Cranes, Geese & Landscapes of New Mexico

One of the world's greatest avian spectacles

The sound and sight of thousands of Snow and Ross's Geese getting up right in front of one at Bosque del Apache is something never to be forgotten. (Inger Vandyke)

The sound and sight of thousands of Snow and Ross's Geese getting up right in front of one at Bosque del Apache is something never to be forgotten. (Inger Vandyke)


Sunday 12th November - Sunday 19th November 2017
(8 days)

Cultural & Landscape Extension to Tuesday 21st November (3 days)
Leader: Inger Vandyke
Group Size Limit: 8
Tour Category: Easy


Bosque Del Apache

It’s November and, as the temperatures plummet, a small patch of reclaimed farmland and ponds in New Mexico erupts into one of the biggest wildlife spectacles of North America.

Bosque Del Apache straddles a patch of land between the foothills of the desert mountains and the Rio Grande, a river that has carved out an spectacular course, dented by four major basins, along an ancient rift valley. The rift valley is bordered in the north by Colorado, in the west by Arizona, in the east by the Magdalena Mountains (including the Cibola National Forest Reserve) towards Texas and in the south by Mexico. The reserve sits at the southern end of the Albuquerque Basin, south of the city of that name.

Bosque doesn’t look like much at first glance. After you leave the tiny town of San Antonio, a straight road running parallel to a railway line leads out to the reserve. En-route a few signs give you an idea of what might lie ahead. Mountain Bluebirds flit around the local fields looking for food. A Greater Roadrunner may run across the road in front of the reserve’s entry sign. The occasional Red-tailed Kite will be sitting on the local power poles.

As you approach the reserve entry gate, you might open your window to watch the covey of Gambel’s Quail that seem to like hanging around the ticket office. However it’s only when you open the window that you hear them. The distant rumble of thousands of birds heralds your arrival into Bosque. A cacophony of sound that signals something great is about to appear. It is the magical chorus of up to 17,000 Sandhill Cranes and 40,000 Snow and Ross’s Geese that characterizes one of the most abundant regions for wildlife in New Mexico. Capitalizing on carefully maintained maize fields and a series of ponds fed by irrigation canals, thousands of these migratory birds visit Bosque from early November through to mid-February to feast on remnant maize and vegetation before they return to their northern breeding grounds.

The sheer magnitude of the wildlife visiting Bosque can leave even the most wildlife weary photographer both humbled and speechless.

The reserve of Bosque del Apache is split into two loops, one in the north and the other in the south. In the north, a series of well considered viewing decks are constructed to allow spectators of this mass event the best possible views. These include the Flight Deck where you can watch several thousand birds launch themselves into the early dawn from their night roost, to the Farm Deck which looks directly over a rich all-day feeding field.

In the south a dirt road connects you to places where you might chance upon the reserve’s herd of Mule Deer or one of the more elusive wild coyotes that roam freely around Bosque.

It is a reserve that is set up remarkably well for photographers, with a variety of platforms that can be visited to capture the best light on any given day.

A typical day on tour will start at dawn where our vehicle will be positioned to view the first of the day’s “Blast offs”, the departure flight of thousands of birds leaving their night roosts to visit their feeding grounds during daylight hours. These dawn starts in the reserve will alternate with trips to the western pools on the road into Bosque that act as a night roost for many cranes, geese and waterfowl. Beneath the blush of a clear new day a rosy hue is cast over the many birds that have used them as a place to rest during the evening. Some may be still sleeping, their heads hidden in plumage to keep warm, others might be just stretching their wings preparing to take off in small groups to visit other areas of the park. Aside from the first hand experience of watching Bosque erupt into life for the day, both locations offer unrivalled opportunities to capture silhouette shots of birds flying against the spectacular morning sky, take photos of their reflections in the stillness of the pools early in the morning or practice shooting images in low light situations.

After leaving our dawn photography site, we will slowly cruise the loops of the reserve at low speeds looking for shy and elusive Coyotes that are usually most active in the early hours. The morning light at Bosque is soft and many days are still enough to photograph incredible reflections of reeds and native Cottonwood trees in the reserve’s pools, spot skulking animals, watch the reserve’s herd of Mule Deer on the move and also photograph tiny passerines like American Goldfinches feeding at the start of the day.

