we turn off the main road into the refuge. Running with just our parking lights on we carefully make our way to the flight deck. By the beam of flashlights we set up our tripods, long lenses and cameras, filling our pockets with tele-converters and extra flash cards, an additional camera slung over one shoulder with a wide angle attached. We are ready. At least that's what we think.
Nothing could prepare us for the amazing sensory experience we were about to encounter; thirty-thousand plus snow geese exploding into the air in one huge, swirling, squawking, wing flapping mass. I had to hold on to my tripod to stop from toppling over with dizziness as they surged and swirled overhead. The sound of all their wing beats alone was deafening, as if a low-flying jet was passing overhead. Add to that, each and every one of the geese was honking loudly, calling out to each other. What a chorus. What a sight to behold. Less than a minute later it was over; silence, once again settled over us as they headed towards the corn fields to feed for the day. Now, and only now, after experiencing it for myself did I understand other's inability to explain the phenomenon that was Bosque del Apache. Trying to put the experience into words I too, find myself at a loss. What adjectives can aptly describe an event that had such a profound effect on me that I wasn't sure whether to stand there gaping, letting the sensations of the moment wash over me, imprinting amazing neurochromes and sound bites in my memory or, to reach for my camera and start rapid firing in an attempt to capture images of this spectacular display of Mother Nature's. Luckily, we would be here for a full week. Enough time to get used to the chaos and settle into a routine.
Bosque del Apache or "woods of the Apache" is the winter home to some 35,000 plus Snow Geese, 9500 Sandhill Cranes, several hundred Canada Geese and much more. Located along the central flyway, thousands of migratory birds use the refuge as a stopover to rest and feed on their way north in the spring and the again on their return trip south for the winter. Like the birds, hundreds of photographers and birdwatchers also flock to the refuge during the winter months to bear witness this awesome spectacle.
At or before sunrise each morning the birds do a "blast off" Snow Geese first followed shortly thereafter by the Sandhill Cranes as they head off to the corn fields to feed for the day. Every evening the geese and cranes reverse this process and fly back into the ponds to roost for the night. The water serves as a natural alarm system for the birds as any predator will have to venture into the pond for a meal and the splashing will alert the birds to take flight and escape. I wonder, do they take turns on guard duty?
Each morning the routine is the same, we head to the ponds before sunrise in order to be set up for that magic moment when the sun begins to light the world and the geese take flight. But, geese, being creatures of the wild and the weather being what it is, brought a new experience each day. On overcast mornings, the geese seemed to hang around a little longer, "sleeping in", before peeling off in smaller groups of a few hundred at a time instead of en mass. Even though this was not what we hoped for, it gave us some variety and different compositions to work with. One morning, the geese lifted off, circled around and landed again, allowing us more than one opportunity to photograph their daily fly off. From our vantage point, looking to the east, the geese were backlit against the rising sun, presenting us with classic Bosque mornings.
Mid-mornings and early afternoons are a good time to drive the 15 mile loop. There are many raptors at the refuge during the winter months as well. There is ample opportunity to photograph Red-tailed Hawks, American Kestrels and Prairie Falcons perched in trees hunting for their daily meal. Northern Flickers are abundant while Northern Harriers soar in the thermals. The ponds are filled with waterfowl, Northern Shovelers, Northern Pintails, Lesser Scaups, mallards, bufflehead and an occasional Great Blue Heron just to name a few. We were fortunate to spend some time with a juvenile light phased Swainson's Hawk who was so engrossed in finding food that he paid us no heed, allowing us approach within frame-filling closeness. That same afternoon a roadrunner performed for us, racing back and forth then stopping and holding perfectly still before dashing off again. Each day brought a variety of new subjects for our photography.
As mid afternoon approaches, we head for the north end of the refuge to the corn fields to photograph the Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes feeding. With the constant activity, great afternoon light and the occasional south wind we usually spent the rest of the afternoon working on flight and landing images. A raptor soaring overhead or a coyote hunting would disrupt the feeding, causing the geese and cranes to take to the air, circle around and land again. This is a great location to get mass liftoff and flight shots with front lighting over and over again. When there is a south wind, this is a great location for capturing outstanding landing images as well.
The grand finale occurs just after sunset, while the sky is still lit by vivid hues of reds and oranges, the Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese return to the ponds to roost for the night. Gone is the chaos of the morning lift off, as the light began to fade small groups of birds glide across the water, their landings as graceful as ballerinas, dancing to the light. In the fading light we pan with the flying birds at very slow shutter speeds creating painter-like images of colors and motion. All too soon our week at Bosque is over, our computers are filled with new images, our memories imprinted with the sights and sounds of thousands of snow geese lifting off, our hearts soaring with them as they fly away to return again another day.
I always travel with two cameras, one usually in reserve as a backup. At Bosque, it is essential to have two camera bodies. In the mornings one attached to my longest lens, preferably a 500-600mm and the other with a wide angle over my shoulder. When the action begins there is no time to change lenses. Even with a long telephoto there will be hundreds to thousands of birds in my viewfinder. As the mass disperses there is time to work on smaller groups and individuals in flight or reflected in the water. I use my longest lens with tele-converters for the raptors. They are often found perched in the trees or soaring overhead, scoping for mice or voles to eat In the afternoons when working the fields, I still have my long lens mounted on a tripod with a Wimberley head, an essential tool for smooth panning, and over my shoulder a 300mm with or without a 1.4X converter for flight shots. A wide angle such as a 17-35 or 24-85 is useful for the morning fly away shots against the sunrise and for scenics throughout the day. I take enough compact flash cards, film, to last the entire day as well as plenty of batteries. Socorro is about 15 miles from the refuge, a long trip back for forgotten supplies. A flash is handy for midday shooting to soften the light or to use as a fill light for backlit subjects.
The highest concentration of Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes are from mid-November to late February. Mornings and evenings can be very cold, often dipping into the teens followed by warmer afternoons when the temperatures soar into the 40's and 50's. Come prepared for all weather including rain or snow. Comfortable, waterproof footwear is a must as there are many hours spent standing.
easiest way to get to Bosque is to fly into Albuquerque, NM and rent a car. Travel
approximately 90 miles south to Socorro, NM, the closest town to Bosque. There
are several nice motels in Socorro. I stayed at the Super 8 on the north end of
town and found it to be clean, reasonably priced and each room has a fridge, microwave
and coffee maker plus there is a continental breakfast in the lobby. There are
also a Holiday Inn Express, Econo Lodge and Motel 6. For those who prefer, there
is a campground near the refuge. Socorro has several Mexican food restaurants
in town; my favorite is Frank & Lupe's on the north end of town where
they serve fresh, hot sopapillas. Don't miss the new Socorro Brewery for
the best lasagna around and sample some of their specialty beers. For a real treat,
stop at Manny's Buckhorn Bar in San Antonio, just outside the refuge for
a huge green chile cheeseburger then walk across the street and try some fresh
fudge for desert. There are the usual fast food spots in Socorro as well as a
large grocery store where you can stock up on snacks and supplies.
Excell Nature Photography