Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge may not be a well-known destination for the large tourist crowds which tend to fill our national parks, yet, for bird enthusiasts, each late autumn/early winter it becomes a “mecca” of sorts as the Refuge fills with thousands of migrating birds.
Each morning at dawn, Snow geese lift off by the thousands from the ponds in which they sleep, in search of fields to feed in for the day. Smaller groups of sandhill cranes then leave the safety of the water for the same reason.
The birds come here each year in search of safe quarters, moderate temperatures and good eating. At the refuge, water is diverted from the Rio Grande River through irrigation ditches that refuge managers use to flood fields for waterfowl and water the crops that are grown specifically to feed the wildlife on the refuge.
This daily spectacle of birds draws photographers and birders from all over the globe and is precisely what drew a group of 11 photographer/bird enthusiasts in early December for Backcountry Journeys Bosque Del Apache & White Sands tour.
Our Bosque Del Apache & White Sands photography tour travels each early December to New Mexico and combines wildlife and landscape photography opportunities while visiting a few of the “can’t miss” attractions of south-central New Mexico. We spend more time with the birds (and other critters) at Bosque, however, we also travel to nearby Alamogordo and White Sands National Monument, as well as to the Very Large Array astronomical radio observatory, west of Socorro.
Bosque & The Birds
Following an introductory meeting/dinner at Albuquerque’s famous Sadie’s of New Mexico, we awoke the following morning extra-early so as to head south towards Bosque. Our goal for this morning was to arrive to the refuge prior to sunrise and just-in-time to witness the Snow geese “blasting-off” as they leave the safety of their pond for the day. We made it in plenty of time to get set up and witness a large number of geese blast-off into the soft light of the morning.
We stayed, photographing around the pond until the majority of the birds had left for the day, about the same time the bright New Mexican sun rose high enough to put an end to the soft morning light.
Next up was a drive to Alamogordo, NM, where we’d be lodging for one night while photographing the dunes of White Sands. Along the way, we passed near the Trinity Site, where, in 1945, the world’s first nuclear weapon was detonated as a part of the Manhattan Project. In this spot, we were also not far from Roswell, renowned as the site of an (alleged) 1947 UFO crash.
White Sands National Monument … er, PARK!
White Sands is a truly otherworldly landscape. Here, great wave-like dunes of gypsum sand have engulfed 275 square miles of the Tularosa Basin – creating an incredible white sea of desert dunes set against the mountains on the horizon and the deep blue desert sky above. This is the world’s largest gypsum field, and shimmering and shifting white sands create endless patterns and mystery as the light of the setting sun seemingly dances across the soft white dunes.
You may have seen White Sands in recent news stories. In fact, as of Dec. 20th, the former National Monument is now the country’s newest National Park! White Sands National Park is the 62nd addition to our National Parks system.
You have more than likely seen images from White Sands, even if you’ve not visited. More than 20 major motion pictures have been shot here since 1950, most recently a short segment from the Clint Eastwood film, ‘The Mule,’ was shot along the main road leading into the Park. Hundreds of commercials, music videos, TV shows, and documentaries have also been filmed here over the years. In fact, as we set up our sunset shot along the sand dunes, we could see a film crew working on what appeared to be a scene from a movie. We’ll have to look for it in the near future, maybe we’ll see ourselves in the background on the horizon.
Very early the following morning we found ourselves being led (with the light of only our headlamps) by a ranger across, up, and down, a handful of gypsum dunes in order to access a special location most guests to White Sands do not access. This morning we had ‘special clearance’ to be in the Park due to an interesting circumstance that would be uncommon for most, but not for White Sands.
Since World War II, the United States military has had a permanent presence in the Tularosa Basin. What was first called ‘White Sands Proving Grounds,’ now named White Sands Missile Range, and Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range, is the Park’s neighbor, as is Holloman Air Force Base.
