Bosque del Apache Photography – Wildlife Refuge, Part 1

There is certainly no shortage of beautiful scenery or birds to photograph at Bosque del Apache. It is truly one of nature’s “gems” among the wildlife refuges along the bird flyways that cross America north to south. Bosque del Apache Photography opportunities abound everywhere.

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.

Scenic photo of snow geese on pond at Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge by Noella Ballenger
© 2011 Noella Ballenger. All Rights Reserved.

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.

bosque del apache photography
© 2011 Noella Ballenger. All Rights Reserved.

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.

Close-up photo of head of Sandhill Crane at Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge by Richard Mittleman
© 2011 Richard Mittleman. All Rights Reserved.

Sandhill Cranes will call out to one another as they land, fly or just move about. They are a social bird.

Close-up photo of head of juvenile Blue-phase Snow Goose at Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge by Richard Mittleman
© 2011 Richard Mittleman. All Rights Reserved.

Snow geese come in several “morphs”. The white morph is one that we commonly see, but here the immature dark morph, otherwise known as a Blue-phase Snow Goose, has dark coloration including beak and feet.

As he matures, the head and throat will become white, but the predominate dark coloration of the feathers will remain.

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!

Scenic photo of water canal in fields at Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge by Noella Ballenger
© 2011 Noella Ballenger. All Rights Reserved. One of the many canals that control and manipulate the delivery of water to the various fields.

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.

Bosque Del Apache Photography –  Our typical Day

The alarm woke me up around 4:30 am and I grabbed a quick breakfast and coffee with my cohorts before we left the motel in Socorro for the 20 minute drive to the refuge.

There were five of us doing this trip, so walkie-talkies were helpful for communicating from car to car–sharing information and locations.

Photo of Snow Goose on pond at Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge by Noella Ballenger
© 2011 Noella Ballenger. All Rights Reserved.

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.  A fantastic sight on any Bosque del apache photography trip!

Photo of hundreds of snow geese taking flight from pond at Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge by Noella Ballenger
© 2011 Noella Ballenger. All Rights Reserved. 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.

Silhouette photo of courting Sandhill Cranes on pond at Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge by Noella Ballenger
© 2011 Noella Ballenger. All Rights Reserved. Rather elaborate courtship dances are performed by Sandhill Cranes. They bob and weave, curtsey and jump almost their full height in their courtship dance.


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.

Photo of Sandhill Crane landing on pond at Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge by Richard Mittleman
© 2011 Richard Mittleman. All Rights Reserved. It is difficult to believe that a bird such as this Sandhill Crane, which is between 36 and 48 inches high, with a wingspan of 6-7 feet, can make such a soft and gentle landing.


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.

Photo of juvenile and adult Sandhill Cranes in field at Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge by Noella Ballenger
© 2011 Noella Ballenger. All Rights Reserved. Juvenile and adult Sandhill Cranes stand side-by-side near a field in the Bosque del Apache NWR. The juveniles lose their brown coloring after their first winter. It is in this field and others all over the preserve that they will get there fill of food for the day.
Photo of Ladder-backed Woodpecker at Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge by Noella Ballenger
© 2011 Noella Ballenger. All Rights Reserved. The Ladder-backed Woodpecker is fairly common in the arid country of the Southwestern United States and Mexico. He is easily recognized by the black-and-white zebra like stripes on his back as well as the stripes on his face.


Photo of deer by Richard Mittleman and photos of javelinas and coyotes by Noella Ballenger

© 2011 Noella Ballenger & Richard Mittleman (Mule Deer). All Rights Reserved.

Bosque is home to an abundance of wildlife.
These tw0 coyote’s were playing in a corn field in the middle of the day.
Peccary (Javelinas) are social animals similar to the wild boars.
They do not compete with grazing animals for food.
A group of female Mule Deer were lead by this buck with beautiful rack of antlers.

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.

Scenic photo of sunrise & sunset with Snow Geese & Sandhill Cranes at Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge by Noella Ballenger
© 2011 Noella Ballenger. All Rights Reserved. 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. When the cranes come into land in the evening, the wings act as “parachutes” while their feet and legs look like “landing gear” against the red sunset.

Then it’s back to our motel for dinner and bed. Tomorrow is another day filled with possibilities and we didn’t want to miss anything.

Photo of White-crowned Sparrow at Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge by Noella Ballenger
© 2011 Noella Ballenger. All Rights Reserved. I was waiting in the car at the visitor’s center when I saw this White-crowned Sparrow through the windshield. I didn’t want him to disturb him, so I picked up my camera right where I sat and took the shot.

How to Make the Most Out of Your Visit

Photographer comfort:

Be prepared. The more comfortable you are the more relaxed you will be when photographing in cold weather.

1. Dress in layers.
2. Use small chemical hot packs that can be slipped in gloves and pockets.
3. Take a warm hat that drops over the ears.

4. Add a neck scarf that can be wrapped around your face to break the cold wind.
5. A lap blanket in the car helps when the windows are open.

Camera gear:

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.

Scenic pPhoto of in-flight Snow Goose landing at Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge by Richard Mittleman
© 2011 Richard Mittleman. All Rights Reserved. This snow goose looks to be in fine form as it lands. Weighing about 5 ½ pounds, with a height of 28 inches and a wingspan of approximately 53 inches, this bird touches down without any apparent effort.

Bosque Del Apache Photography Tips

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).

3. A telecoverter to extend the focal length of your lens.

4. A tripod is a must. Although it isn’t fancy, I use pipe insulation held on with duct tape on the legs so I don’t have to touch the icy metal legs with my fingers.

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.

Part 2: You’ll 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!

Wildlife Photography: Tips to Get You Started

We cover preparing for a wildlife trip all the way up to polishing your photo skills.

by Noella Ballenger
Photography by Noella Ballenger and Richard Mittleman

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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