The Birds of the Bosque – Guest Article by Steve Russell

8H7A8153-6According to Wikipedia a bosque (“boss-key”) is an area of green vegetation near water sources in arid or semi-arid climates (think “oasis”). The most notable bosque in North America is a 200-mile stretch along the Rio Grande River in New Mexico. Not coincidentally, it is a common stop-over for sandhill cranes and snow geese in their migration through the Central Flyway of North America. Where better to catch them on camera.

I visited two refuges just south of Albuquerque, the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge and the Bernardo Waterfowl Management Area, the week after Christmas and expected the typical New Mexican sunny blue skies. But I was met with an atypical snow storm and temperatures in the teens, which altered my expectations and opportunities dramatically and reminded me (once again) that when it comes to nature photography, I am not the boss and that it is always about working with what you’ve got, not necessarily what you want.

8H7A7459-3That said, after days of muted light and white, cloud-filled skies, the sun returned and my final day of shooting proved to be climactic, ending with a dramatic snow geese fly-out in the most golden part of the golden hour before sunset. Most of my time (when I wasn’t snowbound in the hotel) was spent at Bernardo where up to 15,000 sandhill cranes and perhaps as many snow geese were said to be residing. No one knew why they had shifted residence from Bosque del Apache to Bernardo since earlier in the month but I was happy to have found them. Fortunately, I had upgraded my rental car to a 4-wheel drive for fear of the snow, but it turned out it was the only way to traverse the deep, slick, Southwestern mud created by the melting snow and ice at Bernardo.

I used a Canon 7D Mark II and 100-400mm II lens most of the time, but shot a few wide-angle shots of the fly-outs and masses of birds overhead with a 24-105mm lens. I tried a 1.4 TC II to extend my reach and consistently got soft images so I abandoned it. I’m researching whether or not a 1.4 TC III would improve the AF when combined with the 100-400 II, but so far I’ve found no objective evidence one way or the other. [Please let me know if it’s out there if you know.]

Expecting most of my shots to be in-flight or otherwise moving, my standard settings were f/8, ISO 800, auto white balance and AI Servo mode, which usually kept me at 1,000th sec or faster but I’d adjust the ISO up or down my speed as needed. Using a little trick I learned from Neil in RMSP’s Summer Intensive, I programmed a button to switch me back and forth from AI Servo to Single Shot instantly for when I shot stationary subjects, which allowed me to focus and then recompose. Pretty handy.

I can’t lie – the sunlight on the last day was thrilling, perhaps more so because I’d had to work with less than perfect light up until then. But I like the diversity of images that resulted from shooting under both conditions. The experience left me wanting for more opportunities to shoot these magnificent birds on the Bosque, and I see a return visit in my future.

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Steve Russell