Author Topic: For The Birds: On A Wild Goose Chase With Something Fishy  (Read 6497 times)

Offline Something Fishy

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For The Birds: On A Wild Goose Chase With Something Fishy
« on: December 19, 2016, 12:25:05 AM »
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico has long been on my radar. About an hour and a half south of Albuquerque, this oasis in the northernmost reaches of the Chihuahuan Desert is one of the most important birding areas in the world. The Rio Grande provides water for a network of man-made ponds, canals, and dikes, which play host to immense numbers of migrating birds.

December is the biggest month on the refuge. The biggest attractions are the snow geese, normally numbering around 20,000, and the approximately 10,000 sandhill cranes. On top of these are tens of thousands of "assorted" ducks and birds, both predators and prey. A typical December could see as much as 100,000 individual birds in total.

The refuge is also home to one of the most amazing spectacles in nature: the morning blast-off. As soon as the sun rises, countless thousands of snow geese suddenly lift off as one from their ponds, in an amazing cacophony of sight and sound.

From the moment I learnt of this place I've been dying to photograph it, but every year brought another reason for postponing it. Finally, this year, I bit the bullet and booked tickets for a quick, two-day trip to the Bosque. It didn't take much work to - yet again ;D - rope in whYME and Cat In The Hat to join me.

Round-trip tickets on JetBlue to ABQ came in at a very reasonable 15.9k miles, plus 500 miles each way for Even More Legroom (gotta love Mosaic!).

The only town of any consequence in the area is Socorro, which is about 25 minutes away. Hotels in town were either $400/night affairs, or run-down Motel 6-style places. Being that all we needed was a bed-bug free mattress to spend a couple of hours in, we went with the terribly-reviewed Days Inn. 2 star rating wherever you looked, but everyone agreed that the place is at least clean. That was good enough for us, and for $50 a night it was just what we needed.

For a car we reserved a mid-size at National for around $80 all-in, hoping for easy pickings at the Executive Aisle. As a backup, we had a mini van reserved there as well (under a different name) for around $130.

Camera gear-wise I traveled relatively lightly, being that it was a short trip and that 99% of pictures will require the same basic setup (D500 and 150-600mm lens):



  • Nikon D500 camera
  • Nikon D600 camera
  • Sigma 150-600mm lens
  • Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 lens
  • Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 lens
  • Nikon 14/24 f/2.8 lens
  • Nikon 85 f/1.8 lens
  • Nikon TC1.4 teleconverter
  • Manfrotto 055XPROB tripod
  • Oben CC-2391 tripod
  • Oben BB-101 ballhead
  • Oben GH-50 gimbal
  • Lowepro ProRunner 450 backpack
  • The typical collection of batteries, filters, remotes, and such sundry

For food I decided to try a different type of KSML, one that I'd seen at my local grocery. Two of these plus some homemade food and I was good to go:





I ended up being quite happy with them. The food was simple yet tasty; nothing fancy, just good heimesha food. The cutlet was better than the sesame chicken, but both were quite good and filling. No, it isn't POM or its ilk; but for all of 9 bucks it was a solid value.

Finally it was time to go... The ride from the city to the airport at rush hour was horrendous, as expected; flight was quite nice, as expected; and despite some minor delays we landed in Albuquerque fairly on time, as expected.

For such a small airport, it sure is a pain to get to the car rentals in ABQ. But a short shuttle ride later we were in the rental lot, which to our great disappointment was pretty much empty. Just as we were coming to the conclusion that there's no Executive Aisle for us to pick from, the attendant walks up.

"What would you rather, the Cadillac Escalade, or the Infiniti QX80?"

Yes, sirree! Now that's what I'm talkin' about.

Without further ado, we were loading our bags into a brand-new QX80... with 11 miles on the clock:



For 40 bucks a day. Not a bad deal... not at all.

The drive down to Socorro was quick and painless. Before long we were settled in the hotel and in bed.