Stops at the reserve’s information centre for the bathroom, hot chocolate or coffee may even allow you to glimpse a native Javelina (small wild pig) picking around the scraps of the centre’s bird feeders or a Cooper’s Hawk swooping on tiny birds, also at the feeder, while you take a break. Regular visitors to the feeder include Spotted Towhee and White-crowned Sparrow.

In the middle of the day, the group will pause for lunch at the famous Owl Café in San Antonio which makes the best burgers in the area, before returning to the hotel for a rest.

Around 3.30pm, we will head out to the reserve again to watch the last of the day’s sunlight sink behind the Magdalena Mountains and cast a golden glow over the spectacular wildlife of Bosque as it settles down for another evening.

Bernardo

Offering a completely different perspective on the mass migration of Sandhill Cranes, the small reserve of Bernardo is about a 30 minute drive north of Bosque del Apache. A small unsealed road of about 3 kilometres connects a number of different sites including open grasslands, maize fields and deliberately planted alfalfa for bird food. While it doesn’t support the many thousands of creatures that Bosque attracts, up to 5,000 Sandhill Cranes can be seen here. Some scenes in Bernardo are almost reminiscent of the African savannah with their grassy verges interrupted by charismatic Cottonwoods. As we drive past the maize fields, we may see many cranes feeding inside the maize. They blend in surprisingly well with these fields.

 

The New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology

You may be asking yourself why a tertiary education institution is on the list of ‘must see’ places for a wildlife photography tour? As part of the landscaped gardens of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, there is a small pond with a surprisingly friendly flock of American Wigeon! These tiny ducks are an entertaining short stop to photograph during the trip. Their iridescent plumage and emboldened stance against other waterfowl occupying their pond makes for endearing and stunning photographs! While we walk into the pond from the car park, we will also be looking for other woodland birds including tiny Ladder-backed Woodpeckers.

Water Canyon – Cibola National Forest Reserve

A short 21 mile drive west of Socorro, the rugged Water Canyon consists of a steep gorge carved into the Magdalena Mountains, a part of the Cibola National Forest Reserve which covers an area of 1.6 million acres and varies in elevation from 830 to over 3400 metres.

During the Bosque del Apache tour a morning will be spent visiting this stunning mountain region, much of which is so high that it is likely to be covered in snow.

This small detour will offer a stunning diversion from the flat lands around Bosque and we will be photographing the changing landscapes on the drive in to the mountains plus looking for species of birds that vary greatly from the avifauna of the surrounding valleys including White-breasted Nuthatch, Mountain Chickadee and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. If we are very lucky, we may even see a shy Elk or one of the region’s Pronghorn Antelope.

We will take a short and easy gradient walk through the Water Canyon in search of some of these creatures to photograph. If there is heavy frost or snow on the ground and we are visiting on a sunny day, the Water Canyon walk is an ideal place to practice photographing Bokeh.

White Sands National Monument

The vast and otherworldly dunescape of the White Sands National Monument stretches due west from the military town of Alamagordo in southern New Mexico.

Rising from the bottom of the Tularosa Basin, the White Sands National Monument is a visual feast of white gypsum dunes, spotted with native agave plants set against a backdrop of mountain ranges on its western horizon.

It is an incredible place to practice landscape photographic techniques - from the basics like rules of thirds and leading lines, to more complex exercises in composition, contrasts of light and form.

We will spend an entire afternoon at White Sands doing a gentle walk over a nature trail in the dunes in search of windswept trees and flowering agaves. During this small walk, we will be on the lookout for the spur or footprints of tiny desert creatures, stands of gnarled driftwood and wind eroded formations to photograph.

If the weather allows we will remain at White Sands to watch the sun sink below the horizon enhancing the long shadows cast by both the dunes and plants as the entire landscape morphs into darkness. We will then return to our hotel in Socorro for the evening.

