It was five in the morning in Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. It was so quiet. The sky was getting pink. There were hundreds of sleeping Sandhill Cranes in the water. Suddenly there was a strange noise in the air – the flutter of thousands of wings. Then a loud gaggle broke up the silence. Thousands of Snow Geese appeared above the water, lifting Cranes from sleep. This magical spectacle of nature moved us. Unforgettable!
Participation in the Sandhill Crane migration to their winter residence was one of the most fantastic wildlife-watching experiences for us. So in this article, we share experience and photography tips from the Bosque Del Apache Festival of The Cranes, near Socorro, New Mexico.
Where is Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge?
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is located twenty miles to the south of Socorro, New Mexico. It’s about 95 miles and 1,5 hours of driving from Albuquerque, the closest major airport, so the place is worth visiting during your trip around New Mexico. It is located along the Rio Grande at the northern edge of the Chihuahuan desert. This wildlife refuge in New Mexico is one of the preeminent sites in the US for photographing migratory birds. There have been over 350 different bird species observed in the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, making it one of the most diverse areas for bird species in the United States. Socorro is the closest town to the refuge and the best place to stay overnight.
TRIP TIP: If you stay in Albuquerque, there is a chance to take a fabulous one-day guided trip to see this spectacle of nature with Sandhill Cranes in the primary role. Traveler pickup is also offered from Albuquerque Intl Airport.
The over 57,000-acre refuge opened in 1939 to “provide a refuge and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife.” It is also wintering grounds for the more enormous Sandhill Cranes. Photographers and other visitors have access to a core area of nearly 13,000 acres for viewing and photographing birds and other wildlife. In addition to Sandhill Cranes, and Snow Geese is also a home for dozens of Bald Eagles, Great Blue Herons, Avocets, the occasional Pelican, and many other birds. It’s easy to see Coyotes and Mule Deer, as well. The place is a real feast and an outdoor paradise for photographers and wildlife lovers.
What is Bosque Del Apache Festival Of The Cranes?
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is the winter home of thousands of Sandhill Cranes, Snow Geese, Rosses Geese, ducks, and other waterfowl. The arrival of the Sandhill Cranes each year is celebrated by a 6-day Bosque Del Apache Festival Of The Cranes each November, before Thanksgiving. The Cranes and Snow Geese generally remain on the refuge until mid-February when they return to their breeding grounds in the north. Thousands of Sandhill Cranes and thousands of Snow and Rosses Geese gather in Bosque del Apache to stay through the winter on the rich feeding grounds in central New Mexico. It is an incredible spectacle of migration. It’s home to around 14,000 Sandhill Cranes, and over 32,000 Snow Geese and Ross’s Geese from November to February. So, the best time to visit Bosque is in these Winter months.
However, even with their departure, the refuge remains a beautiful place for hiking, biking, and wildlife- and bird-watching year-round.
When is next Bosque Del Apache Festival Of The Cranes 2022?
You can check the dates of the next festivals on the website. The next one will take place in November/December 2022. So, plan to visit around the weekend before Thanksgiving during the annual Bosque Del Apache Festival Of The Cranes in 2022. According to the official website, they are beginning stages of planning. The Festival’s virtual elements will probably start the week before Thanksgiving 2022, around November 17-19. But the in-person Festival of the Cranes 2022 is planned for December 1, 2, and 3, 2022.
Where To Stay?
Socorro is the best place to stop for the night because you can reach the sunrise from the town in 20 minutes. So check hotels on and book accommodation a few months earlier. Especially if you plan to visit in November/December because this month is the Bosque del Apache Festival of The Cranes and is viral among nature lovers from all over the world.
Our favorite hotels are Holiday Inn Express Socorro and Best Western Socorro Hotel & Suites.
But if you plan to stay in Albuquerque, the great option is also taking a trip from Albuquerque if you decided on a one-day trip. One of the reviews of this trip is:
“It was so much more than I imagined. 5 bald eagles, thousands of sandhill cranes, hawks, geese, and so much more. Seeing that many cranes were a dream come true. Lovely visitor’s center, plenty of bathrooms, and garage drops. The auto tour was amazing, such great lands they have to be enjoyed.” For more reviews and prices check here.
