If you’ve never been, you might not be sure what to expect at Bosque del Apache. During the winter, from mid November through late January, it hosts huge flocks of migratory snow geese and sandhill cranes as well as many other species. It is an amazing place if you love to photograph birds. Check out the video for a taste of what it’s like to spend a few days there chasing the birds.
An Accidental Birder
I often say that I’m an accidental, if enthusiastic, birder. Wildlife has always fascinated me but it’s hard to photograph wildlife. We’ve driven most large creatures, predator and prey alike, near or to extinction. Those that survive are usually secretive. They are the animals that are rarely seen and that are good at avoiding humans. The notable exceptions to this trend are birds. They seem to adapt well, living in the spaces humanity has left open.
Bosque is all about birds. It’s a place to see a natural spectacle: tens of thousands of snow geese gathering together on ponds or in fields and then taking off en-masse. Mixed in and around are hundreds of elegant sandhill cranes which also make exciting photos.
During this trip I had the opportunity to experiment with more artistic interpretations of the birds, and also make my fair share of tack-sharp images of the birds.
All About That Zoom
If you plan to visit Bosque del Apache, you will need some serious glass. It doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive though. I made most of my photos on a Nikon D810 with the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6. It costs about $1400. There are lots of other options in a similar price range (including Sigma and Tamron lenses that fit most camera makes).
Other than having big enough glass, you will want a camera with a strong auto-focus system and decent to great low light abilities. There is plenty to shoot once the sun is up, but “the main event” for many people are the huge blast offs of snow geese. Those happen at or before dawn.
In case it isn’t obvious from the video, it’s COLD at Bosque during the winter. The refuse is at around 5000 feet elevation. They frequently have snow and ice. It was below freezing each morning at dawn, down in the teens more often than not.
You’ll want to pack lots of warm clothes, more than you think you will need. You will be standing around for a long while. Don’t forget your toes! However warm you want to be, dress in layers. The temps can climb into the 50s or even 60s during the day. You will need to peel off some of that insulation once the sun comes up.
The Snow Geese Guessing Game
During my trip last December I had a few days to hopefully capture at least one good “blast off” of the snow geese. Each morning is a bit of a gamble. Snow geese are wild animals. You never know where they might be, but there are a few likely locations. You pick one, arrive before dawn and then wait for them to blast off all together.
Of course, as a photographer, I have zero control over the weather. Of the two morning we found the geese, 1 was flat, grey and uninspiring. The second was, well, you’ll see in the video.
Reliable Sand Hill Cranes
The other headliner at Bosque, at least for me, are the sandhill cranes. They are not as large as the severely endangered whooping cranes, but they are close. They also existing in much greater numbers.
The sandhill cranes were also much more predictable. Each morning you could find small (on the order of hundreds of birds) flocks of them standing in the frigid water in a couple of locations. As the sun rose, they would wake, and then take off in small flights of 1 to 5 birds. Their slow, predictable flight makes capturing them in a variety of ways straight forward.
The cranes spend the day foraging in bare fields of dried and dead corn.
Sunsets are just as reliable as sunrise. Flights of 1 to 5 birds would circle one of a few shallow ponds, landing into the wind. If you missed one group, or it was in the slightly wrong location, you needed only weight for another.
Birds of Plenty
There are way more birds at Bosque than just snow geese and sandhill cranes: norther harrier, bald eagle, red shoulder hawk, Canadian geese, great horned owl, road runner, American kestrel, and wild turkey, among others we saw.
We, and other members of our group, even saw a family of bobcat.
Andrew is a photography instructor teaching students of all skill levels in Austin, TX through Precision Camera and independently in San Diego, CA. He runs workshops around the United States.
He is a self taught experiential learner who is addicted to the possibilities that new (to him) gear open up. He loves to share the things he has worked out. Andrew started with a passion for landscape and night photography and quickly branched out to work in just about every form of photography. He is an ex-software developer with extensive experience in the IT realm.
Andrew is a full time wedding and commercial photographer in both Austin and San Diego. Andrew is a club founder and multi-time past president of North Austin Pfotographic Society.