 

Landscape and Cultural Extension – Bandelier National Monument, Taos Pueblo and Santa Fe

“We do not inherit the land from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children” – Indian proverb

 

Santa Fe

Santa Fe is the epicentre of Indian and Pueblo culture, arts and food of New Mexico. At the junction of the Jicarilla Apache Nation in the north, the Mescalero Apache Reservation in the south and on the eastern edge of the vast Navajo nation, Santa Fe is famous for its pueblo style architecture, arts, music and food.

Despite the fact that it is the capital of New Mexico, Santa Fe retains a laid back vibe with an assembly of lovely restaurants, galleries and shops radiating outwards from a bustling main square.

During the cultural extension of the tour, we will spend an afternoon wandering the streets of Santa Fe photographing the buildings, wall murals, religious monuments and street life that characterise this infamous city.

Santa Fe is also neatly sandwiched between two sites of cultural significance in New Mexico, the now deserted cave dwellings of nomadic pueblo people at Bandelier National Monument and the World Heritage listed town of Taos, a living treasure of Indian culture.

 

Bandelier National Monument

Have you ever wondered how ancient tribes of Apache and Navajo peoples led their lives before their lands were colonised by white settlers?

Carved deep into a hillside in the mountains outside Santa Fe, the Bandelier National Monument is home to almost 11,000 years of human presence. Although it is now deserted, the cave dwellings, petroglyphs and standing masonry walls at Bandelier pay tribute to the early days of an Indian culture that still survives in New Mexico.

We will spend half a day at Bandelier, exploring its cave dwellings carved into the soft stone of the surrounding mesa country and learning how different tribes of people lived and thrived here before their populations declined in the 1500s.

 

Taos – The Place of Red Willows

Taos Pueblo is considered to be the oldest continually inhabited pueblo in the United States. Nestled alongside the flowing Red Willow Creek, Taos is a World Heritage listed site that is centred around two buildings that are over 1000 years old. The North House (Hlaauma) and South House (Hlaukkwima). There is also the new adobe church of San Geronimo, a traditional cemetery and a scattering of intact pueblo houses where the native Indian residents adhere to a strict no electricity and no running water way of life.

The architecture of Taos is outstanding. Adobe walls that are renovated annually are dotted with chillis strung to dry in the sun, boxes of harvest corn, dream catchers, stone adzes and woven rugs. In the cemetery a collection of memorabilia adorns the grave sites surrounding the spire of the original San Geronimo church, long since eroded by time.

We will spend half a day at Taos photographing its architecture, cultural and religious monuments. During a break we will go in search of someone cooking Sopaipillas or New Mexico Fry Bread, a delicious and warming snack cooked lovingly by the local Indian women on open fires.

 

Itinerary

Day 1 Evening arrival in Albuquerque for participants joining the tour. Overnight in Albuquerque.

Day 2 Providing the weather is fine this morning we will visit the spectacular Sandia Crest overlooking the city and its surroundings, as well as the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park, before we travel southwards to Socorro for a 6 nights stay. We will make our first visit to Bosque Del Apache this afternoon.

Day 3 Dawn at Bosque Del Apache, followed by a morning touring the reserve’s two loops photographing wildlife. Lunch at the Owl Café and a rest stop at the hotel before visiting the reserve again for the late afternoon and sunset.

Day 4 Dawn at Bosque Del Apache followed by a morning touring the reserve’s two loops photographing wildlife. Lunch at the Owl Café and a rest stop at the hotel before a short visit to Bernardo. We will then return to Bosque Del Apache again for sunset.

Day 5 Dawn at Bosque Del Apache followed by a morning touring the reserve’s two loops photographing wildlife. Drive back to Socorro and visit the New Mexico Institute for Mining and Technology to photograph American Wigeon and anything else of interest. Lunch will be at a Mexican restaurant in Socorro before we have a rest stop at the hotel. We will then visit Bosque Del Apache again for sunset.

Day 6 Morning visit to Water Canyon in the Magdalena Mountains. Lunch in Socorro and a rest stop at the hotel before visiting Bosque de Apache again for sunset.

Day 7 Morning drive to Alamagordo to spend the afternoon at White Sands National Monument until sunset. Drive back to Socorro for overnight.

Day 8 Morning drive back to Albuquerque for departure flights.

 

Extension Itinerary

Day 8 Continue on to Santa Fe for overnight. Rest of the afternoon to enjoy the historic centre.