Bosque Del Apache Visitor Center
So, to reach the refuge from Socorro, head south on I-25 to the San Antonio exit. Follow the exit ramp and you’ll wind up on SR 380 for about 1/4 mile, after which you’ll reach the light at Highway 1. Turn right (south). Around 9 miles, you’ll reach the Visitor Center on your right. The refuge entrance is on the left.
Bosque del Apache is open every day from one hour before sunrise to one hour after sunset. However, it is worth visiting Bosque Del Apache Visitor Center, to get a trails map and more info about the refuge (it is open from 8 a.m.).
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge offers many opportunities to enjoy wildlife-dependent activities, as wildlife watching, hiking, wildlife photography, and more. How to visit this place?
Auto Tour Route – tour loop
The best idea for wildlife watching is taking the tour loop. The auto tour loop is open every day from one hour before sunrise to one hour after sunset, year-round. It is 12 miles long, bisected by a two-way road. However, you should know that you can see Cranes also in a reservoir before the entrance to the park. After morning fly-out, the Cranes spend the day foraging in open fields of dried and dead corn. There are several water reservoirs in the park (Cranes Pools/Ponds) where you can observe birds. The road is wide enough to stop on the side of the shoulders and photograph wildlife.
You’ll also find in a Bosque a series of trails that are usually short and relatively easy to hike. So, if you have more time it is a great idea to take some trails. The best and short trails are the 1.5 mile Marsh Overlook Trail, the 2 mile Rio Viejo Trail and the 0.5-mile Boardwalk Trail.
Bosque Del Apache Photography Tips
PROTIP: If you have little experience in birds & wildlife photography, check our 10 essential steps to take to prepare for wildlife photography.
The photography opportunities in Bosque del Apache are remarkable. From almost an hour before sunrise until an hour after sunset it is a paradise. Moreover, even during mid-day, you have opportunities for great shots, when the birds are eating in the fields or swimming in the ponds. So pack your lunch and snacks with you. We spent there three days, and now we share the best tips with you.
Go For The Sunrise
Birds are the most active early in the morning. Go at least an hour before sunrise to set up the tripod and your photo equipment, and prepare for a magical spectacle. The place is visited by many people so that it can be crowded. In the morning it is cold. The refuge is at around 5000 feet elevation, so dress warmly. Furthermore, do not forget about the masking jacket and pants. You will be standing around for a long while, so take also a warm beanie and winter photography glove, and dress layers.
Choose The Best Spot For Sunrise
South Crane Pond For Sandhill Cranes
Interestingly, for us, one of the most impressive performances takes place not in the park itself, but at the water reservoir before the visitor center (if you are coming from Socorro). We were interested in Sandhill Cranes, which is why we chose South Crane Pond. We love these elegant birds, which are dancing with such grace.
So, you will see a long narrow car park and water reservoir on the right (on the west side of Highway 1). Stop at this South Crane Pond Parking next to Old US Hgwy 85 and admire this morning spectacle of Sandhill Cranes. The pools are filled with thousands of Sandhill Cranes during the morning fly-out. For us, this pond has offered the best opportunities for photographing silhouettes and mass takeoffs of Sandhill Cranes at sunrise. It is also a fantastic spot for sunset with it dramatic mountain backdrop.
The Flight Deck For “Blast-Offs” of Snow Geese
However, if you have only one sunrise, you have to choose what you want to photograph. The other place the best for sunrise photography is The Flight Deck in the refuge. Take the first left after entering the reserve and then park about a half-mile later. You won’t miss it; you will hear a gaggle of thousands of Snow Geese. The Flight Deck is faces east, so you’re looking into the sunrise. Around dawn, the flock of thousands of geese will take off. So, most bird photographers choose the “Flight Deck” waiting to capture the spectacular “blast-offs” of huge Snow Goose flocks at sunrise.