Our group received word that a bombing exercise was scheduled for this morning, which would limit our choices as to where we’d set up for our planned sunrise shoot. Normally, folks would be turned away by the Park until this ‘top-secret’ exercise was completed. We received permission to get in, yet had to be escorted in-and-out by Ranger Kathy, who was wonderful! The bonus was that we were able to access a private little corner of the park that offered an amazing view of the rising sun and its majesty, combined with untouched white sand dunes and desert vegetation that offered striking foreground anchors for our compositions.
Birds and the Buckhorn
After our sunrise shot, we went back to our hotel to get a quick bit of rest, pack up and move back towards Socorro, New Mexico, and the neighboring Bosque Del Apache. We’d stay two nights in Socorro, photographing the birds of Bosque as well as a quick trip to the Very Large Array.
Not many eateries get their own headlines inside a BCJ trip report, even though we are often dining at locations that deserve to be mentioned. The ‘Buckhorn’ is a small roadside bar and grill that earns its headline. It is conveniently located, just outside of the Refuge boundaries, in the tiny village of San Antonio, NM. Not much remains here in this rail town that was actually the birthplace of Conrad Hilton, the first in a long line of Hilton hoteliers. Two wonderful burger joints are here, along with a small gas station and a collection of small homes. Both burger spots are great, however, we find the Buckhorn to be ‘the go-to spot’ when at Bosque.
The Buckhorn is a regionally famous restaurant known for its green chile cheeseburgers made with fresh New Mexico Hatch chilis. They boast that their burgers are the Seventh Best (in the world?), but our group agreed that they should be rated even higher than that. You know, by whoever it is that rates burgers (sounds like a GREAT job, doesn’t it?). The burgers at the Buckhorn are so good -they just melt in your mouth – and the ambiance really gives one a good sense of small town New Mexico. You may have seen the Buckhorn as it was featured in a Food Network episode of Throwdown, with Bobby Flay.
Following lunch, we stopped by the Refuge Visitor Center. Here, besides an interesting collection of displays and information inside, is a small desert garden where songbirds, quail, and roadrunners are often found. While we had great success with finding and photographing quail, we were not lucky enough to find ourselves a roadrunner.
Sunset and the following day’s sunrise were each spent photographing the waterfowl at Bosque. Silhouettes of the Sandhill crane, perhaps flying across the mountainous horizon, or dancing on the glassy water was the order of the evening.
During the afternoon we enjoyed a large lunch spread during a Lightroom session and Wildlife Photography Tutorial from guide, Russell Graves.
Very Large Array
On our final evening of the trip, we headed roughly fifty miles west of Socorro in order to pay a visit to the Very Large Array (VLA), which is one of the world’s premier astronomical radio observatories. The Array consists of 27 radio antennas in a Y-shaped configuration on the Plains of San Agustin. Each antenna is 82 feet in diameter.
Data from these antennas is combined electronically to give the resolution of an antenna 22 miles across, with the equivalent sensitivity of a dish 422 feet in diameter. This is also a famous spot from television and film. Most famously appearing in the 1997 film, ‘Contact,’ starring Jodie Foster. Great film!
We decided to start our tour of the facility by watching the short documentary at the visitor center. The film, narrated by Jodie Foster, provides an inspiring overview of radio astronomy, interferometry, and exactly what the VLA is doing out there in the middle of nowhere. Now, with an understanding of what the place is all about, we headed outside to take a short walking tour of the grounds and photograph the scene, which was fascinating and beautiful as the sunset off in the distance, providing really nice soft light on the antennas. We were able to get up close to at least one of these 230-ton antennas. Several compositions were possible, from a back-lit antenna with starburst, to a panorama of several of them uniformly lined up.
Really nice images presented themselves here as the scene was striking. As the sun dipped below the horizon, we headed back to Socorro for dinner.
Our final morning at the crane pond provided us with a chance to get all those images of ducks, Snow geese and Sandhill cranes that we hadn’t yet captured.
The weather was delightful, and the birds put on a nice show across the glassy pond. Following our shoot, we headed back towards Albuquerque with a TON of images to pour over upon getting home from this delightful tour of Bosque Del Apache & White Sands.
Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Katmai, Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica & Brazil. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, and has had several of his writings and photographs published in the Omaha World-Herald newspaper. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.