This subject is featured in Issue #3 of The Luminous Landscape Video Journal
Bosque del Apache
Technical Note: Because the name of the game in migratory bird photography is focal length, as it is with most forms of wildlife, and because many of the photographs in this section were done with a Canon D30 which has a magnification factor of X1.6, I have noted the Effective Focal Length (or EFL) of the lens used. This will help give you an idea of the lenses that are needed when doing this type of shooting.
Also, because this shoot was so productive for me there are more than the usual number of photographs on this page. Therefore, it will load slowly if you are not on a Broadband connection. Please be patient.
Most of the photographs on this page were done with the brand new Canon 400mm f/4 DO IS lens, which I was testing for a review on this site.
Where And What Is It?
The name resonates with nature photographers — Bosque del Apache (Apache Woods). This wildlife preserve in southern New Mexico is one of the preeminent sites in the USA for photographing migratory birds. During the first week of December, 2001 two other photographers and I shot there together for 3 days. Staff told us that during this particular week there were approximately 53,000 Snow Geese, 44,000 Ducks, 8,000 Sandhill Cranes, and 4 Bald Eagles resident in the Refuge.
Canon D30 @ ISO 100 using a 400mm f/4 IS DO lens. 1/250 sec @ f/5.6. EFL= 640mm
There was also a gaggle of photographers, almost all of them pros or semi-pros. I've never seen so many large-aperture f/2.8 and f/4 400-600mm lenses in one place at one time. If you've ever wondered who it is that buys those monster 400mm f/2.8 lenses that need a Sherpa to carry into the field, this is where you'll find them — by the dozens during any given week between October and February.
Bosque is located about a 20 minute drive south of Socorro N.M. The town of Socorro is a 90 minute drive south of Albuquerque, the closest major airport. It's on the Rio Grande river and quite close to the Mexican border.
Canon D30 @ ISO 200 using a 70~200mm f/2.8L IS lens @ 85mm. 1/250 sec @ f/4. EFL= 136mm
The photography opportunities were remarkable. From almost an hour before sunrise till well after sunset, this is a bird photographer's paradise. Even during mid-day, we saw many photographers shooting close-ups of the birds as they ate in the northern fields or swam in the ponds in the middle of the reserve. Our group did little shooting other than at the beginning or end of the day. My preferred style of wildlife photography is "environmental" rather than portraits. I attempt to shoot wildlife in the landscape rather than isolated from it. This means shooting in best light if at all possible.
Canon D30 @ ISO 400 using a 70~200mm f/2.8L IS lens @ 160mm. 1/500 sec @ f/4. EFL= 256mm
We entered the reserve in the pre-dawn dark. The night before we had run into some reserve "volunteers" at a local restaurant and asked them the best place for us to be for sunrise photography. They suggest a spot called The Flight Deck, and this proved to be correct. Take the first left after entering the reserve and then park about a half mile later by the sign. You won't miss it. You also won't miss the sound of the birds. Thousands of Snow Geese honking. Quite a racket.
The Flight Deck is a large platform built out into the lake. It faces east so you're looking into the sunrise. Around dawn the flock will take off and the scene is one of wonder. Tens of thousands of geese, whirling and circling around and overhead. The two photographs immediately above was from our first morning, and the only one of the three that we were there that had any clouds whatsoever. Pray for clouds.
Canon D30 @ ISO 100 using a 400mm f/4 IS DO lens. 1/800 sec @ f/5. EFL= 640mm
Amidst the breathtaking sight of the huge flock of Snow Geese flying into the pond, and then flying out again, are the Sandhill Cranes. The photograph above is an example of how a very long lens is a must to be able to capture them at dawn. They always over-night in the same spot. While the Geese are doing their aerial acrobatics the cranes slowly wake up, and then when the geese have left the lake for their feeding grounds about a mile further north within the reserve, the cranes slowly begin their walk — single file — and then leap skyward one at a time.
Canon D30 @ ISO 100 using a 400mm f/4 IS DO lens. 1/250 sec @ f/5.6. EFL= 640mm
Canon D30 @ ISO 100 using a 400mm f/4 IS DO lens. 1/640 sec @ f/6.3. EFL= 640mm
Mid-day the flocks are to be found at the north end of what's called the Farm Loop. This road is part if 15 miles of roads through the reserve where you can drive and park almost anywhere to shoot the birds. There are also numerous hiking trails, though frankly the best photographic opportunities are right from the popular viewing areas by the road. In fact many serious bird photographers use their cars as "blinds", and shoot from window-mounted long-lens platforms.