Be Patient And Watch The Birds Closely
Give yourself time to observe the birds, their habits. Before you go to Bosque, read about cranes and geese and their practices. You will be better prepared for your photography adventure in Bosque del Apache. The more you know about any subject, the better off you’ll be when it comes time to press the shutter. First of all, focus your attention on the birds’ behavior patterns. They have a daily routine. After the sunrise exodus, they fly to the farm fields at the north end of the refuge to feed. They going back to their favorite ponds after sunset for the night. The birds take off into the wind. So, the most important is you know the wind direction.
Below are our favorite books and albums about Sandhill Cranes and Birds Photography:
|On Ancient Wings: The Sandhill Cranes||A Chorus of Cranes||Can You Dance Like John?||The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes|
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|The World's Best Bird Migration Sites||Technique of Photographing Birds and Their Behavior||Art of Bird Photography||NG Complete Birds of North America|
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Focus On Cranes Air Traffic Control System
Focus your attention on the morning fly-out. After a few minutes of careful observation of the Sandhill Cranes, you will notice that they have their fantastic system of rising into the air. It seems that they have their own air traffic control system. Each of the cranes shows that it wants to float in the air, tilting its head down. It looks around for other birds.
Those who want to start fly are strolling towards the first crane. Birds are leaning forward and lowering their heads, ready to take off.
The bird, with its head in the lowest position, on the front of the group, usually takes off first. A small group of usually 3-5 of surrounding cranes rises immediately after it.
If you plan to visit Bosque del Apache, and you are interested in bird photography, you will need some telephoto lenses, as Sony FE 200-600mm, Sigma 150-600mm, Tamron SP 150-600mm, Nikon AF-S FX 200-500mm, or Canon EF 100-400mm.
Check our photo gear suggestions in this article.
Other than having big enough glass, you will want a camera with a robust autofocus system like Canon EOS-1DX or Nikon D5 and tripod. The huge blast-offs of snow geese happen at or before dawn, so it’s pretty dark.
|Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3||Sony FE 200-600mm F5.6-6.3||Sigma 150-600mm 5-6.3||NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR|
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Take a Tour Loop On The Mid-Day
In the Mid-day, the flocks of birds are feeding on the cornfields or wade in ponds. You will find them at many places in the Farm Loop. So, you can drive through this 12 miles long road and observe nature. It is possible to drive and park almost anywhere to take photos. There are hiking trails. However, the best photographic opportunities are right from the accessible viewing areas by the road. You have a chance to see other birds and animals as well.
If you have only one day for your visit consider a guided trip from Albuquerque, as they know the park and birds’ habits. They know where you have the best opportunities to spot birds and other wildlife in Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.
Think Of a Broader Frame
Look wider at the beauty that surrounds you. Bosque del Apache is impressive because of the breathtaking landscape, wide-open spaces, mountains, trees. Therefore, the place looks phenomenal even after the departure of the birds. So, take a wider lens, change perspective, and show the cranes or geese on the beautiful background, the sky, the mountains, fall colors, clouds or reflections in the water.
Finally, we assure you that even if you do not have a professional telephoto lens, you have the chance to take great photos of cranes and other wildlife in Bosque. Why? Because the place is magical. The birds and animals are quite close. So, even with Nikkor 80-400mm, Canon 100-400mm, or wider but much brighter 24-70 zoom for Canon or Nikon, it is possible to take great photos, if you focus on a broader perspective.
|NIKKOR 80-400mm f.4.5-5.6G ED VR||Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L||NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR||Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L|
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Remember About Manual Exposure
Manual exposure is a crucial ingredient for bird flight photography because of in-flight photography we want our birds to be exposed appropriately at all times. So, manual mode allows us to set the proper exposure for our subject and ignore the influence of the background entirely. Once you’ve dialed in the correct exposure for a crane, as long as the light doesn’t change, the bird will be exposed properly against any and every background.
Stay For The Sunset
After a full day of wading in the cornfields and pools, the cranes rise again into the air. They fly to the next reservoir to rest. The birds always over-night in the same spot. So, sunsets are just as reliable as the sunrise. The light is also spectacular, and you can get amazing photos.