It was almost 5 am, well below freezing, and I was clumsily trying to attach my camera to my tripod with gloved fingers. The last of the stars had finally given way to the growing light in the eastern sky, but the sun wouldn’t be up for a while yet.
A class of a dozen photography students arrived and began setting up their cameras next to me. Their fancy lenses dwarfed mine. Not for the first time, I wondered what in the world I was doing here!
Of course, I’d love to be back in bed sound asleep, or at least in the coffee shop with a nice hot cup of tea, but 50,000 snow geese, glistening white in their winter plumage, were sleeping on the wetlands in front of me. At some point in the next hour or so, the growing daylight would reach a critical intensity, and the entire flock would lift off as one, circle overhead, and then fly off into the new day. I wasn’t about to miss it.
I squeezed off a few preliminary shots, checking exposure, framing, and hoping to capture the nearby mountains turning pink with dawn. My layered turtleneck, sweatshirt and jacket was proving woefully inadequate. I pulled my ski hat further down over my ears and my jacket hood over it, tying the drawstring under my chin. Stomping my feet to restore circulation, I realized I was shivering.
The geese were getting restless. A few early-risers craned their necks and stretched their wings, jostling for more space in the tightly packed flock. It continued to grow lighter.
And then, the sun sent its first rays over the horizon. The dazzling daylight hit the white plumage, creating a stunning brightness. And it was happening! The geese rose, flapped, and took to the air, honking and flapping in a great, turbulent eruption. I took picture after picture, realizing that there was no way I’d ever capture in pixels the momentous event I was witnessing.
All too soon it was over. The shallow ponds in front of me were empty, except for a few coots and mallards. The geese had vanished, heading to the surrounding fields where they would gorge themselves all day on grain grown just for them by the wildlife refuge management. They’d return at dusk, drifting down to land in groups of five or ten, until the water was once again packed with glistening white bodies.
It was time to head into town for a hot breakfast, then come back to spend the morning birding on the refuge. After lunch? A well-earned nap!
To see lots of Snow Geese
There are a variety of Snow Goose festivals around the country. I saw my flocks a few years ago at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. The best time to see large numbers of geese (along with 15,000 Sandhill Cranes) at that refuge is in mid-late November. This year Bosque del Apache will host its 22nd Sandhill Crane Festival from November 17 – 22. Shortly after the festival, the birds are dispersed to other surrounding wetlands, to avoid overburdening the refuge, and to prevent the spread of any diseases. When spring comes, they head back to the arctic, where they nest on the tundra.
Bosque del Apache NWR is located just south of Socorro, New Mexico, along the east side of I-25. Camping is available just outside the refuge, but I hope you have a motor home with a good heater! Accommodations and restaurants are available in Socorro, about an hour south of Albuquerque.
Photos by Pete and Leslie Holzmann