Day 9 After breakfast visit Bandelier National Monument in the morning then drive to Taos to tour for the afternoon. Return to Santa Fe in the evening for overnight.

Day 10 Return to Albuquerque by late morning for departure flights.

Accommodation & Road Transport: The hotels/motels selected for this trip are of good standard. Transport is by passenger van/minibus and roads are mostly very good.

Walking: The walking effort is easy throughout. In White Sands, a small amount of walking up dunes will be required and in Bandelier National Monument there is a small amount of walking uphill if you would like to see the cave dwellings of the ancestral pueblo people. If you would like to see inside the dwellings, you might be required to climb a wooden ladder but these have plenty of places to hold on to and they are not very high.

Climate: Typically it will range from cool to cold in New Mexico during the tour. Most days are sunny with wonderful blue skies, but it can be cloudy. Rain or snow are uncommon. Most of the touring will be done from a warm vehicle and the hotels are warm. At the photography sites however, particularly around dusk and dawn, the temperatures are very chilly so extra layers of clothing, including thermal underwear, are essential.

Photographic Equipment: For birds, either one or more fixed focal length telephoto lenses (from 200mm up to 500mm or more) or a large zoom would be suitable. For landscape and other images in all parts of the tour, a wide angle option in the 17-28mm range, plus something around 70-100mm is good. If you have any queries about whether your gear is suited to this journey, please contact us.

Key Photographic Workshops:

Bosque Del Apache, White Sands National Monument and the Magdalena Mountains

  • Depth of field
  • Shutter speed
  • Low light photography
  • Bokeh (if snow or frost occurs on a sunny day)
  • Wildlife
  • Silhouette photography
  • Landscapes
  • Composition including leading lines and rule of thirds
  • Contrasts
  • Light and Shadows

Santa Fe, Bandelier National Monument and Taos Pueblo

  • Architecture
  • Culture
  • Wide angle photography
  • Taking pictures indoors with high ISO and no flash
  • Night photography in Santa Fe

These are confirmed prices

Important Information for Pound Payers: Kindly note that the prices shown here are based on post-EU-referendum exchange rate reality, unlike many tour operators who are still showing prices based on hugely higher and very outdated pre-referendum exchange rates. Consequently you can rest assurred that we will not have to adjust these prices upwards at invoicing, unless the Pound falls significantly further, and if there is a significant recovery by the Pound you will receive the benefit by way of a price reduction.

Tour Price: £2090, €2470, $2740 Albuquerque/Albuquerque. Cultural & Landscape Extension: £640, €760, $840.

Price includes all transportation, all accommodations, all meals, bottled water, some drinks, all excursions, all entrance fees, all tips for local drivers/guides and for accommodations/restaurants, leader services.

Base prices for this tour are determined in US Dollars, the currency in which we pay for most tour services. The exchange rates applied at the time of costing were: £1 = $1.310 and €1 = $1.110. For those not paying us in US Dollars, prices will be adjusted (either downwards or upwards) at the time of invoicing should there be a significant change in the exchange rate. See booking information.

Single Room Supplement: £329, €388, $431. Cultural & Landscape Extension: £116, €137, $152.

Deposit: £300, €350, $400. Extension: £100, €100, $150.

Air Travel To & From The Tour: Our in-house IATA ticket agency can arrange your air travel in connection with the tour from a departure point anywhere in the world, or you may arrange your own air travel if you prefer. We can tailor-make your itinerary to your personal requirements, so if you would like to travel in advance of the tour (and spend a night in an hotel so you will feel fresh when the tour starts), or return later than the end of the tour, or make a side trip to some other destination, or travel business class rather than economy, we will be happy to assist. Please contact us about your air travel requirements.

Sandhill Cranes in the corn at Bernardo refuge  (Inger Vandyke)

Sandhill Cranes in the corn at Bernardo refuge (Inger Vandyke)

The road to Water Canyon  (Inger Vandyke)

The road to Water Canyon (Inger Vandyke)

The view from Sandia Crest is awesome  (Inger Vandyke)

The view from Sandia Crest is awesome (Inger Vandyke)

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