Blast Off at Bosque del Apache, National Wildlife Refuge

Blastoff At Bosque del Apache - Photo by Scott Bourne

Blast Off at Bosque del Apache, National Wildlife Refuge

How to capture amazing scenes like these…

It’s one of the most impressive sights I have seen in more than four decades of nature and wildlife photography. The blast off at Bosque. That is what they call the explosion of light geese and cranes leaving the ponds at the refuge every morning. It is simply one of the most awe-inspiring experiences I have ever seen.

I distinctly remember the first time I witnessed a blast off at Bosque del Apache. Even though it was decades ago, it seems as clear as yesterday.

I 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 an airport runway. Then I saw it. The sky, bathed with the pink glow of the sunrise, literally went dark with tens of thousands of birds.

If you go to New Mexico to witness or record this event, there will be many factors that control how much luck you’ll have. Weather is the biggest. It will impact how well you do capturing the blast off and I can tell you that no two days will be alike. For that reason, I try to convince people to spend at least five days in New Mexico. That way you have the best chance of getting some color in the sunrise and if you get the right winds, lots of birds coming at you in the morning sky.

Blastoff At Bosque Photograph by Scott Bourne

If you want to find the right spot to shoot from, you need to get up very early. Figure out when sunrise is slated and then try to be onsite at least 45 minutes before then. My advice is to leave Socorro no later than 5AM (assuming you are traveling around Thanksgiving – which is the best time to be there if you want lots of birds.)

This often requires you to get up at Oh-Dark-Thirty but believe me it will be worth it if conditions are right.

Many newbies position themselves on the Flight Deck on the main pond. (The refuge is dotted with boardwalks, decks and blinds that are all named and all can be found in the free refuge map you get at either the pay booth or the visitor’s center.)

The two reliable places are the crane pools at the northern-most edge of the refuge, just off the road on your right as you pass the refuge sign or the Flight Deck. In recent years, the ponds have been more reliable, but in 2018 the Flight Deck was good nearly every day I was there. You will simply have to check the ponds at night to see where the birds are roosting, as well as the wind and the sun. More on that in a minute.

If you go to the Flight Deck, remember that it is often crowded with not only serious photographers, but bird watchers and tourists. This crowd can make it nearly impossible to get a good shot. Instead of working from the deck proper, I prefer to park in or near the small pull-out about 250 yards before the flight deck on the left. Either park in the pull-out if there is room, or on the left side of the road. This guarantees that there is room for you and the other photographers to work on the right (east) side of the road. Once you exit your vehicle don’t run right down to the water’s edge and start setting up your tripod. By staying up on the road, you will be working from level ground and this will make things much easier for you. This does take away the water from the shot so if you want that I suggest you alternate. Spend one day on the road and the next down by the pond. Depending on the wind, I like to work anywhere from 10 to 100 yards on either side of the deck. And believe me the wind is a really important thing to understand when photographing any bird but especially at Bosque if you want the fly-out shot from the main pond.

Blastoff At Bosque Photograph by Scott Bourne

Where you end up should be primarily determined by the presence of birds and the wind direction. Birds fly, perch, take off and land into the wind whenever they can. If the wind is blowing in your face, then your photos will be full of bird butt. Pick your spot based on the wind. You also want to note the eastern horizon. If you have clouds there you will get color in the sunrise.

On clear days with northwest winds, you may be better off moving back toward the main road away from the deck and there you can get the birds flying into the pink sky that is created when it is clear.

Summing Up

Bosque del Apache remains almost a spiritual place to me. It used to be the crown jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge system. In the last decade, Bosque hasn’t been quite as spectacular as it used to be, but in 2018 conditions were amazing and I think 2019 will even be better.

If you’ve never been, I’m betting you’ll think Bosque is 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.

Bosque Blast Off At Sunrise Photo by Scott Bourne

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.

I am a Micro Four Thirds shooter so this list may not interest you, but here’s a more or less complete guide to my photo gear –

Be prepared to pay the daily entrance fee. You can also use your National Parks Pass or Duck Stamp to get in free.

More Information:

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Friends of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

NOTE: I am leading two photography workshops at Bosque del Apache, National Wildlife Refuge in 2019. The first is completely sold out, but there are four seats left on the second tour – for more info visit my online Bosque brochure. You can also see all my upcoming workshops at the PictureMethods Workshop Page.

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