Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, approximately two hours south of Albuquerque, was the location of my most recent November/December photo workshop co-led by Sandy Zelasko. Located along the Rio Grande River, the National Wildlife Refuge covers more than 57,000 acres and is a major wintering ground for thousands of Snow Geese, Sandhill Cranes and waterfowl. Refuge personnel manage the water levels of the wetlands and impoundments and provide food for the large number of wintering birds including corn, winter wheat and other grains. Loop roads transect the refuge and provide prime access for wildlife viewing and photography. The waterfowl seek the shelter of the wetlands at night. Then at dawn, the birds rise in unison and sweep over the heads of on-lookers as they head to the nearby fields to feed.
Conditions on the Refuge. November/December 2017
This November, temperatures were milder than normal. The air was extremely dry and roads dusty. On several occasions, high winds gusts and the blowing dirt made photography difficult. But on most days, photo opportunities were excellent. This year the roadside pond nearest to the refuge headquarters was one of the most productive locations for photography. In the early morning and late afternoon, Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes filled the pond. For me, the most inspiring moment was when the whole mass of snow geese rose from the pond at once and flew directly overhead. The sound their beating wings and honking was incredible. Using my wide-angle lens, I captured images of the spectacle.
Turkeys on the Run
As a photographer, you are rewarded if you carefully observe wildlife behavior and are familiar with the terrain. One day, I spotted a group of turkeys trotting away from me down a dirt trail. Knowing where the trail ended, I drove my car to the spot where the path intersected the road and turned off my ignition. With my 200 to 500 mm zoom lens balanced on a large bean bag on the window sill of my vehicle, I patiently waited. As predicted, the gobblers trotted directly towards me before disappearing into the tall grasses. I photographed as they approached. But my best shot was when the birds lined up, each individual equal distant from the camera and within my depth of field.
As I drove through the refuge, I looked for an isolated family of cranes standing near the road at the edge of a cornfield. With my car as a blind, I took a number of photos as squabbles broke out between family members or when a new individual joined the group. As I watched the cranes, I noticed that as other cars approached rounding a bend in the road, the birds responded by pointing their bills skyward and sounding an alarm. Taking advantage of this predictable behavior, I captured a series of images as the birds reacted. My Nikon D5 camera was set at 12 frames/second, perfect for capturing the cranes in a variety of positions.
Gambel’s Quail – Anticipating Action
At the refuge visitors' center, there is a desert garden with feeders where you can photograph White-crowned Sparrows, Spotted Towhees, and Curved-billed Thrashers. But my goal this trip was to add to my collection of Gambel’s quail photos. However, there were a number of photographers roaming the area with the same aim in mind. So, I focus my attention on a location and setup I had used in the past. I positioned my car where I could watch an opening in the brush where I had seen the quail before. One afternoon when the light was soft, the quail appeared on top of a wall and then worked their way down through brush to the spot I was monitoring. One by one, they cautiously emerged into the open. I took several photos and then noticed one male chasing another away from the other birds. Then that quail stopped, turned, and ran back to confront the aggressor. I locked focus on him and followed his movement. By suspecting what would happen next, I was able to capture images of the fight that ensued.
My Curiosity Pays off - Great Blue Heron Doing the Impossible
I had just entered the refuge when out of the corner of my eye I spotted a Great Blue Heron standing beside a water-filled ditch. I stopped the car, turned off the engine, and waited to see what it was doing. Initially, vegetation blocked the full view of the bird. But when it raised its head I grabbed this photo, for in its bill was a huge fish that appeared too big to swallow. Determined not to lose its prize, the heron carried the fish over to the ditch and disappear from sight. When the bird’s head reappeared, I could see that it had nearly swallowed the fish. Only the tail was visible in its bill and in seconds, that was gone. Later that day, I looked for the heron where I had seen it last. It was still there. Perhaps it was full or just too heavy to fly.
Benefits of Keeping a Low Profile
One morning I sat with members of my photo workshop on the bank of a pond where pintails and other ducks were feeding. A few other photographers were standing nearby and the ducks kept their distance from us. As soon as the other folks left, the ducks swam in our direction. Because we were sitting, the birds apparently felt less threatened and allowed us to photograph them at close range.
Effective Silhouette Images:
The key to creating effective silhouette images: 1) have a lit background, 2) have a subject that is recognizable by its outline alone, and 3) make sure the silhouetted objects do not overlap with one form blending with another.
When to Visit Bosque del Apache
To see large flocks of Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes, the best time to visit the refuge is mid-November to mid-February. In January and February, morning temperatures can be quite cold so dress in layers with warm clothing, gloves, a hat, and chemical hand warmers. Afternoon temperatures can be quite pleasant.
Join Sandy and me in our upcoming photo workshops in the Badlands of South Dakota, June 4-8, 2018 or at Bosque del Apache, November 26-30, 2018. See www.ospreyphoto.com for details.