Photographing at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

Blast Off

In February, Mary and I traveled to New Mexico to see one of the premier bird sanctuaries in the U.S. – Bosque del Apache.  Bosque is near Socorro, NM which is about 75 miles south of Albuquerque.  We are not experienced bird photographers or wildlife photographers, in general, but we did a lot of reading and watched a lot of video before we got there.  Here is what we saw and a few lessons for novices.

Calm before the Blast Off

The highlight of any trip to the refuge is the morning “blast-off.”  This is the moment when hundreds, if not thousands, of birds, take off at once to start their day.  Blast off begins quite early in the morning around sunrise, so like any good nature photographer, you have to get there early, stake out your spot, and prepare for the inevitable.  We photographed two blastoffs and learned different things each time.

Snow Geese in Formation

The first time, we used our 500 MM lenses and probably should have gone a bit more wide-angle with a 70-200 MM.  Second, as you can see above, I composed a pretty good time-zero shot of the birds before the blast off.  The problem is they are all facing to the right and I did not notice that, so I did not put enough space there.  I should have recomposed anticipating their flight direction.  So, when they all took off, I had the right side of my frame full, but open space on the left and missed out on some of the action.  Next time, I would compose with the thought of where the birds are going, not where they are sitting.

Here is the blast off series #1
Blast off series #2
Blast off series #3
Blast off series #4
Blast off series #5

I have to say a funny, and something not so nice, happened this morning.  A couple set up next to us loaded down with huge Really Right Stuff Gimble Heads, Cannon 1Ds, 500 MM lenses with camo coating, and excellent outer-wear.  These two looked the part and had the gear to prove it…except they missed the blast off because the hubbie was away from his camera talking it up with some people.  By the time he rushed back to his set-up he had missed most of the excitement.  Remember these cameras are shooting at 10 frames per second.  The whole thing was over in about 5 seconds.  You sooze…you lose.

Sandhill Cranes coming in for a landing at dusk

Dusk photography was very interesting and rewarding.  Just as the birds take off in the morning from the ponds, they come back at night to roost.  They come back one-by-one and in small and large groups.  We photographed two sunsets watching the sun go down and photographing the birds as they found their home for the night.  Our go-to shot was a silhouette against a glowing sunset.


There is a lot to do at the refuge beside the early morning blast off and the dusk/sunset returns.  We saw American Bald Eagles both days and made a point to do some natural abstracts along the way.

Keeping Watch
Reeds along the water at sunset
Afternoon Glow

A note about equipment

Mary and I each have a 70-200 MM lens and a 1.5X and 2X extenders.  However, if you want to get really good bird shots, you will need a 500 MM.  So we rented two 500 MM from Sammy’s Camera in LA.  This is a great way to try out equipment, especially if you are not sure you will want or need such expensive and specialized lenses.  They were a challenge because they are so big and heavy, but also quite useful in the close-ups.  I am not ready to buy one, but renting one in the future is a really good option.  You also have to jack up your ISO as high as you can to get a really fast shutter speed and you need to learn how to pan, so you can get a sharp image of moving birds.  We clearly have not mastered this and will need to practice some more.

Ready for Take Off

To read more about Bosque or plan a trip out there, check out their website.  To see more of or purchase some of our photography, please go to


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