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Posts tagged ‘Birds’

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

Snow geese at sunrise, Bosque del Apache NWR

Bosque del Apache, a wildlife refuge in south central New Mexico, is one of the premiere locations for bird photography in the United States.  It’s a wintering spot for thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese (and dozens of other species of birds).  Its 57,000 acres straddle I-25, the Rio Grande, and El Camino Real.

I first came here in 2005—with a 35mm film camera, a few rolls of film, and with an 80-200mm f/2.8 as my longest lens.  I came back with a digital camera and better lenses every year for awhile.  After a few years, I got burned out and stopped coming.  It was getting more crowded, and I felt like the refuge was being managed in a way that made the photography harder.

I’d been wanting to come back; I’d heard reports that the refuge was in better shape for photography.  I had a window of time right before Thanksgiving where I could drive to Socorro, spend a couple of days photographing, and then drive back.  It’s a long drive, but driving let me bring more gear than I would been comfortable flying with.

Here’s my gear list:

  • Fujifilm X-H1
  • Fujifilm XF 16-55mm f/2.8 lens
  • Fujifilm XF 50-140mm f/2.8 lens
  • Fujifilm XF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens (sometimes with a 1.4x teleconverter)
  • Nikon D810
  • Nikkor 24-120mm f/4.0 lens
  • Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 lens
  • Nikkor 200-400mm f/4.0 lens

(Along with two tripods, a ballhead, a gimbal mount, assorted camera bags, memory cards, a laptop, batteries, chargers, etc.)

It’s the first time I’d used any of my Fujifilm equipment for bird photography, and I’d say it did fairly well.  It sometimes doesn’t feel like it’s great at autofocus, but when I switch to my Nikon DSLR, I’m reminded that it’s not perfect, either.  Bird photography is just challenging work.  Like many modern camera, the Fuji allows you to customize how the autofocus system works. For the X-H1, I used these autofocus settings in continuous mode:

  • Tracking sensitivity: 1 (0.3s before refocusing)
  • Responsiveness:  Phase detect priority
  • AF mode:  all (set to 91 focus points)

These seemed to work reasonably well, but I still tossed about 20% of my photos for not being well enough in focus.  Such is my life in the photography of birds in flight.

(Please click the images to enlarge and see more detail.)

I arrived after dark on Sunday, so I went straight to Socorro to my hotel.  The next morning, I got up early and drove the 20 minutes or so down to the refuge.  We had great pre-dawn light that morning (which did not happen either of the next two mornings).  Temperature was about 25 degrees, but it wasn’t very windy, so it was quite bearable.

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Before Sunrise at Bosque del Apache, November 2019

After sunrise, the light turned harsher and less colorful, but mist rising from the water in the cold air created an interesting mood.

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Snow geese and sandhill cranes in the mist at sunrise

One of the things we’re kind of always hoping and waiting for is a snow goose blastoff, when a flock decides to take flight. All of the birds are skittish of predators (such as coyotes), and it’s amazing when several thousand birds collectively decide that they all want to be someplace else.

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Snow goose blastoff at Bosque del Apache NWR
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Snow goose blastoff at Bosque del Apache

Day two turned windy. It was warmer–only in the 30’s in the morning. But we had 20 mph wind gusts. Still, it was not a bad day for photography. The video below tries to capture some the experience of hanging out with tens of thousands of birds. (Sorry for the wind noise.)

Sights and Sounds of Bosque del Apache NWR

Early Monday afternoon, I decided to try one of the hiking trails in the refuge. The Canyon National Recreation Trail is about 2.5 miles long and hikes up into Solitude Canyon, then rises to the rim for the return.

GPS track for the Canyon National Recreation Trail

There’s a nice view of the main part of the refuge when you get to the high point of the hike. The visitor’s center is on the left, with the “north loop” in the center of the photo.

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Bosque del Apache NWR, as seen from the high point of the Canyon Trail

Here are a few snow goose portraits:

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Snow goose in flight, Bosque del Apache NWR
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Snow geese in flight, Bosque del Apache NWR

And some sandhill crane portraits:

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Sandhill crane at Bosque del Apache NWR
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Sandhill cranes in flight at Bosque del Apache NWR

There are a variety of other birds, too, in lesser abundance.

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White-crowned Sparrows at Bosque del Apache NWR

I made a side trip during the middle of day 2.  I drove west to the VLA (Very Large Array), part of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.  It’s currently in its most compact configuration—a mere 0.6 miles in diameter.  A month and a half ago, it was in its widest (22 mile diameter) configuration.  It was cold and windy—about 25 degrees Fahrenheit with a wind chill of about 10 degF.  There was a light dusting of snow on the ground.

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The VLA radio telescope in Configuration D, November 2019

On my way back through Socorro, I stopped in at New Mexico Tech (The New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology), to see if the duck pond was still there.  Sure enough, as soon as I walked up, I was greeted by noisy and apparently hungry wigeons and geese—all wishing that I had brought feed for them.