Canon D30 @ ISO 100 using a 400mm f/4 IS DO lens. 1/800 sec @ f/5.6. EFL= 640mm
I went to Bosque with a preconceived mental image for a shot that had a flight of cranes in silhouette. This is a close as I got. Good, but not great.
One of the challenges of bird photography is to try and get all the birds just right. This rarely happens. I guess that's what makes the art of bird photography so challenging and rewarding.
Canon D30 @ ISO 400 using a 400mm f/4 IS DO lens. 1/250 sec @ f/8. EFL= 640mm
I've seen this type of photograph several times before. A full moon and a flight of birds passing in front of it, something like Santa and his Reindeer Sleigh from a 19th Century etching. I also have assumed that these shots were faked. The odds of being able to get a shot like this, it seemed to me, were astronomical.
After Bosque I know differently. When there are more than 100,000 birds in an area of only a few thousand acres, and there's a full moon rising when the birds are flocking to their evening nesting site, a shot like this is actually relatively easy. Sure, you have to be prepared with the right gear, know that it's going to happen, and have some luck. But frankly, I got at least half a dozen decent images like this in a 10 minute period. Amazing. (We did plan the trip to coincide with a full moon, so there was more than luck involved.)
Canon D30 @ ISO 400 using a 400mm f/4 IS DO lens with 1.4X extender. EFL= 900mm
In addition to the tens of thousands of geese and cranes in the reserve there were also 4 bald eagles seen during the week we were there. The one that we saw on this tree, for two afternoons in a row, was too far away for an interesting shot until late one afternoon when the setting sun illuminated the distant cliffs for a few minutes, providing a unique glow to the image.
Canon D30 @ ISO 400 using a 400mm f/4 IS DO lens with 1.4X extender. 1/250 sec @ f/5.6. EFL= 900mm
Canon D30 @ ISO 400 using a 400mm f/4 IS DO lens with 1.4X extender. 1/100 sec @ f/5.6. EFL= 900mm
On our last evening at Bosque we weren't sure where to shoot from to get a fresh perspective. We drove around the east side of the Farm Loop and had some good luck shooting into the setting sun, with cranes gliding in to roost — reachable with our longest lenses.
This was a case where the use of the Wimberley Sidekick gimbal mount really paid off. Tracking rapidly flying birds at an effective focal length of 900mm with anything less would simply not have worked out.
Note that the above two frames are not over-sharpened. The appearance is the result of the strong backlighting, which has created an etched effect on their bodies and wings.
The use of the Wimberley Sidekick is discussed in some detail in Issue #3 of The Video Journal, schedule for publication in January, 2002. This entire trip has a major segment devoted to it in that issue.
Canon D30 with 70~200mm f/2.8L IS zoom at 70mm. 1/100sec @ f/2.8 @ ISO 400. EFL=110mm
As night fell we continued around the loop and started to head back to the exit and the main road back to town. We soon stopped, got out of the car, and stood in awe as thousands upon thousands of Snow Geese, in ever increasing waves, flew overhead on their way back to the overnighting ponds where they are safe from predators. The glow of fading sunlight is seen in this frame reflecting in a small pool as the flocks pass overhead.
OK — What Do I Do Next?
Don't kid yourself about the need for a long and fast lens for this type of photograph. Sure, you can do fine work with a moderately priced long zoom, but people don't spend $5,000 — $10,000 for their long prime wildlife lenses for nothing. The best light is around both dawn and sunset, and birds move fast. If you go to high-speed film the grain will ruin image quality.
Don't let the lack of a high speed wildlife lens deter you though. Just realize that once you've been out in the field without one, and then recognize the shots that "might have been", you'll be visiting your bank manager looking for a loan and wondering how to justify the expense to your spouse.
For anyone wanting to begin to do some serious bird photography I can't recommend anywhere I know of more highly than Bosque del Apache. Buy a copy of Arthur Morris' wonderful book The Art of Bird Photography, book a flight to Albuquerque, and get ready for a long weekend of fabulous shooting. Let me know how you make out.
Recommended Books and References on Bird Photography
Restaurants & Hotels
Socorro boast a number of inexpensive motels. We saw rooms advertised for as low as $36 a night. The Holiday Inn Express just at the northern edge of town was twice that price for a double room with Queen beds, but it was clean and I can recommend it. The town features the usual assortment of fast-food restaurants, but also a couple of decent ones serving real food. I can recommend the Socorro Springs Brewing Company — a great micro-brewery and Italian restaurant, and also Frank and Lupe's Restaurant — a decent Tex-Mex spot open for lunch and dinner.
My friend and colleague Steve Kossack has published his photographs from this trip here.
This field review is featured in an extensive video segment
Issue #3 of The Luminous Landscape Video Journal