Bosque Del Apache one of the greatest wildlife spectacles in the united states

“One of the greatest wildlife spectacles in the United States” – Inger Vandyke, the Toronto Observer, December 2014

It’s November and, as the temperatures plummet towards freezing, a small patch of reclaimed farmland and ponds in New Mexico erupts into one of the biggest wildlife spectacles of North America.

Snow Geese in flight

Bosque Del Apache straddles a patch of land between the foothills of the desert mountains and the Rio Grande, a river that has carved out an spectacular course, dented by four major basins, along an ancient rift valley. The rift valley is bordered in the north by Colorado, in the west by Arizona, in the east by the Magdalena Mountains (including the Cibola National Forest Reserve) towards Texas and in the south by Mexico. The reserve sits at the southern end of the Albuquerque Basin, south of the city of that name.

The road into Cibola

Bosque doesn’t look like much at first glance. After you leave the tiny town of San Antonio, a straight road running parallel to a railway line leads out to the reserve. En-route a few signs give you an idea of what might lie ahead. Mountain Bluebirds flit around the local fields looking for food. A Greater Roadrunner may run across the road in front of the reserve’s entry sign. The occasional Red-tailed Kite will be sitting on the local power poles.

Greater Roadrunner

As you approach the reserve entry gate, you might open your window to watch the covey of Gambel’s Quail that seem to like hanging around the ticket office. However it’s only when you open the window that you hear them. The distant rumble of thousands of birds heralds your arrival into Bosque. A cacophony of sound that signals something great is about to appear. It is the magical chorus of up to 17,000 Sandhill Cranes and 40,000 Snow and Ross’s Geese that characterizes one of the most abundant regions for wildlife in New Mexico. Capitalizing on carefully maintained maize fields and a series of ponds fed by irrigation canals, thousands of these migratory birds visit Bosque from early November through to mid-February to feast on remnant maize and vegetation before they return to their northern breeding grounds.

The sheer magnitude of the wildlife visiting Bosque can leave even the most wildlife weary photographer both humbled and speechless.

A flock of Snow Geese takes flight behind roosting Sandhill Cranes

The reserve of Bosque del Apache is split into two loops, one in the north and the other in the south. In the north, a series of well considered viewing decks are constructed to allow spectators of this mass event the best possible views. These include the Flight Deck where you can watch several thousand birds launch themselves into the early dawn from their night roost, to the Farm Deck which looks directly over a rich all-day feeding field.

In the south a dirt road connects you to places where you might chance upon the reserve’s herd of Mule Deer or one of the more elusive wild coyotes that roam freely around Bosque.

It is a reserve that is set up remarkably well for photographers, with a variety of platforms that can be visited to capture the best light on any given day.

Sunrise from the flight deck at Bosque

A typical day on tour will start at dawn where our vehicle will be positioned to view the first of the day’s “Blast offs”, the departure flight of thousands of birds leaving their night roosts to visit their feeding grounds during daylight hours. These dawn starts in the reserve will alternate with trips to the western pools on the road into Bosque that act as a night roost for many cranes, geese and waterfowl. Beneath the blush of a clear new day a rosy hue is cast over the many birds that have used them as a place to rest during the evening. Some may be still sleeping, their heads hidden in plumage to keep warm, others might be just stretching their wings preparing to take off in small groups to visit other areas of the park. Aside from the first hand experience of watching Bosque erupt into life for the day, both locations offer unrivalled opportunities to capture silhouette shots of birds flying against the spectacular morning sky, take photos of their reflections in the stillness of the pools early in the morning or practice shooting images in low light situations.After leaving our dawn photography site, we will slowly cruise the loops of the reserve at low speeds looking for shy and elusive Coyotes that are usually most active in the early hours. The morning light at Bosque is soft and many days are still enough to photograph incredible reflections of reeds and native Cottonwood trees in the reserve’s pools, spot skulking animals, watch the reserve’s herd of Mule Deer on the move and also photograph tiny passerines like American Goldfinches feeding at the start of the day.

Mule Deer

Stops at the reserve’s information centre for the bathroom, hot chocolate or coffee may even allow you to glimpse a native Javelina (small wild pig) picking around the scraps of the centre’s bird feeders or a Cooper’s Hawk swooping on tiny birds, also at the feeder, while you take a break. Regular visitors to the feeder include Spotted Towhee and White-crowned Sparrow.

In the middle of the day, the group will pause for lunch at the infamous Owl Café in San Antonio which makes the best burgers in the area, before returning to the hotel for a rest.

Gambel's Quail

Around 3.30pm, we will head out to the reserve again to watch the last of the day’s sunlight sink behind the Magdalena Mountains and cast a golden glow over the spectacular wildlife of Bosque as it settles down for another evening.

Sunset at Bosque

In 2014, the refuge celebrated the 75th Anniversary of its opening in 1939 and our visit will be shortly after the 30th annual Festival of the Cranes which honours the brilliant biodiversity of Bosque del Apache at a time when the migratory geese and cranes are at their peak.

This is not enhanced. The skies really are that colour!

BERNARDO

Offering a completely different perspective on the mass migration of Sandhill Cranes, the small reserve of Bernardo is about a 30 minute drive north of Bosque del Apache. A small unsealed road of about 3 kilometres connects a number of different sites including open grasslands, maize fields and deliberately planted alfalfa for bird food. While it doesn’t support the many thousands of creatures that Bosque attracts, up to 5,000 Sandhill Cranes can be seen here. Some scenes in Bernardo are almost reminiscent of the African savannah with their grassy verges interrupted by charismatic Cottonwoods. As we drive past the maize fields, we may see many cranes feeding inside the maize. They blend in surprisingly well with these fields.

