Bosque del Apache is over 55,000 acres of managed lands for the benefit of migratory birds. Through a network of dams and canals, fields are flooded providing a rest stop and food for tens of thousands of snow geese and sandhill cranes.
Bosque del Apache, New Mexico
Winter in the Refuge
Winter is the peak season at this refuge. As with other places of photographic interest, sunrise and sunset are the best times to be there. However, late in the afternoon something triggers a massive flight of the snow geese. Over 50 photographers will be present with very expensive telephoto lenses mounted on very expensive tripods, waiting for the special moment. The squawking noise is loud and impressive. I’m not sure if anyone fully understands what sets these birds into flight all at once. Prior to this moment, groups of ten or so will take flight. These are the non-conformists of the gaggle of geese. Thanks to the Internet, I was able to learn that more than five geese on the ground is called a gaggle. However, once they take flight they are a gaggle no more, rather a skein. The naming of groups of animals is much too complicated and few people know about it or really care….
Sandhill Cranes Aplenty
Some of my coldest mornings have been spent looking through a big lens at sandhill cranes waiting for sunrise. During a visit to this refuge early in my photography years it became apparent just how expensive my photography hobby would become. I was among 40 or so other photographers on a crowded wooden deck snapping photos of cranes. After my wife looked up and down the line of men with their massive telephoto lenses on big specially designed tripods, she pointed out the obvious to me. “Yours is the smallest among all these men…” That deficiency was corrected in the months to come.
Those same snow geese do a massive flight at around sunrise. Once again up to 25,000 take to the air, honking all the way. Depending upon which way the skein flies, it may be best to cover up those expensive lenses and forgo a few photos. Again, thanks to the Internet, that is not a flock of sandhill cranes in the foreground, rather a herd.
Unlike the snow geese, the cranes do not have a signal or massive flight in the morning or evening. They fly out of one pond in the morning to feed in the various corn fields throughout the day. In the evening, as the photographers gather, they fly back into the protection of the pond in small groups.
Frozen in Place
I’ve seen it get so cold that the cranes’ legs freeze in the pond. They are stuck and will not be able to fly away until the sun thaws them out. This sets up a quandary for the coyotes in the area. A fine meal awaits, but the ice is likely not strong enough to hold their weight so they risk falling through the ice.
The Internet tells me technically, a herd of cranes frozen in a pond, is simply called unlucky. The photo below was taken at a long exposure to show their heads and body’s are moving, but not their frozen legs.
Owls in the Refuge
Thank goodness I only saw this one owl as night rolled in. If I had seen a group of owls, I would have to refer to them as a parliament. Owls typically get spooked easily, so I took this photo from my car window. They are accustomed to seeing cars drive by, but stopping and getting out will normally scare them. For any photographers who care, this cropped photo was taken with a 600mm lens and a 1.4 multiplier, so it is 840mm on a full frame camera. The bottom line is, this owl was a long way away but still watching me closely.
Early the next morning, I drove by the same spot I had seen the owl the prior evening. To my amazement, presumable the same owl was sitting in a tree much closer to the road. Being as quiet as I could, I drove about 100 yards further down the road, got out and set up my camera. Thinking each shot could be my last I would walk a 15 or so feet and take some photos then move in a little closer. As other cars drove by, I would look the opposite direction since the last thing I wanted was ten cars with noisy kids to stop. I continued making my way slowly toward the owl. To my amazement, I eventually got directly across the road from him, maybe 40 feet away. Soon I got even closer and noticed he had blood on his beak. What a great photo opportunity I had discovered, and all on my own. I was very happy. But what could make this photo better? His eyes were nearly shut, which did not look good to me at the time. I began making noises to get him to wake up. Nothing happened. I whistled, nothing happened. I started doing jumping jacks which also helped me keep warm, still he slept. Giving up, I walked away from this sleepy owl with a full belly. Good for him.
Late Mornings in the Refuge
By this time I had already missed a very mediocre motel breakfast back in Soccoro, so I might as well stay a bit longer and watch the happy cranes greet one another. It is unclear if some of the morning dances are simply a happy dance, or courtship. Either way, there can be much wild dancing that could only be captured in a movie. I continue to forget my camera also takes movies…..
Instead of the standard group shot of cranes, it seems something extra is needed. So I continue to loop around the several mile drive and take a few short walks searching for a unique perspective of the cranes. This leads me to search for a shadow of one crane on the other. The photo below is called Four Cranes.
Trying for additional perspectives, I search for symmetry and then experiment with a slow shutter speed and call it a day.
The Best Green Chile in Town
The turnoff into Bosque del Apache is from the very small town of San Antonio. It mainly consists of a gas station, ice cream shop, one stop light and two restaurants which compete for the best chile-cheese hamburger title. My must-stop restaurant is the Owl Bar and Cafe, established in 1945.
Not too far from here is the location of the world’s first atomic bomb blast. In 1945 regular customers of the Owl Bar included the Los Alamos Manhattan Project scientists traveling to and from the test site. My dad was there at the historic atomic bomb blast July 16, 1945. Out of high school he applied for a job in Princeton, New Jersey which eventually put him on a train to Lamy, NM and landed him a position on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. As a young kid he was working in a hot tent in the shadow of the windmill looking contraption which supported the atomic bomb. This topic likely deserves it own blog.
Normally if you order chile in a restaurant you may expect some pinto beans and hamburger mixed up with some some spices. At the Owl Bar when you order chile you get none of that, only HOT green chile peppers. I cannot stress the word HOT enough. I pride myself on being able to eat any degree of heat a restaurant can serve, but this is borderline at times. There are no warnings on the menu. Green chile is also on the hamburgers as well. It is a must-do when visiting New Mexico.
Inside the Owl Bar several walls are covered in money, a tradition which began many years ago. The employees will not hang the money for you, but will provide the tack. Once a year the money is taken down. The Owl Bar asks the customers to vote, deciding what charities get the money. Several thousand dollars can be taken down in a year. After first and second place get their winnings, up to fifteen other charities will get $100 each.
See you at the Owl Bar and Cafe. Good-bye from the Land of Enchantment.