My annual trip to Bosque del Apache, National Wildlife Refuge is complete. I arrived home this past weekend. I drove 3100 miles round trip in my new 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee Loredo X. By the way, when I say “annual” that was pre-COVID. In 2020 I did not go to Bosque because of the virus and it was very strange not to be in New Mexico around Thanksgiving. While things are not completely normal, the Refuge management DID grant me a commercial permit for this year (necessary for leading photo workshops on federal wildlife refuge property) and if they were willing to issue the permit, I was willing to go.
As for the drive – Along the way, I had some fun, met some nice people, scouted some additional wildlife refuges and got myself ready to teach yet another Bosque workshop. What was different was dealing with COVID. Some states are pretending it just doesn’t exist, so no masks, no social distancing, no restrictions. Still others were very strict. It made for tough choices when doing something as simple as looking for a bathroom.
This is the sixth time I’ve driven to Bosque instead of flying. My rationale for driving is that I get to visit additional wildlife refuges, carry as much stuff as I want and not have to worry about it getting lost or stolen in baggage claim, and I also control my own destiny to some extent. Being held captive inside a metal tube with people who are increasingly deranged is not my idea of a good time. Throw in a little COVID-19 and there’s no way. I also noted that rental car prices are really high compared to most years. By driving instead of flying, I spent about the same money as purchasing a first class airline ticket and renting a SUV, but I got to have the benefit of avoiding crowded airports around Thanksgiving.
I sold the work truck last year because someone made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I replaced it with a simple, yet very nice 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee Loredo X. The Jeep is very comfortable, gets about twice the gas mileage the truck did, and JUST had enough room for all my stuff. It’s a 4×4 with good ground clearance and perfect for Bosque’s gravel roads. (Not the kind of road for a nice SUV like a Cadillac Escalade.)
I will say that because of my increasing decrepitude and some health problems, the drive was much harder on me than it was just two years ago. I most probably will fly next year. I like the convenience of having all my stuff with me, but the hauling gets to me. Plus there is the occasional unexpected surprise like having a tire on my brand new Jeep blow due to a road hazard, which set me back a day and a half as I searched for replacement tires and had them installed ($1500 down the drain.)
I want to take a moment to mention the fine people of the Laguna Pueblo. I noticed my tire going flat (thank you TPMS) and had just enough time to get off the freeway at the village of Mesita. I saw a Village Police Dept. maintenance yard and one of the guys there was kind enough to help me get my spare tire on. Had my problem happened 20 miles further down the road I’d have been in trouble. So in English I say thank you to the elders of the Laguna tribe for showing me kindness. There is a belief among Keres speakers that their language is sacred and must only be spoken, and not written so I will not say the Keres word for thanks in this post.
Now on to the opposite side of the spectrum. An asshat from Oklahoma tried to kill me with his big rig. The trucker spent 15 minutes trying to run me off the road (He apparently didn’t like the fact that I was driving slow – donut tire anyone? – but he failed. I survived.) Then I had to deal with two blizzards. None of that was fun. But I made it so we’ll leave it at that.
The birds were harder to find at Bosque this year, but there were plenty and we had some great light here and there. We had at least two good shooting opportunities per day. The drought has forced the birds into different behavior than I would expect based on my decades of experience at Bosque. The Refuge management can’t grow much (if any) corn this year to feed the birds because it takes a lot of water to successfully grow corn. So instead there was some wheat but it’s not the same. This meant the birds didn’t spend the day in the traditional northern corn fields. They spread out.
The famous “crane pools” (Unit-3) were dry because they are being rehabbed and will not hold water. I don’t blame the Refuge management for deciding not to fill Unit-3 since most of the water would have just seeped back into the ground anyway. Next year Unit-3 may be open and it should be better.
The birds were more dispersed this year compared to most which made photography harder. But I always like to note that the Refuge wasn’t created for photographers. It was created for the birds so whatever it takes to keep the birds safe is okay with me.
With some advice from Refuge management and some friends, spotters and even other photo workshop leaders, I quickly devised a plan that would give my group the best chances at good imagery. We were never shut out. Some days were better than others. We are (after all) photographing free-flying, wildlife. But generally I got the group into PERFECT position more often than not. What is perfect position? When the birds fly right over your head or right in front of you. There were lots of group leaders taking their photographers too far south in the morning and at best, they got bird-butt photos. It helps to visit with a truly seasoned veteran like me. And this is not a plug since I won’t be doing hardly any future workshops. All I am saying is that find a workshop or tour leader with genuine ornithological knowledge AND photo knowledge. If you cannot find the birds you can’t make good pictures of them 🙂
Switching to video has been one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my career. The amount of crap you have to have on hand is staggering. I had to schlepp it around quite a lot. While at Bosque, I had an assistant which helped but still, I miss the days of one bag full of Olympus M43 gear and that was good enough. I did enjoy (very much) the opportunity to do something new at Bosque. After all, I have (literally) hundreds of thousands of pictures from the place. But the hauling is hard on my old, tired, body.
98% of the time I was simply rolling video. I took just a few stills images with either my iPhone 13 Pro or my Olympus OM-D E-M1X camera body. I did use both for some video as well. The iPhone 13 Pro really surprised me. It’s a capable camera when shooting ProRes video. Mind blown.
