Mass Take-off of Snow Geese. Canon 1DsMkIII, Canon 500mm f/4 lens.
As a wildlife biologist and landscape photographer, I had long wanted to visit Bosque del Apache (“Woods of the Apache” in Spanish) Wildlife Refuge south of Albuquerque and near the town of Socorro, New Mexico. This 57,331 acre refuge, managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, provides habitat for over 375 of birds during the year as well a mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. It is best know as prime wintering habitat for thousands of snow geese, sandhill cranes, and many species of ducks, and people “flock” from all over the country between November and mid-February to witness the grand spectacle provided by this great concentration of large birds.
The bird activity is centered in 3800 acres of the Rio Grande floodplain and 9100 acres of actively irrigated farmland and wetlands. Outside this “wet” area, the refuge also contains over 44,000 acres of arid grasslands and foothills.
I drove my pickup and camper to the refuge in mid-January, staying at the Bosque Birdwatchers RV Park just on the outskirts of the refuge. I normally photograph landscapes, and landscapes don’t move; bird often do. I was using a Canon 1DsMkIII, which is a great camera for landscapes. The best cameras for photographing birds in flight (BIF) are those that can take a whole bunch of photos in a very short period of time (e.g., 7-10 frames per second). That’s because the position of the birds wings and the spatial relationships of the birds to each other changes very rapidly, and it may be only a very brief instant when all of the factors come together to provide the most interesting or aesthetic photograph. I soon learned that my particular camera wasn’t up to the task of rapid firing. I could squeeze off 3 or 4 shots before the camera would pause to transfer those images to the compact flash card (I was shooting in RAW). Within the Canon lineup, a Canon 7D or 1DMkIV (as of 2/2011) would have been a better choice for photographing BIF. However, some folks were getting great shots with point-and-shoots that they held out as masses of birds were taking off, so one shouldn’t get too hung up on equipment to photograph and enjoy Bosque del Apache.
Much of the photography is concentrated during two periods during the day: in the early morning when the birds (particularly snow geese) take off, and again in the evening when the birds return to the protection of shallow ponds to spend the night.
The morning departures of snow geese are often explosive, with thousands of birds suddenly taking off en masse and with resounding calls and beating of wings. Evening returns can sometimes produce similar displays as the birds land, then take off again to wheel around and land again, as if they are debating the best place to stay for the night. Even during the day when large groups of birds gather to feed in the fields, the approach of an eagle or a coyote can cause the birds to suddenly take to the air, as shown in my opening photograph above.
Each morning I could see a line of car headlights coming in from Socorro, bringing people to witness and photograph the morning lift-off. However, the refuge is large, and the birds frequently spend the night in different places and in several large groups. If one is fortunate to find a large group of birds, and if the conditions in the sky are good (blood-red clouds are ideal), and if the birds wait long enough for light to fill the sky before they leave, then good photographs may be had. But that is a lot of “ifs.” The same is true of the evening returns; luck plays a role in being at the right place at the right time as the birds return for their evening roost.
Snow geese typically take off and return in large groups. Sandhill cranes, on the other hand, are more independent creatures, and they typically move about in small groups or just a few individuals.
It’s great fun to arrive at the refuge in the pre-dawn hours, listen intently to try to determine where the snow geese might be massed, and to get to that spot in time for the lift-off. It’s also a great time to photograph sandhill cranes in the early morning light.
The morning lift-off of the snow geese is usually over in a matter of minutes. The departure of the cranes extends over a longer period of time, providing greater opportunity to photograph small groups taking to the air.
During the day, groups of both species come and go among the fields that are actively managed by refuge personnel to provide food (grain) for the birds. Geese and cranes will not enter a field of standing grain because of the possibility that predators (primarily coyotes, although when I was there a mountain lion was also on the refuge) might be lurking. Therefore, refuge personnel cut just enough grain to supply the birds for a few days, and this is repeated throughout the winter. By growing grain on the refuge, it lessens the impact the wintering birds have on other farming operations in the area.
When snow geese move from one area to another, they often do so in multiple waves. If they are traveling long distances, they can reach great altitudes. The result is a spiraling wave of multiple layers of snow geese descending on a field.
I found my two greatest challenges photographing BIF were 1) getting the birds in focus, and 2) having the birds positioned “correctly” in the frame. I had a tendency to put a bird right in the middle of the frame. However, it’s generally better aesthetically if the bird is flying into the frame. If two (or more) birds were flying by as a group, I tried to focus on the lead bird, putting it in the middle with the other(s) follow behind.
At the end of the day, birds drift back to their preferred ponds in groups, with the cranes often coming in singly or in pairs. If the light in the sky is good, it can provide an hour or more of challenging entertainment of photographing the birds.
There are many other photo opportunities at Bosque del Apache. I tried to get a photo of returning birds flying across the face of a rising and nearly full moon, but didn’t quite make it. I just missed a diagonal line of about seven snow geese flying across the moon, but I wasn’t quite in position. Still, half of the enjoyment is the challenge of trying.
Once while watching the geese and cranes feeding, three coyotes wandered out into the field. Now a coyote has no chance of catching a healthy bird in this open environment, and the coyotes know it and the birds know it. I think the coyotes were just feeling playful and wanted to show everyone who was “top dog.” The geese and cranes backed away until they looked like spectators along a football field, with the coyotes trotting down the center toward the goal posts.
Finally, a brief word about the operations of the refuge. I thought the refuge was wonderfully designed to provide for the birds as well as the people who came to enjoy the birds. The road system was well constructed, the roads allowed for people to stop anywhere without blocking traffic, gaps had been cut into some of the dense vegetation around many of the ponds to allow visual access (this work was done by local photographers volunteering their time), some ponds were more isolated and some roads were seasonally closed to reduce people-pressure on the birds, water was carefully controlled to manage the birds and the vegetation, and as previously mentioned, crops were grown and cut specifically for the waterfowl and cranes. In addition, there were trails into the drier portions of the refuge for people who wanted to hike and see other vistas. Being a former wildlife biologist with a state agency, I was impressed with the Fish & Wildlife Service operations and of the many volunteers who donated their time to make this one of the premier wildlife refuges in the country.