Words and photographs copyright Scott Bourne
Bosque del Apache lies in the Albuquerque Basin, near the Rio Grande astride New Mexico Route 1, formerly U.S. Highway 85. It borders the Chupadera and San Pascual Mountains. The nearly 60,000-acre refuge was founded in 1939. It’s located in central New Mexico, 80 minutes south of the Albuquerque airport. It’s just south of the small town of Socorro, New Mexico, which happens to be the best place to use as a home base during any Bosque trip.
A 12-mile, unpaved, but well-maintained dirt road through the refuge provides great bird watching and bird photography from your car. You’ll also find a series of trails that are usually short and relatively easy to hike. The refuge is also so picturesque that many landscape photographers visit in order to take advantage of the natural beauty, as well as numerous chances to photograph nature without the hand of man in the picture.
More than 330 species of birds have been seen at Bosque, but the stars are Ross’s goose (Chen rossii), snow goose (Chen caerulescens), and sandhill crane (Grus canadensis).
The Flight Deck
The National Wildlife Refuge is maintained by specialists who move the water around from pond-to-pond, year-after-year; but almost every year, the main pond (located by a place called the Flight Deck—be sure to pick up a free refuge map from the pay booth or the Visitor Center to get the layout of the area) is a hotbed of bird action. I typically position myself 100 yards north or south of the famed deck. The Flight Deck itself is a boardwalk adjacent to the main pond. It’s often crowded with not only serious photographers, but also bird watchers and tourists. This crowd can make it nearly impossible to get a good shot, so I rarely work from the actual deck. There’s plenty of room to shoot nearby.
The birds roost on the pond and all take off together in the morning. This is called a “blastoff.” I’ll never forget my first time at the refuge seeing one of these. I actually heard it before I even knew what it was. There was a sound that reminded me of a jet airplane taking off. It was so real that I started looking around for a runway. Then I saw it. The sky, bathed with the pink glow of the sunrise, literally went dark with tens of thousands of snow geese.
This was why people come to Bosque del Apache. There’s nothing quite like it. You want to take up your position near the pond based on the wind direction. The birds take off into the wind. Place yourself so the birds fly through the colorful sky, but in such a way that the birds will come to you. Many people who publish guides to Bosque will tell you things like “stand here,” but there’s no such thing as “here” until you know the wind direction.
You can visit the Flight Deck at sunrise and sunset, but just keep yourself aware of the wind direction. Also remember that if you’re not shooting the sunrise or sunset proper, you also need to have the sun at your back. In a best-case scenario, you’d have both the sun and the wind at your back, but this rarely happens. Also note that the only no-go shooting situation here is when the wind is in your face. If that’s the case, you’re going to be shooting a lot of bird butt.
The Crane Pools
Every year I’ve visited Bosque del Apache (except for two) the area we call the “crane pools” have been filled with at least some water. And if there’s at least some water there will be cranes and even some light geese. I love going to the crane pools for the simplest reason: The sandhill cranes are one of my favorite avian subjects. They’re a hard bird not to love. They’re large and have colorful crowns. They’re elegant and seem to dance across the ponds as they display to their mates with a gangly sort of grace. I guess I humanize them because we strive to be like the cranes—or they like us. They mate for life, and are family oriented. They travel during migration with their families, other families, and non-breeders over thousands of miles in search of food, a different climate, and a place to roost. These roosting and feeding flocks stick together for months, and when I think about it, we humans tend to travel in groups in much the same way, for many of the same reasons.
The crane pools are near the north boundary of the refuge, on the west side of Highway 1. You can’t miss them. They’re a good location from pre-dawn through sunrise and again at sunset through post-sunset. You can do pan blurs in the low light dawn and dusk periods if you’re into artistic images, and video shooters will have enough light to capture the intricate relationships between the cranes well before sunrise and after sunset.
There are two main crane pools. The southern most pool has a nice tree nearby which makes a good anchor point for all sorts of landscape/bird photos (I call them birdscapes.) You’ll most likely see lots of photographers at each pool. Try getting lower than the crowd to make water-level pictures. Just make sure you aren’t in anyone else’s shot. This area is very popular, so get there early to take one of the parking spots.
Also remember which end of the pools (north or south) will usually depend on the wind. Move somewhere else if you have a westerly wind (in your face) because almost all you’ll get here is the dreaded bird butt.
