Beautiful Birds of Bosque Del Apache

Beautiful Birds of Bosque Del Apache

If you are looking for a fun, structured, guided photography trip, look no further than Krisztina’s trip to Bosque del Apache, New Mexico! She has been a friend of mine for some time, and is actually my photography mentor. The trip is geared towards photographers, but everyone can enjoy it! She is leading this amazing experience in the future, so don’t miss out on it! Just tell her that Justin sent you. Fair warning, you will have to wake up before sunrise on the trip, but the early wake-up is well worth it for the experience you get. She actually scopes out the sites beforehand to let you know what spot is best, as well as where the light will come from for the perfect shot. If you can’t get that perfect shot, just ask her and she will come over to help you, as she puts your photos ahead of her own. The photography subjects in question are snow geese (by the ten thousands) and Sandhill Cranes (weirdly beautiful birds that look and act rather prehistoric). She is also incredibly knowledgeable about birds and photography, and if she does not know it, her friend Dave most likely will. I don’t mean to sound like a walking billboard, but it is hard not to be amazed by all the awesome things she does and how well she knows photography.

Snow Geese
Sandhill Crane

If you are wondering how a day on this trip goes, here is what happens. You wake up (or, in my case, get woken up) before sunrise, and drive out in the near-darkness with the rest of your group. When you get to the liftoff spot in the morning, you will have to wait until sunrise for the geese to lift off (for us, they always lifted off at 6:19 a.m., and we appreciated the consistency). After the liftoff at sunrise, you will typically get back into your cars and take a spin around the beautiful forests in the back of the park loop in order to get to a feeding spot. Back there, there is a chance to spot anything from bobcats to roadrunners, so I would keep an eye peeled and a camera ready for any photo subjects that may show up. I also recommend being ready to switch sides quickly, as your subjects can be on either side of the road. After this, you go back to the hotel for breakfast (I personally recommend the sausage patties, but you do you). Midday is mostly reserved for relaxing and catching up on the sleep you lost by waking up before sunrise (see tips section for lunch recommendations). After lunch, you go out before dinner for another photo shoot. It follows a similar pattern as the morning one, but backwards, and you are watching landing, not takeoff. Just fyi, the geese do not land at 6:19 p.m. this time.

Snow Geese liftoff: watch with volume up

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you may be asking yourself “why isn’t Justin explaining literally everything about the birds yet?” Let’s fix that, shall we? Bosque del Apache is home to many species of birds, from the Sandhill Cranes to the little Red-Winged Blackbirds that congregated into enormous, noisy clouds (known as murmurations) above the feeding pond. In Bosque del Apache, the biodiversity of the bird species means that there is a photography spot for every style. We liked all the spots, but I’ll provide a quick rundown of what you can find at each major spot and when.

At the flight deck pond, you could mostly get photos at sunrise or sunset, as the birds did not spend the day there, reserving it (mostly) for liftoffs or landings. Slightly before sunrise, you can hear some rustling and honking over the pond. Then, the moment the sun comes up over the ridge, you have to be ready, because all of the geese explode off the pond like they all had 17 cups of espresso that morning. The cranes wake up more slowly (or the geese wake them up when they make the least stealthy exit in history) and leave about as slowly as they can without falling out of the sky from lack of forward velocity in small groups into the oranges and pinks of the rising sun (on the bright side, you have a lot of time to photograph them).

After this, you can head to the feeding ponds, places where you can catch photos of the cranes, blackbirds, and geese. The cranes and blackbirds are usually there, but the geese come and go in enormous flocks that fill the sky with rippling storms of flapping and honking. The blackbird murmurations take the cake for most impressive flocks, though. They suddenly detonate out of the grass and ripple through the air like a flag in a windstorm, then settle down for a few minutes before taking to the skies again. This place is very lucrative for people looking for dense flocks of birds that seem almost impenetrably thick. The portrait shots of Sandhill Cranes are pretty nice, too.

Blackbird murmur
A young Sandhill Crane

The other spot we went to is the visitor’s center gardens, packed to the brim with songbirds and quails. A particular songbird we liked was the Pyrrhuloxia, a small bird also known as the desert cardinal. We spent both days at the visitor’s center searching every nook and cranny of the garden for this little vibrant red bird. As hard as we tried, we could not find the male and photograph him, despite quite an effort of climbing benches and running in circles to look for him in the trees. Another awesome bird we found was the Loggerhead Shrike, a tiny but vicious carnivorous black and gray songbird that eats lizards and small rodents, and will use barbed wire and cacti to skewer their food and save it for later. If your barbed wire fence or cactus garden has random half-eaten lizard tails on it, you may want to look for this bird in your general vicinity. Also, let me know, I would like to see more of them myself.

the tiny but vicious Loggerhead Shrike
Gambel’s Quail
Red-winged Blackbird

We enjoyed all the days in Bosque del Apache (an excellent reason for you to come, too) but here are some highlights of our days. Our first day, we were just getting the hang of the schedule, but we still had some amazing experiences, namely the geese lifting off and the murmurs. My favorite thing from that day was the little fluffed-up roadrunner we found on the way out. The next day, Krisztina took a risk that definitely payed off. Instead of starting our day at the liftoff pond, we went straight to the feeding pond after discovering that some of the cranes roosted there instead. It was amazing, we got to watch as the cranes woke up and walked around a little bit, trying to break the ice stuck to their feet from sleeping in a frozen pond. We also found a poor duck that fell asleep in the middle of the pond and got frozen in, rendering her unable to move until the ice melted. We turned to focus on the incoming geese, then looked back and discovered that the duck was gone, leaving a duck-shaped hole melted into the ice. That night, Krisztina took us back to the pond and we witnessed the weirdest behavior yet from the sandhill cranes… the paratrooper landing. The cranes fly in from high altitudes and stall out over the pond, then half fall and half glide rather awkwardly down into it. We also went to the visitor’s center to find small birds in the gardens. The quails were cute, but the female Pyrrhuloxia we saw stole the show. As you know, wildlife is never predictable (well, except for those geese), and, sure enough, our next trip to the visitor’s center, a bird I do not see much, a thrasher, decided to make an appearance.

Paratrooper Landing

In short, this trip is fun for anyone, even if you don’t like photography and are just in it for the birds. I encourage you to try new things and step outside your comfort zone, but you can enjoy this trip so many different ways! I always enjoy having a good time while learning new things, which is why I liked this trip so much. You learn so much about the birds and their behaviors, but the trip is so fun, too! And believe me when I say this, Krisztina is the best guide for this trip and with her in the lead, you are guaranteed to have a good time. You can check out her workshops here: KS Nature Photography

Tips and tricks:

Bring warm gear like your are going to go through the ice age, it is freezing out there: 19 degrees Fahrenheit (yes, I know I am a wimp, okay? don’t rub it in.)

If you don’t want to just submit to eating McDonald’s from the restaurant next door to the hotel, we have some recommendations for food.

  • Owl Bar and Cafe: they have a world-famous green chili cheeseburger that is top-notch (hint hint, order it!)
  • Sofia’s Kitchen and Burrito Thyme (their carne adobada is delicious, we went there multiple times for their carne adobada burrito)
  • El Camino Restaurant and Lounge (delicious wet burrito with red chili)
  • Journey’s Place (torta burger was super delicious and had slightly sweet notes, note that they only take cash, not card or Apple Pay)