Winter Photography – Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, Part 2

In Part 1 of  Bosque del Apache Wildlife photography  I introduced you to photographing the huge winter gathering of Sandhill Cranes and Snowy Geese at this special New Mexico wildlife refuge. I shared the excitement and pleasure found during the events of a day, along with suggested photo gear and ways to stay warm and comfortable when photographing in cold weather.

Photo of frozen pond and Goldfinch at Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge by Noella Ballenger
© 2011 Noella Ballenger. All Rights Reserved. On a very cold morning in Bosque, ice is beginning to form on the ponds as a small Goldfinch huddles on a seed pod.

We are going back to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge to give you some ideas on how to make your experience memorable and take home super images, while still keeping the animals and birds safe.

Finding Photo Subjects & the Photographer’s State of Mind

When you’re prepared and your mind is properly in tune with the environment you will always find something to photograph.

Reflection photo of trees in pond at Bosque del Apache by Noella Ballenger
© 2011 Noella Ballenger. All Rights Reserved.

Even on gloomy mornings there is color reflected in the icy water. The reflections of the trees lining the shallow lake make a delightful abstract composition. Try to always be open to the opportunities around you.

Any time you set out to photograph birds and animals in the wild, you deal with the uncertainty of finding the critters. To help you find them, you need know where they may be at any given time of the year and then do research on your desired location.

You then need to study and understand the critters particular habits and behaviors. I knew the Sandhill Cranes would be in the refuge for winter feeding and that courting would be high on their agenda of behaviors.

I also knew that they left the ponds early in the morning, were feeding in the fields during the day and then came back to the ponds at night for safety (it is more difficult for a predator to sneak up on you in shallow water at night than on dry land). Doing your homework before you leave on any trip is a must.

Photo of Canada Geese feeding in field at Bosque del Apache by Noella Ballenge
© 2011 Noella Ballenger. All Rights Reserved.

Sandhill Cranes and Snowy Geese are not the only migrating birds to take advantage of the food supply. Canadian Geese stroll through a field in the early morning hours. They are identified by the distinctive white patch on their head. Having a good bird book with you will help with the identification and will also give interesting tidbits of information.

But what if the birds or critters you want to photograph can’t be found or are out of reach of your longest lens? Have you wasted a trip? No. At Bosque for instance, there are scenic areas, beautiful dawn and dusk shots to be had, and an array of other birds and animals that share the environment all year long.

So, the real success of any trip will depend on your state of mind. Take the time to take in your surroundings and your trip will be very successful.

Photo of Bald Eagle eating American Coot in tree at Bosque del Apache by Noella Ballenger
© 2011 Noella Ballenger. All Rights Reserved.

A Bald Eagle dines on an American Coot in the early morning hours. A Bald Eagle does not get the distinctive white head and tail until it is fully mature at about 5 years of age.

© 2011 Richard Mittleman. All Rights Reserved.

Red-tailed Hawks are common and widespread in the Western United States. There are a variety of color variations from very dark to light brown and their familiar red tail develops as they mature into adulthood.

Wildlife Photography Ethics

In wildlife photography there are a few ethical standards that every photographer should choose to follow. Please join us in being very careful with how you approach and treat the critters.

Photo of Sandhill Cranes in pond at Bosque del Apache by Noella Ballenger
© 2011 Noella Ballenger. All Rights Reserved.

Ever watchful, Sandhill Cranes will spend the night in the center of shallow ponds. It is easier to hear predators splashing through water then sneaking through grass.

All animals have basic needs. They are safety, food, water and procreation. They have “comfort zones” around them and when someone or something comes into their “comfort zone” uninvited, they have the choice to fight or to flee.

As caring photographers we need to be extra careful around all of the daily activities of wildlife and try our very best not disturb them during our excitement of capturing the images. There is nothing, no image that you could possibly take, that is worth putting your life or the life of the animal in danger.

Here are some basic guidelines and if you want to learn more, visit the North American Nature Photography Association guidelines–NANPA.

1. Learn the patterns of animal behavior and avoid interfering with critical animal activity.
2. Do not bait animals with food or water.

Your snacks aren’t good for them and they can pick up really bad habits that might result in injury or even death … yours and theirs.

3. Keep your distance. No matter how much you want to get closer, use a longer lens.

4. Treat them with courtesy and do not stress them. Speak quietly and move slowly.

5. Be ready for the unexpected and have alternate plans formed.

6. Follow any specific rules you see posted and report problems with animals or fellow visitors/photographers immediately to the proper authority.

Note: Our fellow photographers should also be treated with care and respect. Treat them with the same courtesy that you would like. A special pet peeve of mine is to have unaware photographers wander in front of you or stand around loudly talking “equipment”, thus blowing off good opportunities for everyone.

If you follow these guidelines, you and the critter will stay safe and you will have some wonderful photographic adventures.

A Conversation with Nature Photographer Richard Mittleman

Richard is an outstanding nature photographer with 40 years of experience. He has traveled worldwide to capture the beauty of nature and specializes in photographing birds. I’ve known Richard for a number of years, have learned a great deal about bird photography from him, and was fortunate to have traveled with him to the Bosque reserve.

Photo of Snowy Goose landing in field at Bosque del Apache by Richard Mittleman
© 2011 Richard Mittleman. All Rights Reserved.

A white, adult Snowy Goose is coming in for a landing. Note the slightly curved beak
and the obvious black “grin-patch” on the lower side of the beak. To be sure of identification,
you need to look closely at the details of the bird.

Noella: There are a number of great photography locations in the Bosque refuge, but if one has not been there previously and isn’t fortunate enough to have guide to tell them where the best spots are and what time of day those particular spots are good to capture photos of the birds, what would you suggest?

