You may have heard about the incredible amount of Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese at Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. If you did, you are either a birder or a photographer. There can be tens of thousands of these birds that take residence each year from November thru February while on their migration from their winter home to their summer home. It’s not the birds themselves that excite us (Kas and I) as photographers, it’s their gesture. All of them roost overnight in a pond, lake, or some watery area. Then, about sunrise, they all take off at once. Blastoff! This is what excites us. It has been on our “to do” list for years.

Not being birders, we needed to research what to do. The best we could tell was to get there an hour before sunrise, set up our tripod to mark our location (from other photographers), and freeze our fannies off until the birds did their thing. We started at a pond just inside the Refuge, but just outside the pay area. At the information desk we learned that this location is where the Sandhill Cranes roost. Blastoff here we come.

Sandhill Cranes

We arrived at the prescribed time, an hour before sunrise. We froze just like the instructions said. By the time sunrise was upon us there were more than 50 other photographers lined up, ready for the blastoff. Finally, the sun was about to crest the mountain, providing us some warmth, and giving the cranes the impetus to blast. We could now see the lot of them, fluttering around, cackling, but still water bound. Readying ourselves for the big event we placed our itchy finger on the shutter. We didn’t want to miss this. A moment later, the time came. Two cranes took off while the rest of them stood, cackling (at us?). This couldn’t be it, could it? Maybe they were a scouting party dispatched by the king of cranes.  A couple of moments later, three more took off. Then a bit later a few more. This was not the blastoff we read about. We got some nice photos of the cranes in their environment, practiced panning and shooting, but overall we were disappointed. If this is the blastoff everyone talks about, then we were not impressed.

It might not have been the blastoff we expected, but it was a beautiful morning spent with these crazy sandhill cranes.


Snow Geese

Later in the day, about an 90 minutes prior to sunset, we came across hundreds and hundreds of Snow Geese hanging together in a field. Since we knew they do not roost in a field but in the water, we figured that they would blastoff at sunset. We decided to wait. We set up our tripod and settled in. Over 90 minutes later there was no movement at all. Maybe we misunderstood about the roosting place. Or, maybe we didn’t freeze while waiting. The instructions were explicit. Again, we were not impressed.

With all the snow geese together, I would have thought a blastoff was in the making. Nope.

We decided to try this spot in the morning. If they wouldn’t blast off at night, they surely would in the morning. It was “dark and early” when we got there only to find out all the snow geese were gone. Looking out at an empty field, we were not impressed.

Now what we were going to do? After some debate, we decided to go to the large pond just inside the pay area. It is called, “The Flight Deck,” named for a great place to see these birds blastoff. Up until this morning, we have not seen anyone there. Regardless, time was running out as sunrise was near. We arrived to tens of photographers lined up along the lake, each with lenses much larger than ours. We looked out over the lake and they were all there. All the snow geese we saw the night before had moved to the lake to roost. We must have missed their late night blastoff. 

We couldn’t have been there more than a couple of moments when we heard a rumbling. 

It was quite dark but the multitude of birds is quite evident. Notice the ducks in the foreground were unfazed – they obviously have seen this many times.

Once in the air, the snow geese flew in interesting patterns.

Too much too fast for Kathryn (or was she was trying something abstract again?)

That was fun. But it was over in just a few seconds. And, our photos were shot at high ISO meaning that they would be quite grainy. Although we were not impressed, at least we saw it and captured the moment. 

Snow Geese Part 2

It was getting time to leave Bosque Del Apache for our next stop, White Sands NP. Before leaving, we decided to drive one more loop around the refuge to see what we could see. Nearing the end of our traverse we came across a field with thousands of snow geese, all densely sitting in a nice square pattern. We pulled over to take a closer look when, to our amazement, we witnesses a true blastoff, right at us.

In this blastoff we were no more than twenty feet away. It was amazing to be among thousands of these birds – and not one dropping on us!

Once the blastoff was done, what do these snow geese do? They sit back down in the field – in their square pattern.

Then, they did it again. A second blastoff just moments later. How cool is that? [Photograph by Kathryn.]

Here’s Jeff with his finger flying. He couldn’t take the photos fast enough. [Photography by Kathryn.]

We were impressed! The snow geese really showed up the sandhill cranes.

Remember, it’s all about the light.