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New Mexico (USA) The paradise of the Sandhill Crane and the Snow Goose

Photo adventure

The state of New Mexico in the USA is not a very wellknown photo scene, not too many European photographers heard about it. This desert region is extremely hot during the summer months, this may be the reason why it is less favoured by photographers. Through the following two-part series we invite our readers to the fantastic scenes of New Mexico. First we visited the nature reserve of Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.
Photo: © Tamás Imre

Canon EO S 7D, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM 1/100sec f/8 ISO 640
Several months of preparation and Branson Reynolds, a guide with very good local knowledge helped to realize our journey. The reason why we went to this very place to photograph has a story of several years. Cranes are very gracious birds to me, perhaps, the most beautiful ones. When I started to photograph them in Hungary, I decided that once I want to capture Sandhill cranes too. I found this place in the United States after a long research. I read a lot on the Internet and I always had my nose in bird migration atlases - if we travel that far, then we should be at one of the best places. During my research I managed to find out that the population of Sandhill cranes lives quite widely scattered within the area of Canada and the USA. Primarily they breed in swamps and in smaller hollows of the Northern Prairie too, however, when it comes to migration they feel themselves good in larger groups. Therefore, above all, we focused on finding their wintering places. Sandhill cranes gather together in the largest numbers in the western plateaus of New Mexico and in the eastern part of Texas. We got in touch with our guide, Branson Reynolds after we made the final decision. Branson holds workshops for nature-lover photographers in the region and he has an in-depth knowledge of the behaviour of birds and the habitats of the region. Jointly with the art manager of Nature Photo Magazine we decided to take part in a tour led by Branson, so we would have nothing else to do just discover the area and select the most ideal photo scenes. We flew to the USA and met our team at the arranged place: a Canadian, two English and three American photographers participated in the workshop. I was very glad to meet these enthusiastic photographers. Although we were put up at two different places, but at dawn we went to the photo scenes together. The main destination of our expedition was Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge and its region. We went to the visitor’s centre of the bird reserve where they count the actual number of wintering birds almost on a daily basis.
Photo: © Tamás Imre

Canon EO S-1D X, EF600mm f/4L IS USM 1/1250 sec f/4 ISO 1600
To my greatest surprise 8,500 Sandhill cranes stayed in the area, but the number of Snow geese was also very high: about 35,000. The number of birds which belong to the Anatidae family was 25,000. This altogether is a considerable amount of birds. I counted on the presence of Snow geese, that’s why we chose this reserve. As my another favourite photo theme is shooting geese, but I did not expect them in that high number. After leaving the visitor’s center we explored the field and Branson showed us where the birds will move. We photographed through an evening flight, then we went for a dinner together. During the dinner Branson explained the photo opportunities and the technological secrets of bird photography, then after the dinner we said goodbye. The next morning we met at 4.30. Well, that’s a bit early, I thought, but I was happy to get up as I knew that successful bird photography comes with early rising and late sleeping. It was good that I watched the weather forecast as they predicted -10C° by dawn. I could not believe it first as New Mexico is a desert and plateau area, but the forecast was true. We drove to that lake where we shot the evening flight and waited for the sunrise when the birds, about 70 thousands of them, take off their feeding places at the same time. The waiting was quite unpleasant, I thought that I froze to death when the morning wind bit into my face. I have to mention here that hide tents or similar camouflages are not needed there as the birds accustomed to the sight of photographers. Apart from us about twenty photographers were there from all over the world, but mostly Americans. Touching the cold metal surfaces of the lenses was almost painful, but we have to bear it as we are here now to concentrate on the flight off, because if the cranes set off, then all these enormous number of birds fly out in about a minute. At least an hour had gone when finally the dawn started to break.
Photo: © Tamás Imre

Canon EO S-1D X, EF600mm f/4L IS USM 1/4000sec f/5.6 ISO 640
The sky started to become colourful, but around the place of the Snow geese there was not too much light. They set off before you could blink. It was a stunning experience to see, hear and photograph this amazing scene. Some groups flew above our heads so close that I almost felt the flapping of their wings. In about a minute the small lake where they spent the night was evacuated. Branson said us to hurry as the cranes would set off soon, but from another place. There they can be photographed very well as they fly off one by one or two of them at the same time, and they are fairly close to the lakeside. We got into the cars and started up. Arriving at the viewpoint I could not believe my eyes, the cranes spent the night in a small, swampy area, incredibly close to the lakeside. I could almost look into the eyes of the cranes, they were within a distance of ten metres from me. As I watched the watersurface more carefully, I got very surprised as the birds were actually standing on a thin layer of ice. Some of them was waiting for the sun to warm them up a bit as they froze into the ice a little. Hundreds of cranes stayed at this place and nice and slowly all of them flow off their feeding areas by half past eight. Thanks to Branson we could take high-quality pictures of Snow geese and Sandhill cranes even on the first day. Anikó and I was very happy. It was a great experience to photograph the wildlife of Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge so close. We spent three beautiful days in these paradise. We dedicated our time only and exclusively to bird photography every day between 4 am and 7 pm. In the next part of the New Mexico workshop we will guide you to the desert area of White Sands National Park.
Text: Imre Tamás
Pictures: Anikó Imre and Tamás Imre photographers
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