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This was a great trip to Bosque, but quick. The day I left (Wednesday), the weather started to turn. Sunrise showed some initial promise, but it quickly turned into a gray day. I heard that the refuge received six inches of snow on Thanksgiving day.

Here’s one of my last images from Tuesday at sunset, of three sandhill cranes finding a place to spend the night.

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Sandhill cranes at sunset, Bosque del Apache NWR

Puffins of Tuxedni National Wildlife Refuge

About 12 miles north of Silver Salmon Creek are a pair of islands that are part of the Tuxedni National Wildlife Refuge.  In this photo, the larger island is Chisik Island, with the Aleutian Range and the Chigmit Mountains behind it in the distance.  The small island in the right foreground is Duck Island, where hundreds of Horned and Tufted Puffins nest.

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Thanks to our neighbors at Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, we were able to take the lodge’s boat to see the puffins.  As you can see, this was one of our calm, clear weather days, and the puffins were very active.  They were only a few days away from leaving the island—they winter at sea in the Gulf of Alaska.

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Here’s a photo of Duck Island as we departed, with Redoubt Volcano in the distance.  Redoubt last erupted in 2009.  (Another active volcano, Iliamna, is about 15 miles west of the lodge.)

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Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, Alaska

I just got back from hanging out with bears in Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, in southern Alaska about 125 miles southwest of Anchorage.

Map picture

These are coastal brown bears, ursus arctos horribilis. They’re genetically the same as grizzly bears—“grizzly” generally refers to inland bears.  A couple of hundred bears spend time along the coast here.

Living along Silver Salmon Creek, the bears have access to a varied diet of  salmon in the creek, clams on the beach, and sedges in the tidal marshes.

(Click any of the images to enlarge.)

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The focus of this trip was bears, but we saw a few birds, too—bald eagles, puffins, plenty of seagulls, a couple of harriers, and red-winged blackbirds, to name a few.  Here’s a bald eagle on the beach, thinking about fish.

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Here’s a greater yellowlegs, tringa melanoleuca, wading at the edge of Silver Salmon Creek.

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In upcoming posts, I’ll share a few more bear photos, talk about the lodge that served as home base, and discuss my photo gear choices.

Please comment if you have questions you’d like me to answer in upcoming posts.

Bosque 2012, Day 3

I got up half an hour earlier today to try to get a decent spot to set up my tripod and camera just south of the “flight deck” area at Bosque.  It was still crowded with dozens of photographers, just like the day before.  I’m not complaining, mind you; just remarking.  I think it’s wonderful that (1) some great pro photographers are making money holding workshops, (2) Bosque is making money through the entrance fees, and (3) people are excited enough about bird photography and the refuge to visit and spend time there.

The sunrise colors weren’t that spectacular today; I’ve seen much better.  So, I decided to try for something different.  There were a bunch (tens of thousands) of snow geese in the water, and I knew that sooner or later they’d all blast off.  I envisioned a shot similar to one I’d done before with a relatively slow shutter speed, to blur the birds taking off.  I switched to a shorter (80-200) lens, and waited.  And waited.  Finally, the birds went, and I started clicking the shutter.

Here’s one of the photos, using a shutter speed of 1/3 second.  I really like how the birds in the foreground are relatively still while the birds in back are taking off.  By the end of the sequence of photos (not shown here), there are no birds left in view.

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Bosque 2012, Day 2

I spent almost the whole day at Bosque today.  I continue to sort out where I should be at different times of the day.  Sometimes I feel like there’s one “best answer” for where to be at any point in time.  But of course, there are a lot of “best answers”.

A lot of people are visiting Bosque right now, and I see a lot of photographers crowding together for the same view.  I was apparently late getting into place before dawn this morning, and had to squeeze in among a few dozen other photographers at one spot to see what there was to see.  After a few minutes, I recognized that there were better photos to be made elsewhere, and I moved on to have a great morning at the crane pools.  Almost no clouds today, and morning temperatures in the high teens.

At the end of the day, I was reminded once again that there are a lot of options for photos here.  There weren’t many clouds, but I was hoping for a little bit of color in the sky at sunset.  I was waiting at one of the crane pools when I heard a voice behind me say, “Brian, you’re facing the wrong way”.  I turned around to see Artie Morris and the rising full moon.

The cranes were flying in, and it was just a matter of time before one flew in front of the moon.  I said to myself, “okay, Artie, you’ve convinced me”, and I turned my camera around and decided to go for that shot instead.

Artie is a great teacher; you can learn a lot by just hanging out with him.

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Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

For the first time in four years, I made it back to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.  I arrived this afternoon, and had a couple of hours of sunlight to try to come up with a plan.  Each year at the Bosque is a bit different—the refuge managers change things up every year.  I drove around the entire refuge to see where the crops are growing, which fields are flooded and which are dry, and see where the birds are hanging out.  There are a lot of potentially good spots for sunset, but on any given day, only a couple are likely to pay off.