Bosque del Apache remains almost a spiritual place to me. It used to be the crown jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge system. It’s not quite as spectacular as it used to be for a variety of reasons, from climate change to refuge managers, who in my opinion, made mistakes that led to a decline in Bosque’s bird counts and reliability as a great location for photographers.
With that said, if you’ve never been, I’m betting you’ll think it’s spectacular no matter what. Like all places in nature, things change but you have as good a chance (or better than that) of finding great bird photography and landscape ideas here as you’ll find anywhere. Everyone with any interest should visit it at least once.
By the way, there’s way more than birds to photograph near Bosque. The Very Large Array telescope is nearby, as is White Sands and the Three Rivers Indian Petroglyphs. All are worth an excursion if you’re already in the area.
Where to Go:
To reach the refuge from Socorro, head south on I-25 to the San Antonio exit (#139). Follow the exit ramp and you’ll wind up on SR 380 for about 1/4 mile, after which you’ll reach the light at Highway 1. Turn right (south). In approximately 9 miles, you’ll reach the Visitor Center on your right, and just after that, the refuge entrance and Fee Booth are on your left.
When to Go:
For decades it’s been my practice to arrive on Thanksgiving Day and any time between then and the second week of December should be prime time. The refuge offers access nearly year round except for maintenance days, so you can go when you like, but if you want the cranes and the geese, go in late November or early December.
Where to Stay:
There are lots of hotels in Socorro. My preference is Holiday Inn Express Socorro at 1040 N California St, Socorro, NM 87801 (575-838-4600). Note this is the most expensive hotel in Socorro but it’s also the nicest.
Many photographers on a budget prefer Super 8 Socorro at 1121 Frontage Road North West, Socorro, NM 87801 (575-835-4626). This is usually $50 a night cheaper than the Holiday Inn but offers more basic accommodations.
There are many local hotels you can research on YELP if the aforementioned hotels don’t suit your taste/budget.
Stuff to Bring:
I usually start this section with a list of camera gear you’ll need, but almost more important than camera gear is clothing. It can be brutally cold at the refuge in November and December. It’s a high desert climate. Dressing in layers with hand and face protection is a must. You may also want long underwear. Good gloves (that can be worn while operating a camera) are a base requirement. Consider hand and toe warmers mandatory, as well as a good hat and balaclava; waterproof, windproof boots; and a flashlight, preferably one you can mount on your head so your hands are free to operate your camera. Also be sure to drink plenty of water and note that on any given day, temperatures can vary widely.
If you’re photographing birds, you’ll need a minimum of a 400mm lens here for most shooting, and the longer the better. I frequently work at 800mm when at Bosque although a 600mm lens is often sufficient. If you have a 1.4 teleconverter and 600mm lens you’re set. You’ll also need a shorter lens (20–24mm range) for the morning blastoff if you want to fill the sky with birds from close up.
Be prepared to pay the daily entrance fee of $5 for non-commercial vehicles. A $25 annual pass is available, which makes sense for anyone visiting more than five days. You can also use your National Parks Pass or Duck Stamp to get in free.
A Few Tips for Beginning Bird Photographers
- Research and read everything you can about birds. This tip is good for any subject, but especially birds. I wanted to photograph eagles in flight. I found out they often defecate right before they fly. The more you know about any subject, the better off you’ll be when it comes time to press the shutter.
- Look at lots of bird pictures. Writers read if they want to become better writers and photographers look at photographs if they want to become better photographers. Look at avian images in books, magazines, and on the Web. See what the photo buyers are selecting. Use those images as your benchmark and then go get some of your own.
- Start big. Practice with larger birds such as pelicans, gulls, and herons. Also practice at local zoos. Captive birds will give you a chance to study behavior, hone your skills, and become familiar with bird photography (and your gear) and guarantee enough keepers that you won’t be frustrated.
- Background, background, background. Start with the background and then find the bird. If you don’t have a clean background, you don’t have a good bird photo. Pick your backgrounds before you decide what to shoot. When I photograph birds against a clean blue sky, I often get the most compliments. Also, the further your subject is from the background, the better. Busy backgrounds detract from the subject.
- Track the sun. I’m not much for photography religions, but if I were, this would be the one I’d practice. Photograph birds with your back to the sun. Especially when you’re just starting out. Birds look best when front lit. Sidelight may be the landscape photographer’s friend, but it’s the avian photographer’s enemy. Keep the sun at your back, or in other words, point your shadow at the birds. Believe it. Practice it. Live by it. You’ll get better shots.
[For even more on bird photography, check out Rick Sammon’s article in Lightroom Magazine.]