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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ongoing exhibit: Sense of Place | Landscape Photography, at the FLASH Gallery in Lakewood, Colorado. One of my Bosque del Apache photographs is in the show, which runs June 11 through August 1, 2010.
I had about twenty friends from the Denver area who made it to the opening reception. Thanks to all of you who made it out on a rainy night. Here I am at the gallery with one of my best friends, Nancy.