I knew that sunset was likely to be pretty spectacular; there were several high clouds in the western sky. I chose one of the areas on the east side of the refuge where it looked like I’d have a clear view of sunset, with several hundred sandhill cranes in the foreground.

I was a little nervous as people left just before sunset—did they know something I didn’t?  I stuck with the decision to stay at my location and see what was going to happen.  As the sun went down, there were some nice pale oranges in the sky, but I had a feeling that the colors were going to get better.  I waited.  A couple more people left.  I waited.  And then a hint of color in the clouds, and a bit more, and finally…

It was worth the wait.

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This evening at a restaurant in Socorro, I ran into Arthur Morris, one of the world’s best bird photographers.  It was good to see him, meet his workshop co-leader Denise Ippolito, and see his workshop participants.  You can read more about Artie in this blog post I wrote in 2008.

That’s it for now; I’m hoping for a great sunrise in the morning.

Viera Wetlands, Brevard County, Florida

At the suggestion of a friend, I stopped by the Viera Wetlands, near Melbourne, Florida. I didn’t have my usual birding photo gear; just a simple point and shoot camera. But, I think I’ll be back. This looks like a great spot. I saw herons, egrets, ibis, coots, moorhens, and others. The wetlands are relatively small—just a couple of hundred acres—and there are several roads that cut through to make it easy to get to good locations based on the light, the wind, and wherever the birds are hanging out.

Great Egret

Great Egret

Hawaii, Day Eight

The word that was suggested most often for this blog by friends was the word “peace”.  I’ve chosen a couple of images to try to represent that.

Earlier this week, at the Kilauea Lighthouse on Kaua’i, I took this photo of a Red-tailed Tropicbird (Phaethon rebricauda).  There were scores of these birds along the nearby cliffs.  Graceful.  Peaceful.

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And today at Punalu’u Beach Park near the southern end of the Big Island, I saw this Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas) sleeping on the black sand beach.

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This is my last Hawaii blog post until I get back and write a wrap-up.  I hope you’ve enjoyed this series.  See you soon.

Boston Trip

I was in Boston recently for work, but had a little bit of spare time to visit Cape Ann (Gloucester, Rockport, etc.).  Here are a few of my favorite photos…

Herring Gulls, Larus argentatus, (~3-year-old juvenile in front). I took this along the Eastern Point breakwater in Gloucester. Click to enlarge any image.

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Rockport Harbor

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Fish Net Buoys in Rockport

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Bosque del Apache 2008

The day after Thanksgiving, I picked up a rental car and started driving to Socorro, New Mexico. This was an 11-hour drive, but I had committed to picking up my friend Jennifer from the Albuquerque airport about 10 AM on Saturday. The rental was a Kia Sorrento SUV, big enough to hold a bunch of photo gear. I was thankful that the price of gas had fallen well below $2/gallon, and that the SUV managed about 20 mpg.

I could have gone a variety of different routes to Socorro, but I went with the advice of my Garmin GPS, by way of San Angelo, Roswell, and Carrizozo. (Sadly, it was too late to pay my respects at Smokey the Bear’s grave on the way through Capitan.)

Saturday, November 29 – Tuesday, December 2
5:00 AM. Time to get up and start three and a half days of intense, frustrating, yet relaxing, bird photography at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, south of Socorro. It wasn’t long before I saw one of my photography mentors, Arthur Morris.

Artie is arguably the world’s greatest bird photographer. He leads photo tours all around the world. He’s sometimes a little rough around the edges, but a very good teacher. You can learn a lot from Artie just by being nearby as he yells advice to his workshop students, and as he weighs the options to keep shooting or move on to another spot. I also recommend his book, The Art of Bird Photography II, a 916-page book for which I did a thorough editorial review.

Favorite 2008 Artie Morris quote: “These silhouettes are the easiest situation for auto-focus. If you can’t get your camera to auto-focus here, you should take up knitting.”

I also saw a couple of other pro photographers I know, Robert O’Toole and Larry Ditto. Larry lives down in McAllen, and had his own workshop group at Bosque. I first met him on a trip to the cloud forest near Gómez Farías, Tamaulipas, Mexico. I also introduced myself to another pro I recognized, Laurie Excell, leading her own small photo tour.

My friend Jennifer and I first met on a photo workshop in Utah a few years ago, and we’ve stayed in touch and done other photo adventures together. She’s an oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and an assistant professor at the Harvard Medical School.
Rounding out our trio was my friend Nicole, a great photographer and one of my best friends.

Here are a few of my favorite images. Click on each to enlarge. (More available on bhpowell.com.)

It’s kind of hard to see here, but the moon, Venus, and Jupiter are all in the sky on this Monday evening.


Here’s a silhouette of my friend Nicole, as we tried to hold on to the last bit of light.


This next shot is with an infrared fisheye, pointed straight up as snow geese flew overhead. You can see a bit of the ground at the corners.

Tuesday morning, we were up for one final dawn photo shoot, then back to the hotel to check out, and off to Albuquerque. I dropped Nicole and Jen off at the airport, and drove on to a work meeting in Albuquerque.