Sunday, December 23, 2012

Photography at Bosque del Apache

Dick Pick and I flew down to Albuquerque, New Mexico and drove 70 miles south to Socorro.  We stayed in the town and drove each day to the national wildlife refuge Bosque del Apache. Dick is a friend who I met while being a mountain host at PCMR.  We both do a lot of wildlife and landscape photography.
You love it when a trip starts smoothly, but this one wasn't that.  We were both getting ready to go the night before, planning on getting on a 9:50am flight.  Independently we each discovered that we had booked the 9:55pm flight. After numerous calls to Delta, we ended up stuck on the evening flight.  That meant getting to the hotel at around 1:00am, only to get up well before sunrise for a long day.  Not sure how we both screwed up and neither of us ever realized it.

The only other real problem was Wednesday afternoon.  We headed up north to a New Mexico state wildlife refuge called Bernardo.  It held a lot of promise, but the incoming cold front was cranking up some serious winds, which seemed to pick up all the dust New Mexico had to offer. This is one of the only times I can remember seeing a wall of dust coming at me from miles away.
The two main things that Bosque del Apache has to offer during the winter are Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes. This week the estimate was 40,000 geese and 10,000 cranes. There are lots of other things there, but these are the main attractions.
Every morning started early, getting to wherever you were going to shoot before the sun thought about coming up.  The trick is how to photograph something that is flying around at a good clip in light that you couldn't read by. One trick is just to expose for the sky and get some silhouettes.
Snow Geese are not as big as Canada Geese but they are fairly large and quite pretty.
The amazing thing with the geese is when the take off in groups. These "blast offs" occur every morning just at sunrise and then randomly throughout the day.  The best description is loud, energetic chaos.  It's actually so much sudden noise and action that I would describe it as thrilling. I kept expecting to see a collection of dead and injured birds laying on the ground every time they took off. How do that many birds, each that large, fly in such a tight space?
It is interesting to think about "who gets to decide when it is time to go?" and "who decides where they are going next?".   Sometimes they all fly up, circle a few times and then land in the same field.  That seems to be when the "time to go" bird said NOW but the "where to go" bird just wasn't ready for a change. Certainly too many birds to vote on either.
We were standing in a raised blind taking these last few shots.  Sometimes the mass of geese would fly by so close and so fast, making photos impossible.  When they would back off a bit, it was very pretty.
As I mentioned, the other bird to see is the Sandhill Cranes.  They are beautiful to watch, matching a gangling awkward style on the ground with smooth, graceful soaring in the air.
I think the cranes look more prehistoric than other bird.  Their wingspan is up to six feet across and it looks just like the pterodactyls drawn in dinosaur books.
Even just standing around they look unique.
Compared to the geese, which often land at high speed, the cranes are more like a skydiver, pulling hard on the parachute at the last second, slowing to an air stall, and then dropping ever so slowly to the water.
Look at the photo above and the photo below.  It's hard to imagine that something so thin and boney can fluff itself up to look more like a plump Thanksgiving turkey.  Of course the wind chill was down around 0, so we were dressed like fluffy animals ourselves.  Someday someone needs to invent a DSLR camera with giant buttons that you can work with heavy gloves on.
One frustration was trying to catch a crane just as it started to take off.  You might be watching a flock of a hundred, looking through a long lens with a narrow field. It's tough to see them fly until they are halfway gone.  Then we got smarter...  We noticed that a crane getting ready to fly would almost always start leaning over, often for a minute or more.  Once we verified that the pattern was very repeatable, we were able to get a lot better pictures at take-off.
Huge and gangly but still so graceful.
You just can't beat the 10 minutes at sunrise and sunset when the light is just perfect.  They call it the "golden hour" but I have never seen it last nearly that long.

Late in the evening, the light is so low we are back to shooting silhouettes. This one has his landing gear down.
Not a great picture, but just something different.  The moon was fairly high in the sky and few of the birds appeared that high on the horizon. The nights were supposed to be very dark, so we were going to do some star shooting, but it was just too cloudy.
While the geese and the cranes were the main attractions, there were lots of other birds and animals around.  We missed the refuge's big mammals, which include elk, mountain lions, bobcats and coyotes.  Both Dick and I were really hoping for some bobcat photos.

I think our prize bird was the Roadrunner.  He was extremely cooperative and did exactly what his name suggests, running along the road.  We followed him for a while before he cleverly turned down a road we weren't allowed on.
I like watching the blackbirds fly as a flock.  They are like the geese, taking off and traveling as one, but they change direction a lot faster.  I was taking some shots of this group when they suddenly made a nearly perfect heart shape. Keep it around for a bizarre Valentines card.
One approach to taking pictures in insufficient light is just to give up sharpness and try to get a pleasing blurred look.  I tried it a number of times with the geese and never got anything I liked.  I did like this shot of some blackbirds flying by.
We had a couple of shore birds wandering along the edges of ponds including Snipe and Long-Billed Dowitchers.  I haven't figured out what this little guy was.  He wasn't much bigger than a sparrow with long legs.
This Killdeer stopped to admire a goose feather..
We saw about a dozen varieties of ducks including mallards, shovelers, widgeons, buffleheads and pintails (below).  We were going to stop by the Albuquerque zoo on the way home to photograph some wild Wood Ducks, but we ran out of time.
A Great Blue Heron was frequently found hanging around the entrance to the refuge.  He didn't do much for a setting because he was fishing in a fairly ugly ditch.  However, he was kind enough to let us get close enough for a head shot. If you double-click on the photo you can see all the nicks and tears on his bill.
While we didn't spend much time photographing it, there is definitely some nice scenery in the refuge.  The first afternoon the winds were almost completely still, which gave the pond a gorgeous reflection of the blue sky and clouds.
It is a lot of work, but a photographer could do very well shooting raptors in the refuge. With almost no effort, we saw Bald and Golden Eagles, Swainsons, Red Tailed and Coopers hawks and a Kestrel.  They also have falcons and owls, but we weren't hunting for them.

Things for me to remember, or for any other photographers reading this:
  • Staying in Socorro is great. Close to everything. We stayed at America's Best Value Inn which was basic but very clean and comfortable.  The owner is up putting out a simple breakfast well before our pre-sunrise departures.
  • The brew pub across the street had great food. Frank and Lupi's Sombrero Cafe was also good.  There's a nice coffee shop about a half mile from the hotel, but they don't open until 7:00.  We did get lunch there and it was very good.
  • Make sure you don't just do Bosque del Apache. 
    • Give serious consideration at sunrise to the crane ponds on your right, just before you get to the visitors center.  The sun is rising right behind you and you get great light on the birds.  You miss the big goose blast-off, but we didn't care.
    • Head north 20 miles to Bernardo.  It's 3 mile loop was spectacular in the middle of the day.
  • Pay serious attention to the wind direction.  The birds take off and land into the wind.  If they are landing away from you, all you get is their backs which makes for boring photos.
  • It would be nice to have a day to just focus on the other stuff: bobcats, coyotes, ducks, hawks, ...
  • We got lucky with our rental car.  We rented a full-sized Sedan, but Alamo was out of them.  They gave us a minivan, which is great for throwing cameras and tripods into the back.  I hung out with my gear in the back seats while Dick drove with his cameras next to him. I would definitely try and get a minivan on any other photography jaunt with two people.
I still have a bit of photo cleanup to do, but I wanted to get this out on the blog.
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