Since I am spending so much time (and money!) photographing wildlife, I naturally want to get better at my hobby. So I decided to spend a lot more time (and money!) attending a five-day photography workshop at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge near Socorro, New Mexico. Over the long MLK weekend, I returned to BdA for the first time since the pandemic started and joined four other photography students learning from Ph.D and professional photographer, Ed MacKerrow of In Light of Nature.
We spent the first morning practicing our bird in flight photo techniques on Peregrine Falcons and Harris's Hawks provided by falconer Matt Mitchell. Photographing flying raptors, particularly speedy falcons, proved challenging but fun. Shutter speeds of 1/2500 of a second and steady tracking with a heavy camera lens are difficult but essential to getting a sharp shot of these magnificent creatures.
All of that falconry practice paid off back at the wildlife refuge, particularly with the Northern Harriers that populate every field along that part of the Rio Grande. Owl-faced Harriers, with their gliding in and out of reeds, their quick turns and their sudden descents, are lively birds that can really test a camera's autofocus.
I was pleased that my Nikon d500 was able to freeze the harriers' activities, including this amazing shot (below) with the bird's sharp eye taken through the weeds along one of the many ponds at BdA. Many autofocus systems will lose track of the bird with the vegetation interfering, but I got a couple of pictures with the bird seemingly frozen in the frame.
We also worked on landscape shots, often taking 5-7 shots of the same scene at different exposures and then merging those shots in Adobe Lightroom to get more dynamic range. I am a novice at this technique (and at Lightroom in general) and still have a lot to learn, but it was good to push myself to take better landscape photos (which I don't usually find nearly as interesting as wildlife pics). Sunrises and sunsets presented challenging opportunities to try to capture the dark landscape as the light and clouds lit up the sky.
Of course, Bosque del Apache is such a lovely spot that it is hard to take a bad landscape photo even with an iPhone. Around every corner, I wanted to stop worrying about photography and just breathe in the views. Particularly after spending so much time near home over the last two years of the pandemic, I found being at BdA for five days soul-nourishing. Suddenly the brown or bare trees of winter didn't seem depressing, but artistic. Add the reflections of the shorelines and clouds on the water, the reds of the Coyote Willow, and the dark blues of the distant mountains and every vista at BdA becomes a Thomas Moran painting.
But it is a wildlife refuge, so I was mostly there to photograph the birds and the beasties. And I wasn't disappointed (except that we never saw a bobcat).
The stars of the show at Bosque are always the thousands of wintering Snow Geese and Sandhill Cranes, but the graceful Northern Pintails really caught my eye on this trip.
Adorable Gambel's Quail, croaking Common Ravens, messy Northern Shovelers, and watchful American Kestrels all posed for me. Studying the photos later, I saw for the first time that a Snow Goose's grin patch looks like a Hitler mustache when the bird is flying at me head on. I snapped the Raven's picture without even realizing that he had a mouth full of food. And I couldn't resist the female Shoveler who was draped in the very water weeds on which she was feeding. My photos showed me details I didn't even have time to spot in the moment.
I returned from New Mexico a little bit better as a photographer, but mostly I returned with a renewed love for the beauty that is all around us. As John Burroughs said, "I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order." That's what draws me back outside with my camera every time.