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Photography by Noella Ballenger and Richard Mittleman
Bosque del Apache is one of nature’s “gems” among the wildlife refuges along the bird flyways that cross America north to south. It is where many birds fly south to spend the winter or it is an oasis for others that travel further north during the spring. And, this flyway does not only meet the needs of migrating of birds, but it is followed close behind by the migration of hundreds of photographers ready to put their abilities into action in the attempt to capture those perfect shots.
Named by the Spaniards, who saw the Apache tribal members camped along the riverside forests of the Rio Grande River in this area (Bosque means Woods of the Apache), the refuge includes about 57,000 acres and straddles the Rio Grande Valley in south central New Mexico at elevations ranging from 4,500 to 6,200 feet above sea level. It is just south of the small town of Socorro, New Mexico.
To bird photographers, just the name Bosque del Apache has come to mean one of the most spectacular wildlife refuges in the world. In a coordinated effort between the farmers in the area and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, crops of corn, winter wheat, clover and native plants are grown to provide food for the migrating birds. Water levels are controlled and manipulated to provide critical food, shelter, water and safety for the migrations of birds coming through.
Each season has special opportunities for wildlife viewing and photography. During the
spring months you might find warblers, waders, pelicans and shorebirds. Also spring is the time of nesting birds, such as Red-tailed Hawks, Mallards and Great Blue Herons. In the
summer, you might see hummingbirds, swallows, flycatchers, orioles and grosbeaks. In the
fall, there is an assortment of birds such as the American Kestral, Double-crested Cormorants or Greater Yellowlegs. But come
winter, this preserve gets a huge influx of geese and Sandhill Cranes, as well as Bald Eagles. And this was what we wanted to see. So with several friends, I traveled to Socorro, New Mexico and the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge.
We were there in late November-early December and the
official count was about 13,500 Sandhill Cranes, 38,000
Snowy Geese, 5 Bald Eagles and about 75,000 other ducks and
birds! Totally amazing sights!
For those readers who have never been on a wildlife refuge, this is how it works. There are usually one-way, small dirt roads that meander around the edges of fields or ponds. The ponds are frequently man-made by flooding the farmer’s fields with water and water channels between the fields provide a means of adjusting the water levels within the fields. Those visiting the area are restricted from leaving their vehicles except in designated areas where viewing platforms have been built (created in superb locations and set 5-6 feet above the level of vegetation or water ponds). However, you can also drive slowly, stop and stay in one spot as long as you like, providing you don’t block traffic. After spending a couple of hours standing in the cold morning air, it is really nice to use your car as a blind and stay comfortable and warm.
Although I have visited many wildlife refuges, this was my first time at Bosque del Apache. It was truly a thrilling adventure.
Our typical day went something like this:
A beautiful adult snowy goose stretches its wings after
landing in the water.
Sunrise was around 6 a.m., but we actually needed to be
there before first light to find a location along side of
one of the big ponds or on one of the viewing platforms. If
we were really lucky, we would be one of the photographers
who got a good spot on the prime, pre-dawn viewing platform
they call the “flight deck.” Then we would wait in the
frigid morning air for the first signs of light. As the
eastern horizon began to glow, the honking sounds of
thousands of snow geese began to permeate the air. And then
rather suddenly, just before dawn, there was a mass eruption
as the geese rose together into the sky. Along with the
sounds of flapping wings and squawking geese were the abrupt
sounds of wildly clicking shutter buttons. It is an amazing
sight and beyond thrilling to see thousands and thousands of
these great huge geese taking flight at the same time!
Without warning, thousands of geese take to the air. It a
moment that makes your senses come alive.
After the snow geese had departed, it was time to capture
shots of the Sandhill Cranes as they started their morning
ritual of stretching and moving about. They seemed to be a
little slower on the uptake and would leave the ponds just
as the sun was cresting over the distant mountains. And
that was great for us! It afforded us a bit more daylight
and time to get some shots of crane interaction, such as
those momentary spats or courtship dances. As the cranes
left the ponds, they did so as individuals or in small
groups. They fly low to the water and gain height slowly,
and this gives the photographer a chance to capture some
lovely in-flight shots.
© 2011 Noella Ballenger. All Rights Reserved.
Rather elaborate courtship dances are performed by Sandhill
Now comes a time when the photographers can take a moment to catch their breath, enjoy their environment, and look around for some wonderful scenic shots or close-ups that could be taken during the glowing first light of day.
© 2011 Richard Mittleman. All Rights Reserved.
It is difficult to believe that a bird such as this Sandhill
Crane, which is between
When all of the early activity had come to an end, we began
to drive the small preserve roads.
The preserve is a permanent residence for many other
bird species and critters, so we were always on the lookout
for not only the geese and cranes, but any new prospective
shots. We stayed alert and not only looked at ground level,
but looked into the trees and bushes and up into the sky.
We would see deer, javelinas (feral wild pigs), coyotes and
an occasional hawk soaring over the fields. We even spotted
a little road runner looking cautiously around from the edge
of the road. This was morning in the Bosque and we were
there to capture the full experience.
© 2011 Noella Ballenger & Richard Mittleman (Mule Deer). All Rights Reserved.
Bosque is home to an abundance of wildlife.
By late morning we would leave the preserve and return to Socorro for lunch and a couple of hours of rest, along with time to download the memory cards, recharge the batteries and review the morning shoot.
About 2 p.m., we would gather again and return to the preserve to drive the roads in search of a good location for our sunset photography, because this is when the birds would fly back to the ponds to rest for the night. Just maybe, this sunset would be the one that provides a red, orange, or pink backdrop as “these miniature aircraft come in with flaps adjusted and landing gear down.” We were never disappointed with the events of the evening.
Sunrise and sunsets can be outstanding for viewing and
photography. Here the Snow geese take off as dawn comes up
over the mountains, while the Sandhill Cranes wait to take
off in the early morning.
Then it’s back to our motel for dinner and bed. Tomorrow is
another day filled with possibilities and we didn’t want to
How to Make the Most Out of Your Visit
Be prepared. The more comfortable you are the more relaxed
you will be when photographing in cold weather.
1. Dress in layers.
4. Add a neck scarf that can be wrapped around your face to
break the cold wind.
Learn to do your very best with what you have. I would have loved to have a 500 or 600mm, f2 lens, but alas, they far too heavy for me to comfortably use. There’s no room for lens envy here. Just keep in mind--it is what you do as an artist with your equipment that is more important than the equipment itself. It can be your opportunity to also capture their environment.
This snow goose looks to be in fine form as it lands.
Weighing about 5 ½ pounds, with a height of 28 inches
1. Your camera and if possible, take two cameras. You won’t have to continually change lenses and it’s a safety net in case something happens to one of the cameras.
2. Both a long lens (mine is 100-400mm, f/4) and a
wide-angle lens (28-300mm).
5. A bean bag or window pod to steady the camera while shooting from the car.
6. Extra charged batteries and flash cards—you’ll be shooting more than you think.
learn the best ways to find your subjects and we'll talk about
some standards of conduct when you are in the field
photographing wildlife. And then, Richard Mittleman, an
experienced bird photographer, and I are going to share some
tips and ideas to help you capture some really great
images. You won’t want to miss this!
We cover preparing for a wildlife trip all the way up to polishing your photo skills.
Would you like to learn more and
become an even better photographer?
Mittleman: I have always been interested in nature, so
that interest and photography
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