At 4:30 the next morning it was off on a literal wild goose chase.
« Last Edit: December 19, 2016, 12:36:51 AM by Something Fishy »
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Offline Yehoshua

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Re: For The Birds: On A Wild Goose Chase With Something Fishy
« Reply #1 on: December 19, 2016, 12:42:06 AM »
Sounds like an interesting place. Never heard of it, but looking forward to the pictures.

Offline Work-for-ur-muny

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Re: For The Birds: On A Wild Goose Chase With Something Fishy
« Reply #2 on: December 19, 2016, 03:17:09 AM »
Looking forward to the real stuff! (AKA following  ;D)

Offline rollingstone

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Re: For The Birds: On A Wild Goose Chase With Something Fishy
« Reply #3 on: December 19, 2016, 03:24:14 AM »
Looking forward to those pics.  What would travelling with your full camera gear look like?

Offline Work-for-ur-muny

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Re: For The Birds: On A Wild Goose Chase With Something Fishy
« Reply #4 on: December 19, 2016, 03:35:52 AM »
Looking forward to those pics.  What would travelling with your full camera gear look like?
Probably something more like this... +++   ;D

Offline chff

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Re: For The Birds: On A Wild Goose Chase With Something Fishy
« Reply #5 on: December 19, 2016, 07:36:05 AM »
I was offered a Q60 by National but charged full price for it...

Offline Moshe123

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Re: For The Birds: On A Wild Goose Chase With Something Fishy
« Reply #6 on: December 19, 2016, 07:56:42 AM »
Nice!

Offline Luvtotravel

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Re: For The Birds: On A Wild Goose Chase With Something Fishy
« Reply #7 on: December 19, 2016, 09:55:38 AM »
used those meals many times, does the job. how did you get that rental rate?
Don't wait for the perfect moment; take the moment and make it perfect.

Offline Dawie

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Re: For The Birds: On A Wild Goose Chase With Something Fishy
« Reply #8 on: December 19, 2016, 12:18:27 PM »
the early fish gets his bird

Offline Something Fishy

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Re: For The Birds: On A Wild Goose Chase With Something Fishy
« Reply #9 on: December 19, 2016, 01:17:54 PM »
Looking forward to those pics.  What would travelling with your full camera gear look like?

Well this is what I shlepped to Norway...

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Offline Something Fishy

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Re: For The Birds: On A Wild Goose Chase With Something Fishy
« Reply #10 on: December 19, 2016, 01:18:40 PM »
Probably something more like this... +++   ;D


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Offline Something Fishy

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Re: For The Birds: On A Wild Goose Chase With Something Fishy
« Reply #11 on: December 19, 2016, 01:20:05 PM »
used those meals many times, does the job. how did you get that rental rate?

just about sums it up.

I used Honeywell for National.
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Offline Something Fishy

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Re: For The Birds: On A Wild Goose Chase With Something Fishy
« Reply #12 on: December 19, 2016, 11:29:44 PM »
Day 1

We woke early on Wednesday, packed our gear, and headed to Bosque. We left with plenty of time to drive down, get in position, and set up for sunrise, which was scheduled for 7:00.

Since the goal of this sunrise shoot was to witness and photograph the blast-off, priority number one was obviously to find the geese. Generally, the geese fly in to a specific pond throughout the afternoon in small groups, and that's where they are typically still in the morning. However, it is not unusual for the entire flock to move to a different pond in the middle of the night, due to predators (real or perceived). The refuge is not a very large place, but there are a few distinct areas. It takes around half an hour to drive through the entire place.

Our original plan therefore was to drive the entire refuge with the windows down, listening for them in the pitch dark. Once we found their pond, we would know from prior research where exactly to set up.

In the end though it was much simpler: we had been in touch with Moose Peterson, one of the top wildlife photographers in the world, who'd left Bosque just two days prior. He informed us that for the last week or so the geese were all congregating in one of the main ponds, and the best viewpoint was just north of the Flight Deck, which is a small boardwalk installed at that pond.