I used two Blackmagic Cinema 6K Pro cameras and two Canon lenses (EF 100-400 F4.5-5.6L IS II USM) and the (Canon 70-200 f/4L IS II USM.) I also used the Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM Art Lens for Canon EF.
My tripod of choice for almost all shots was the Sachtler Flowtech 75 MS Carbon Fiber Tripod with the Ace fluid head. This tripod is truly a joy to set up and tear down. Easy to use and light.
It was nice having everything with me but frankly I could have brought less. I never even used my slider. I also had more stabilization gear I didn’t need. I did of course use my new Platyball from Platypod on my window mount.
Overall, I must admit that I missed some stuff because I am still not as fully acclimated as I should be with the new video gear. I recognize that such a switch requires practice and time. So I will stick with it. If Olympus would just come out with a M43 body that offered 8K, 10BIT 4:2:2 VIDEO…
I was at the Refuge several days before I taught my workshop. I wanted to be there to scout for my group so I would know where to find birds. I also had some time to do my own shooting and work on some stuff for my own projects. When I am teaching I don’t do much serious shooting because I want to be able to help the students.
As always, I stayed at the Holiday Inn Express in Socorro. This is the nicest hotel in the area and the people who work there and run it are very understanding towards the photographers who come to the refuge every year. I already have my reservations for next year.
My favorite breakfast place in Socorro (Sofia’s Kitchen) was open. I just did the drive-through because their breakfast burrito is all I need! I heard that the rest of the restaurants were hit or miss. They are all suffering staffing shortages. But in general, things were relatively normal.
There were 22 workshops on the refuge the week I was teaching. Frankly, it’s starting to get ridiculous. Think Delicate Arch at Arches National Park on a summer sunrise. Many of the photographers on the refuge were inconsiderate, driving way too fast, kicking up dust, and trying to sleep in but still get a good spot in the morning by horning in on someone else’s location. I have to say, judging by many of the photographers I saw there this year, we all need to think about being better ambassadors for the craft.
My group of students (were thankfully) fun and easy to be around. We followed the Refuge rules. Stayed on the correct side of the boundary lines, and we kept our speed down on the loop road due to dust. We went out twice a day. I did critiques in the afternoons at the hotel. (I have taken to doing one-on-one critiques instead of the kind where we all sit in a room and everyone gets to hear other people’s work critiqued. Most people prefer the private critiques so they can get honest about their need for help.) Many of my students said that they thought this time was very valuable.
The venerable Bob Davis, Canon Explorer of Light came for the last two days of the workshop to help teach. Next year, he’ll be taking over the stills workshop for me and I will simply be there as a co-leader. I’ll be staying a week to do a filmmaking/video only workshop and beginning in 2023, that’s the only Bosque workshop I will offer.
Many of the students gathered for meals. Because I am immune compromised, and because of COVID, my doctor didn’t want me eating indoors at any restaurants and I really, really missed that opportunity. The group did eat lunch out on the patio at the hotel on the last day and that was nice. I also ate outside on picnic tables with my pal Jefferson Graham. (Don’t miss his brilliant Photo Walk series on YouTube. We shot some footage for a future episode while he was in New Mecico.) Hopefully by next year enough people will have taken the vaccine that we can get back to normal.
Since the photography at Bosque is all done outdoors, COVID didn’t cause us any problems on the refuge. Well one problem. The bathrooms were all closed but the Refuge management brought in porta potties and I think they offered a reasonable alternative. I am not sure why COVID closed the bathrooms other than perhaps a staff shortage to clean them. In any event, everyone had what they needed in terms of access and creature comforts. And speaking of comfort; while it wasn’t great for the birds – we humans loved the temps in the mid-to-high-60s each afternoon and balmy 30-degree mornings. Most years it’s way colder.
They don’t tell you when you’re young how much harder everything is going to get once you are old. They keep this secret for a reason. They don’t want you to get scared and refuse to grow up 🙂
The trip this year was hard on my old body but wow wow wow – I am still like a kid again once you sit me down in front of some birds. On a couple of the afternoons we went out, I just sat in my Coleman camp chair and watched the birds. I listened to the ruffle of their wings and the sounds of their calls. Yeah, I rolled some video but mostly I just took it all in. I felt lucky to be alive. While Bosque was more crowded than ever this year, still – only a tiny fraction of the human universe gets to go see it all in person.
I still have to go through all my footage and I will continue to post snippets on social media. There are a few pics and vids here in this post – all from this year.
I have one more year in me. Who knows, maybe more. But I can commit to next year and I will be there if I am still alive!
Bosque del Apache, National Wildlife Refuge is an absolute MUST SEE PLACE. Even if you cannot go during the migration, stop in and see all the natural beauty that they have to behold.
Thanks to my assistant Paula Stanton for lightening my load and for making a killer video about the workshop. Thanks to Bob for agreeing to come out and teach. Thanks to the Refuge management who work tirelessly and for little money to make sure the place runs smoothly. Thanks to the fine folks who attended my workshop. Hopefully we’ll all be around next year to do it again.
P.S. I will be going and teaching next year. It will be different. I am handing the reigns over to Canon Explorer of Light, Bob Davis and he is next year’s leader with me co-teaching. Then, the following week, I am teaching a video/filmmaking workshop. Details of both Bosque workshops are here – https://spark.adobe.com/page/xzOgAMX6Yzvyr/.