Bosque del Apache NWR, New Mexico

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

Not every trip is an expedition. Sometimes there just isn’t enough time or money to head off into some remote corner of the wilderness for a month or two at a stretch.

Sometimes it’s just enough to take a short break and see someplace new.

New Meixco’s Bosque del Apache wildlife refuge is a well known site on the wildlife photography trail. Just an hour south of Albuquerque, it was an easy, cheap and fun chance to witness vast flocks of migratory Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes wintering in the Rio Grande Valley.

It was also an interesting opportunity to watch a whole lot of other photographers at work. Generally speaking, I like to work alone. I can talk to myself, make rude comments, let my personal hygiene deteriorate to startling levels and no one need be the wiser.

Instead of sleeping in the dirt and eating freeze dried cardboard, I holed up at the dodgy Econo-Lodge overlooking a trailer park and listened to the endless barking of pit bulls and car alarms. I worked my way through Socorro’s eating establishments, consuming mountains of melted cheese and tortilla chips and unidentifiable meat products. Each morning I joined a throng of several dozen other wildlife photography enthusiasts, sleepily assembling in the freezing pre-dawn cold, blowing the steam off our take-out coffee cups and waiting for the sun to rise.

Tripod legs were spread, expensive telephotos attached, latest generation cameras clicked on and test fired. My gear looked pretty shabby in comparison. Most of it is years old, ill-treated and poorly maintained. It might not have fallen off the back of a truck, it just looks that way. With passing days, I socialized a bit. Overhead endless conversations involving f-stops and shutter speeds and megapixel debates. But mostly, I tried to figure out how to shoot an original picture of a place that has clearly been shot…to…death.

Each time a Snow Goose or Crane took wing, a clicking, another clattering salvo of shutters erupted. If 38 cameras are shooting at 12 frames per second at 13,000 birds taking flight, what is the probability of any one of us creating a single marketable, profitable, original image out of all this?

That’s easy.

Zero.

Or close, anyway. But it was a diverting exercise all the same.

I tried to be different. I struggled to be original, to find new angles. I went belly-down in the mud and ice, shooting at the lowest angles I could get. I shot wide of the amazing spectacle of ten thousand geese taking flight at once. I waited until the full moon rose and scrambled to get formations flying past. I even stopped at Ace Hardware and bought a 15-foot painter’s pole and tried to hoist my camera up into the passing flocks.

But there was magic there all the same. Seeing a new place and stopping to simply appreciate the spectacle of the pre-dawn quiet along the Rio Grande. Standing under a desert sky full of stars along ice-covered lakes, listening to the Sandhill Cranes’ scrabbling on ice. The astonishing downdraft from twenty thousand Snow Goose wings flapping away in a wall of flight.

So I didn’t make much in the way of ground-breaking new work. I got to see and record one more amazing place on earth, laughed a few times in surprise and wonder, gazed contentedly in the valley’s cold, quiet beauty most days, and went home wanting to come back and do it again.

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

Snow Goose, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

Sandhill Crane in Flight, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

Snow Geese and Full Moon, New Mexico

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