Choosing to rely on him rather than do a freezing cold drive on dusty dirt roads was a no-brainer, so Wednesday morning found us setting up shop in the dark along with some other photographers. My setup consisted of the Nikon D500 and Sigma 150-600mm lens, an absolute dream birding combo. This was mounted on a solid tripod with a gimbal mount, which is a mount that perfectly balances your camera, allowing you to move it freely in any direction while remaining solidly in place as soon as you let go. Next to that was a tripod-mounted D600 with a 24-70mm lens, set to continuous shooting at 1-second intervals and remotely triggered. The idea was to be able to capture both extreme closeups of individual birds and the blast-off, plus wide all-encompassing shots at the same time. whYME and CITH both had very similar setups to mine.

In the end, the second camera was a bust. The scene was so incredible that it was difficult enough to shoot with one camera, let alone two. I did get some semi-decent video of a smaller, later blast-off, but that was as good as it got.

Eventually it started getting a bit light, and we were able to see some of the thousands upon thousands of geese in the water. They were beginning to stir, and the din was growing louder every minute. It was too dark to take pictures, so we just stood and watched.

All of a sudden there was a deafening roar: tens of thousands of wings beating the air simultaneously. The blast-off has begun:



The entire thing lasted for maybe 30 seconds, but what an incredible sight!

Looking back at the pond, we were surprised to see huge numbers of geese remaining. Turns out that instead of a single blast-off, we were treated to multiple "smaller" explosions, each one thousands of geese strong.

The light finally got good enough to let us take some more pictures... Here are a couple of sandhill cranes singing, with innumerable geese in the background:



A smaller blast-off, only a couple hundered this time:



Yet another one:



Fairly lousy picture, but I just love the expression on his face:



Small groups of geese would constantly jump up a few feet, look for a better spot, and land again:









This sandhill crane was sleeping in late:



"What?! It's 7:30 already??? Gotta go gotta go gotta go!":



Some lovely golden light:







Some more blast-offs:





By around 8 o'clock all the geese had gone, so it was time to follow them: off it was to the "Farm" area. In the north of the refuge biologists plant corn and alfalfa, which serves as food for all birds. That is where all the geese had gone, so we went to watch them eat breakfast.

On the way we passed this guy, who apparently spent his days sitting on this perch in the middle of the largest pond:



The geese were gathered in tremendous numbers on the alfalfa field when we got there. All of a sudden, a blast-off larger than any we'd seen that day occurred:









The reason for this seemingly random panic became clear before long - someone else wanted breakfast, too:



After a bit the eagle gave up and the geese settled down again.

A murmuration of starlings in the corn fields:



The geese moving from alfalfa to corn:



By now it was nearly 10, and the light was getting harsh and not conducive for photography. For the rest of the day the birds go from one field to the next feeding, so there's not much to shoot anyway. So it was back to Socorro for Shachris, breakfast, and a good long nap.

Duly rested, it was back for an afternoon and sunset shoot.

This time of the day it's the cranes who are the star of the show. They gather in vast numbers in the corn fields, then depart in twos and threes for their overnighting ponds. These birds are huge, standing 4 feet tall with a wingspan of over 7 and a half feet. It's fascinating to watch them socialize, fight, run along the ground to gain speed for takeoff, and "helicopter" in for a slow, hovering landing.





ATC? This is crane. Requesting permission to land:



Whaddya mean, "I gotta wait"?!



Too bad fellers, I'm coming in:











Sunset that day did not cooperate, with a bank of clouds moving in late afternoon. So eventually we followed the cranes to their favorite pond, called - get this - Crane Pond. By now it was quickly getting dark:





Good night, sleepyheads. See you tomorrow:

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Offline Yehoshua

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Re: For The Birds: On A Wild Goose Chase With Something Fishy
« Reply #13 on: December 19, 2016, 11:46:28 PM »
Wow!! Looks like the blastoffs need to be seen in person. I don't think the photos can capture the whole scene. Excellent pictures though.

Offline Luvtotravel

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Re: For The Birds: On A Wild Goose Chase With Something Fishy
« Reply #14 on: December 20, 2016, 12:39:13 AM »
wow! I love how your pictures I saw until now seemed to favor landscapes, your cuba TR introduced people to the mix, and now its wildlife. awesome!
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