To see a video presentation of my Bosque slide show, visit this link…

To those who celebrate, Merry Christmas. Tomorrow I’ll post another edition of Photofocus the podcast. On Christmas Eve I decided to re-run the Bosque Diary – all four parts as one post. Enjoy the post and the holiday.

Birds of Bosque 2012 – Diary

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My assistant Anthony and I arrived safe and sound in New Mexico. This Thanksgiving, like many, many, many before it, I’ll be photographing at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge near Socorro, New Mexico. The primary attraction at the refuge is migrating flocks of snow geese, ross’ geese and sandhill cranes. There are plenty of additional bird species – including several hard-to-find ducks, along with some pretty great scenery.

Bird photographers from around the world make the annual trek to Bosque for Thanksgiving. Those lucky enough to get their spouse’s permission will be shooting on Thanksgiving proper. Most come the days before or after.

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We drove from Las Vegas, making two stops. On the way down we visited the Grand Canyon only to be completely shut out by a low-hanging cloud bank. We spent four hours on a vista hoping for a sun break with no luck. No worries – a bad day at the Grand Canyon is better than a good day most anywhere else. I didn’t make a single exposure but still enjoyed my time there.

The next day we had better luck. We stopped at the Petrified Forest National Park. We didn’t venture very far into the park because of time constraints, but I did get to finally make some images I liked. Anthony even made a few images.

Then it was on to Albuquerque, New Mexico for the annual Waffle House visit! (Yep I know – not the healthiest place in the world but I splurge one week a year. Cheesy eggs and raisin toast – hash browns – smothered please!) We gassed up, rested, sorted the gear and made plans for the first day of shooting at the refuge.

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Before I go on I should note that bird photographers interested in some variety can visit the Albuquerque Zoo. It has a very large duck pond and all sorts of birds fly into and out of the area this time of year. Concurrently, New Mexico Tech in Socorro also has a nice duck pond which I regularly visit.

If you’re not a full-time bird photographer, there are lots of landscape opportunities in the area, including the Very Large Array (VLA) telescope, the Three Rivers Indian Petroglyphs and White Sands Missile Range just south of Socorro near Alamogordo, NM.

As has been my habit lately, I am traveling with much less gear than I used to in the old days. It might seem like the opposite when you read the list but in years past I’ve had twice as much gear.

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This year my gear list reads as follows:

Two Canon 1D MK IV bodies
Two Canon 800mm f/5.6 lenses
Two Olympus E-P3 bodies
One Olympus 45mm f/1.8 lens
One Olympus 12mm f/2.0 lens
One Olympus 17mm f/2.8 lens
One Induro CT414 tripod
Two Induro CT214 tripods
One Induro BHD3 ball head
One Induro BHD1 ball head
One Induro GHB2 gimbal head
Two Hero HD2 video cameras
One Nikon D7000 body
One Nikon 10.5mm f/2.8 fisheye lens
One Kessler Crane Travel Dolly
One Kessler Dolly Motor
Assorted other camera supports, bags, filters, memory cards, card readers, hard drives, and other small photo accessories

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You’ll note there are several duplicates on the list. That is because when you come this far, and end up this isolated, you need backups. The Canon 800 is the primary go-to lens for this shoot so I needed two of them. It’s crazy to own two so thanks to BorrowLenses.com I got a spare one – just in case.

Trips to Bosque in early winter also require lots of clothing. The temperatures can swing 30 degrees in a day, so I have lots of hats, gloves, boots, jackets, warm socks, etc. So far I haven’t needed them, but I have them.

Anthony has returned home to Vegas to spend Thanksgiving with his family so now I am working on my own for the first day. This is my routine…

Once I get established in my base hotel, I break everything down and transfer most of the gear to one bag and a photo vest. I also work out of the truck, using it as a blind, shooting with the 800mm lens mounted on a bean bag over the window sill for support.

I’ll be using the Hero cams for time-lapse. The Canon with 800mm lens will be the primary kit, used to make portraits. Group shots will be made using the Olympus micro 4/3 for landscapes and group shots of birds. The Nikon D7000 with fisheye lens will solely be used for fly-outs (the moment at dawn when tens of thousands of birds leave simultaneously from the retaining ponds.)

The weather is warmer than usual and there has been a significant drought in the area. The tour management has built an alternate route north of the refuge. This route has never been opened to photographers and may never be again so I am excited to see what sort of shooting opportunities arise. My first trip down this road helped me realize it’s a morning shot because of the sun angle, so tomorrow I’ll go early.