Roosting Sandhill Cranes at Bernardo

THE NEW MEXICO INSTITUTE OF MINING AND TECHNOLOGY

You may be asking yourself why a tertiary education institution is on the list of ‘must see’ places for a wildlife photography tour? As part of the landscaped gardens of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, there is a small pond with a surprisingly friendly flock of American Wigeon! These tiny ducks are an entertaining short stop to photograph during the trip. Their iridescent plumage and emboldened stance against other waterfowl occupying their pond makes for endearing and stunning photographs! While we walk into the pond from the car park, we will also be looking for other woodland birds including tiny Ladder-backed Woodpeckers.

Cooper's Hawk

WATER CANYON AND CIBOLA RESERVE

A short 21 mile drive west of Socorro, the rugged Water Canyon consists of a steep gorge carved into the Magdalena Mountains, a part of the Cibola National Forest Reserve which covers an area of 1.6 million acres and varies in elevation from 830 to over 3400 metres.

During the Bosque del Apache tour a morning will be spent visiting this stunning mountain region, much of which is so high that it is likely to be covered in snow.

Bokeh play in the snow at Water Canyon

This small detour will offer a stunning diversion from the flat lands around Bosque and we will be photographing the changing landscapes on the drive in to the mountains plus looking for species of birds that vary greatly from the avifauna of the surrounding valleys including White-breasted Nuthatch, Mountain Chickadee and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. If we are very lucky, we may even see a shy Elk or one of the region’s Pronghorn Antelope.

Snow covered forests at Cibola

We will take a short and easy gradient walk through the Water Canyon in search of some of these creatures to photograph. If there is heavy frost or snow on the ground and we are visiting on a sunny day, the Water Canyon walk is an ideal place to practice photographing Bokeh.

Bosque full moon.

WHITE SANDS NATIONAL MONUMENT

The vast and otherworldly dunescape of the White Sands National Monument stretches due west from the military town of Alamagordo in southern New Mexico.

Pale bluebush in White Sands

Rising from the bottom of the Tularosa Basin, the White Sands National Monument is a visual feast of white gypsum dunes, spotted with native agave plants set against a backdrop of mountain ranges on its western horizon.

It is an incredible place to practice landscape photographic techniques – from the basics like rules of thirds and leading lines, to more complex exercises in composition, contrasts of light and form.

The beautiful landscapes at White Sands

We will spend an entire afternoon at White Sands doing a gentle walk over a nature trail in the dunes in search of windswept trees and flowering agaves. During this small walk, we will be on the lookout for the spur or footprints of tiny desert creatures, stands of gnarled driftwood and wind eroded formations to photograph.

If the weather allows we will remain at White Sands to watch the sun sink below the horizon enhancing the long shadows cast by both the dunes and plants as the entire landscape morphs into darkness. We will then return to our hotel in Socorro for the evening.

White Sands National Monument

ITINERARY

Day 1 (Sunday 12 November 2017)

Arrival in Albuquerque for group participants wishing to join the Bosque Del Apache tour. Overnight in Albuquerque.

Red brushes at Bosque

Day 2 (Monday 13 November 2017)

Depart Albuquerque, visit the Rio Grande Nature Centre State Park in the morning and travel to Socorro in the afternoon for a 6 nights stay. Lunch in at the Owl Bar in San Antonio, visit to Bosque Del Apache then return to the hotel to check in, have dinner in Socorro.

Wrecked cars at Carrizozo

Day 3 (Tuesday 14 November 2017)

Dawn at Bosque Del Apache followed by a morning touring the reserve’s two loops photographing wildlife. Lunch at the Owl Café and a rest stop at the hotel before visiting the reserve again for sunset.

Sandhill Cranes in flight at Bosque Del Apache

Day 4 (Wednesday 15 November 2017)

Dawn at Bosque Del Apache followed by a morning touring the reserve’s two loops photographing wildlife. Lunch at the Owl Café and a rest stop at the hotel before a short visit to Bernardo. We will then return to Bosque Del Apache again for sunset.

The last wild flowers of the year.

Day 5 (Thursday 16 November 2017)

Dawn at Bosque Del Apache followed by a morning touring the reserve’s two loops photographing wildlife. Drive back to Socorro and visit the New Mexico Institute for Mining and Technology to photograph the American Wigeon. Lunch will be at a Mexican restaurant in Socorro before we have a rest stop at the hotel. We will then visit Bosque Del Apache again for sunset.

Early morning reflections at Bosque Del Apache

Day 6 (Friday 17 November 2017)

Morning visit to the Water Canyon in the Magdalena Mountains. Lunch in Socorro and a rest stop at the hotel before visiting the reserve again for sunset.

Cranes landing in storm clouds at Bosque Del Apache

Day 7 (Saturday 18 November 2017)

Morning drive to Alamagordo to spend the afternoon at White Sands National Monument until sunset. Drive back to Socorro for dinner and overnight stay.

Agave in the snow and sand at White Sands National Monument

Day 8 (Sunday 19 November 2017)

Early breakfast. Drive back to Albuquerque for departure flights.

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