(Be sure to see Bosque Birding, Part 1.)
It was pitch black, and our motel room was uncomfortably cold, despite the noisy heater that had run all night. I groped my way out of bed, half asleep but excited about the coming day. We were in Socorro, New Mexico, just north of the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. In less than an hour, I’d be taking pictures of some 30,000 Snow Geese flying into the dawn sky.
The sky was beginning to lighten as we pulled up to the line of photographers, all with the same ambition. I could hear the restless geese on the shallow lake in front of me, separated from the edge of the water by an expanse of ice. The air was bitterly cold.
From previous trips, I expected the geese to take off en masse, just as the sun cleared the mountains to the east. I had managed to take some very nice photos with my old point-and-shoot, and I was thrilled to be back with a more professional SLR.
I was still extending my tripod legs, however, when suddenly something spooked the birds, and, far before there was anywhere close to enough light for photos, they were off! We all stood there, stunned; there’d be no flight photos that morning. Happily we were staying for a few more days.
Most people wandered off, probably in search of hot coffee, but I stayed to take some shots of the dozen or so Sandhill Cranes still standing in the shallow water, sleeping. Then we headed for the Visitor Center to warm up, where I was content to look at the Gambel’s Quail at the feeders outside the plate glass window. The sky continued gloomy and threatened snow, the wind howled, and temperatures hovered in the single digits. We took the rest of the day off.
The following morning the geese were much more cooperative, the weather improved, and I happily snapped away. We drove the auto tour loops over and over as the light changed hour by hour, pulling over to photograph an assortment of ducks, raptors, sparrows, cranes, and more cranes. Over the next few days, I took thousands of photos.
At one point, we happened across a Roadrunner nicely posed on a metal gate. The photos show this familiar bird in a decidedly unfamiliar pose. When he finally jumped down, I was able to get some additional shots as he paralleled us along the road.
A large, green tractor was mowing down grain at the north end of the refuge. These crops are grown specifically for the birds, and are what keep the geese and cranes hanging around all winter. The birds bed down in the shallow lakes and ponds at night, then spend their days foraging in the fields. Every hour or so, a Bald Eagle would soar overhead, scaring the flocks into the air, honking and swirling.
While getting out of your vehicle is allowed in most parts of the refuge, I found that I often got better shots using our car as a rolling blind. A beanbag cushioned my long lens on the open window. At times, I’d open the passenger door and, again using the beanbag, rest my lens on the roof of the car. The birds were used to seeing cars, and I was able to get much closer than I would have otherwise.
The entire time we were there, I kept expecting the weather to warm up. It never did. I wore every stitch of clothing that I’d packed, and wished for more. Four layers of insulation made it hard to squirm around in the car, and the wind passed right through it all. The hand warmers were all that kept my gloved fingers functional on my camera controls.
I was sad to leave, but thoughts of our warm house eased the departure. I’ll be editing (and deleting) photos for weeks. It’s the price we pay for having that much fun.