We’re expecting traditional blast offs and fly-ins but during the day, the usual spots at the refuge might not be as productive. I guess that means nap time during the day. I’d say conditions are far from optimal, but as you can see from this post, I already have some pretty good images, including a mini-Cranes in the Fire Mist – II which I’ll talk about later.

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I’m writing this entry on Thanksgiving day. It’s crazy how crowded the reserve is. There are about 100 serious photographers shooting today. I guess the world does in fact have some understanding spouses – or more single people than I realized.

The weather was typical Central New Mexico in early winter. This morning for the blast-off, the temperature was 27 degrees at dawn. By sunset, the temperature had risen to 64 degrees. My cold-weather gear certainly came in handy this morning. This afternoon, not so much.

Sunrise is officially at 6:48 AM but the action starts about 20 minutes before that. The birds can blast off from the pond as much as 20 minutes before or after. When you try to figure out where to shoot from, there are three main considerations.

1. Background
2. Wind direction
3. Sun angle

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These are hard and fast rules in bird photography as far as I am concerned. (I put that sentence in there so all of you needing an excuse for faux outrage today can send me scathing email saying there are no rules in photography :))

These all apply during the blast off, but in ways that are somewhat unusual. The birds take off into the wind. If the wind is coming from the north and you’re south of the birds, you’re going to get wonderful shots of their butts. You have to pay attention to the wind. Then you have to find a nice background. Usually that’s the sunrise. Lastly, you have to think about sun angle. Usually, you want to shoot birds on sun angle, but during the blast off, you can shoot them backlit.

Today I nearly got shut out. I simply couldn’t get far north enough to get the birds as they lept out of the pond. I got the one shot below but I have made better images of the blast off. Some days are like that. When the winds are from the south it’s MUCH easier but as you may expect, the winds are rarely from the south, because lately, it seems nothing is easy :)

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If there’s no big blast off or you miss it, you head to the crane pools. These are the ponds that you see on the west side of the road as you drive into the refuge. Some years, there’s no water here. This year, there’s a little water, but not as much as I’d like.

After shooting the crane pools, you usually head back into the refuge and cut through the middle to go to the northern end of Bosque. This year, there’s no corn there and that means no birds. The drought has severely impacted Bosque del Apache and frankly, conditions are very poor for photography. But, that said, each day has still presented plenty of great opportunities, just fewer than usual.

The new extended tour loop has helped. It is cool to see a part of the Bosque I’ve never seen before, but the sun angle is impossible there any time other than early morning. When it’s cloudy, it’s a good place to go – if the birds are there. Sometimes they are and sometimes they aren’t. The birds seem just as confused as the photographers this year. The counts are down. You have to work to find birds. Most years, the birds find you.

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If there isn’t some rain soon, the shooting here will be terrible next year. But before I sound too negative, let me say that I have high expectations given the success I’ve had here in the past. I remember it in the good old days. If you’d never been here before, you’d have a great time shooting here and you’d wonder what all the fuss is about.

One advantage of coming here so often is that when conditions are tough, you have fallback spots that almost always produce. That has been the case so far. But better news might be coming. We’re supposed to get some weather tomorrow. Bald blue skies and northwest winds are killers here. When there’s weather, anything is possible. Spots that normally don’t work all of a sudden do. The birds change their behavior and all standard bets are off. It’s exciting.

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One thing I should mention is that the refuge management, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the railroad have decided to permanently close off the area known as the “railroad pond.” If this sounds familiar, it’s the location where I made Crane’s in the Fire Mist. So unless you’re willing to break the law, risk arrest, jail and fines, you can’t shoot at that pond which means nobody can copy THAT shot. It also means I can’t shoot there either. I’m not sure how I feel about that but it doesn’t matter. It is what it is. The only thing constant at Bosque is change. (UPDATE & NOTE: According to some of my audience – a photographer who makes his living copying my blog posts, podcasts, workshops and photographs recently claimed he made “his own version” of Cranes in the Fire Mist and that the shot was indeed still possible. While I am flattered that he thinks my work is worthy of constant immitation, don’t believe him. You should note that the exact shot is only possible if you are willing to risk arrest.)

Even with the challenges, two days into this shoot I have some pretty good images. I am really happy with my attempts to shoot stills. Now I’ll start spending time trying some video and time lapse. Before I close, this chapter of the diary, I want to make a personal observation.