Richard: This is where you need to do some homework before you come.

There are photo workshops or guided trips that are great for going to an area the first time. Looking at their itineraries is also helpful. Stopping at the reserve offices or asking a ranger for tips the afternoon before is a great way of getting the latest information about the reserve and the birds and animals sighted.

The more knowledge you have in advance, the smoother the trip will go. If you know the habits of the animals you want to photograph, the chances of finding them greatly increase.

Photo of Snowy Geese and photographers at Bosque del Apache by Noella Ballenger

© 2011 Noella Ballenger. All Rights Reserved.

“The tension could be felt as these photographers waited silently for the geese to come into camera range!”

This was an “Ah-ha” moment for Noella to always pay attention to your surrounding–these photographers never noticed the geese!

Here’s an example for you. I know that geese and crane feed in the fields. Chances are, after the morning takeoff, they will head toward the fields and be there most of the day.

Since I know that my chances of photographing them are good all through the daylight hours, rather than head out to the farm fields, I like to take the Marsh Loop in the morning. I drive slowly and look for pheasants and Great Blue Herons on the far bank of the canals.

It’s hard to see into the canals from your car, but if you look carefully you may spot a Wilson’s Snipe. Sometime the deer are out on this section of the preserve and chances of seeing them are better in the morning or late afternoon because that is when they feed.

Then I head out to the farm fields. If the geese and crane are fairly close and the sun and breeze are at your back you’ve hit the jackpot. They always land into the breeze, even if it’s a very slight breeze, and landing shots with the geese facing you are very nice.

Photo of Snowy Geese in flight at Bosque del Apache by Richard Mittleman

© 2011 Richard Mittleman. All Rights Reserved.

You can position yourself upwind, but you’re never sure that you will be upwind of the action. It’s an exciting moment when you get the opportunity to capture the Snowy Geese flying straight at you.

I also keep an eye out for hawks in the trees.

Note: Be sure to be quiet as you get out of your car and set up your gear.

Noella: How do you go about spotting birds?

Richard: Learning to see birds is really a matter of being very observant. What you are looking for is a shape or shadow or something that doesn’t look quite right. You have to know the habits of the species for which you are looking and then watch for something that doesn’t look to be a part of the natural landscape.

Photo of Northern Harrier fliying over field at Bosque del Apache by Noella Ballenger

© 2011 Noella Ballenger. All Rights Reserved.

Northern Harriers can be identified by a distinctive white patch on their rump and by their hunting method. They cruise the fields fairly close to the top of the crops looking for small mammals or birds.

Here is a good example. I know that Roadrunners will occasionally be sunning themselves on the side of the road on cold mornings with their backs to the sun. So along with scanning the trees for raptors, I let my eyes skim over areas where I think I might see something.

They are well camouflaged with their natural markings and ability to hide, but with careful observation they can be found. Then it is just a matter of having your gear set up so that you can photograph them without disturbance.

But the real thing to remember as you are slowly driving around is that if you don’t see anything to shoot, don’t give up. The more loops you make, the more likely your luck will improve.

Photo of Greater Roadrunner at Bosque del Apache by Richard Mittleman

© 2011 Richard Mittleman. All Rights Reserved.

The Greater Roadrunner can be found in dry, open, brushy or desert habitats. They have a comical appearance, but are superb runners as they hunt for lizards and snakes. Their spotty, multicolored feathers allow them to blend into their surroundings, so you need to keep a close watch out for these well camouflaged birds.

Noella: You take stunning sunset and sunrise images. Where are the best places within Bosque to capture these shots and what criteria are used in making your decisions?

Photo of "Flight Deck" at Bosque del Apache by Noella Ballenger
© 2011 Noella Ballenger. All Rights Reserved.

It’s important to arrive very early to get a good spot on the “flight deck”! No problem today! We were the only hardy folks that were willing to tolerate this cold day!

Richard: There are a couple of spots that are good for both sunrise and sunset and it depends on the weather conditions.

If there are clouds in the east in the morning, head for the “flight deck” for silhouettes against a hopefully colorful sky.

If it is a clear morning sky, one of the crane pools across from the railroad tracks is a good spot to watch their takeoffs. The light can be beautiful on their gray feathers.

In the evening, if the clouds are in the west, I would head out of the reserve and go to the crane pools along the side of the entry road. The cranes flying into a red or orange sunset make for striking silhouettes. Try to shoot them landing while the color in the sky is still going to be the background.

The color gets better as the light gets worse so remember to increase your shutter speed by opening up your aperture and/or increasing your ISO as the light fades. The best color is often 20 minutes after sunset, not 20 minutes after it sinks behind the barrier of the mountains.

Photo of sunrise from the "Flight Deck" at Bosque del Apache by Richard Mittleman
© 2011 Richard Mittleman. All Rights Reserved.

Winter sunrises in Bosque del Apache can be spectacular, especially when reflected in the water. This was taken from the “Flight Deck” early one morning. It was worth braving the cold wait to see this beautiful flare of color.

Photo of sunset at the Crane Ponds at Bosque del Apache by Richard Mittleman
© 2011 Richard Mittleman. All Rights Reserved.

Sunsets can be equally spectacular at the Crane Ponds.

Note from Noella: I have seen many beautiful sunsets and always have to remind myself never to leave a sunset location (especially when clouds are in the sky) until it is nearly dark. Unfortunately, I have missed prime skies because I packed up too soon, only to see the sky flame with color as I was half-way back to the car.

Richard, thanks so much for being a great friend and guide on my first adventure to Bosque del Apache. Your tips and suggestions really made a difference.

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

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