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Some in my audience seem to have genuine concern about my decision to spend Thanksgiving on the road shooting. I appreciate that concern. But really – it’s fine. I like being here. There is a sort of family here too. Part of the joy of being at Bosque del Apache during Thanksgiving is seeing old friends. The same folks who usually come here every year keep coming back and eventually, some of us become friends. Beyond that, there’s always my pal Artie Morris. He’s here for the 17th straight year. He hosted his usual Thanksgiving brunch. It was a great time with like-minded people.

There is a special camaraderie amongst bird photographers. Bird photography is one of the hardest kinds of photography you can ever try to do. Those who do it at the level you see practiced here at Bosque are the best of the best. I’m proud to be here among them, doing my best to tell the stories of the birds of Bosque.

I’ll have at least one more installment of the Bosque diary and I appreciate all the kind comments I’ve gotten about it so far.

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I said I was hoping for some weather at Bosque del Apache. Well I got it – perhaps I should have been more specific. I wasn’t hoping for deep, dark clouds and driving rain. I was shut out at the blast off. There was no light. But I did find some new spots that I’ll shoot from later. I made exactly one exposure and some video during the morning.

This is a good example of the patience it takes to be a nature or wildlife photographer. Unlike studio shooters who can control just about every aspect of their shoots, those photographing birds spend most of their time in a state of NO control.

You can’t control the weather, the light, the birds, the wind direction and strength, etc. You just need patience, luck and the basic knowledge required to put you in the best position to GET some luck.

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This is why so many people give up nature or wildlife photography. They go out once or twice and if conditions are bad, they form an opinion that it will always be that hard and they move on. It takes incredible patience, spanning years sometimes, to do this work. When you get some luck and everything fits together, it’s very rewarding.

I did have some luck this week. Some deer were grazing on the reserve. Usually they are very timid and hard to photograph. This week they seemed more accessible. I managed a decent shot of one.

As always happens at Bosque, each day is packed with meeting more old friends who’ve also come here for years, and I even met some new ones. I was gratified at the number of people who came up and introduced themselves to me saying the read the site or listen to the podcast.

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Because of the bad weather, I spent a few extra hours in Socorro. There are a few new restaurants, (If you go, try the new Mexican place directly across from Taco Bell. It’s really good) and a few old ones are victims of the recession. The old grocery stores are still here despite the newish Walmart. The Holiday Inn Express is one of the newest hotels in town, and it’s the most expensive and the nicest in my opinion. That said, it’s not exactly a great place. No Internet for the first two days of the trip and the hotel is badly in need of a renovation, but it’s still better than the choices we had in the mid 90s.

As I close this section of the diary I’ll say that now I’ve had enough time to form a reasonable opinion, there’s no doubt that my fears about Bosque turned out to be true. As bad as it’s been, I’ve been fortunate to get some good images. But it’s not like the old days. The refuge is simply seeing fewer birds than in past years. I talked with a wildlife biologist who assured me the bird populations are holding steady, it’s just that the birds aren’t stopping at the Bosque while on the flyway. I probably won’t be spending next Thanksgiving here.

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To steal from Forest Gump – “Nature/Wildlife photography is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get!”

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My (mostly) annual Thanksgiving trip to Bosque del Apache near Socorro, New Mexico is finished. I must say that on some levels it was very frustrating (i.e., the bird counts were WAY down) but still rewarding (i.e., peaceful and tranquil.)

It’s funny, but the more I think I know the Bosque, the less I really do. I had some grand ideas for this trip but circumstances got in the way. No biggie, I always have a good time there. But this trip was special because I am pretty sure it really is my last to this area. It’s time to spend Thanksgiving somewhere else. (I’m open to ideas :))

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Once I realized that things weren’t going as planned, I simply decided to go with the flow. This was the right decision. I ended up getting some images I really like, which is hard since I’ve been to Bosque so many times getting something new is tough.

I switched my focus (no pun intended) to a theme approach. I simply looked for images that were peaceful or that brought me tranquility. Once I shifted my thinking in that direction, I started “seeing” things I would have missed otherwise.

The image of the tree and the birds at the Crane pool is an example of what I went for. It’s not the best photo I’ve ever made at Bosque del Apache, but it did leave me feeling tranquil. That was the goal.

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There’s no way for me to adequately express the emotions I feel for Bosque. It’s all about the birds. With them gone, I’ll simply have to find another place to commune with them. In the mean time, I hope that following this diary has helped those of you either thinking of going there or somewhere similar. The main takeaways are:

1. Be patient
2. Pay attention
3. Hope for a little luck
4. Have a theme
5. Don’t forget the goal

Thanks for following the diary. I hope you’ve enjoyed the images.

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