Whew! What a week it’s been! Over 6,000 visitors, 15,000 birds, and dozens of tired staff members and volunteers who are now thankful for a mini-Thanksgiving break. But, oh what a fun time we all had at the 28th Annual Festival of the Cranes!
Refuge headquarters at Bosque del Apache started looking a little different early last week when 2 trucks and a crew of men from Albuquerque started erecting 2 large white tents in the picnic pavilion, and staff started moving all the white Refuge vehicles out to the back so that the covered parking areas could become “Expo” areas for vendors and exhibitors.
The larger of the two tents housed the “toy shop”—a myriad of camera, birding, and optics vendors showing off all their latest big lenses, cameras, spotting scopes, and swanky binoculars.
The Canon booth was quite impressive—not only did they have all their main camera bodies on display, but they also had lots and lots of their big telephoto lenses there too. Unlike most trade shows, though, here you could actually borrow a lens for a day to try it out in the field—even a big 600mm lens! (for free!). Additionally, they brought 2 master technicians along who were there solely to clean visitors’ cameras, lenses, and update firmware (again, completely for free!).
Canon also sponsored workshops by 2 of their Explorers of Light pro photographers, Adam Jones and Chas Glatzer. I got to attend both sessions and they were terrific, although I must admit that Chas was exceptional in how clearly and easily he explained his wildlife camera shooting techniques.
I had been struggling all Fall with my 70D’s newer auto-focus system when using my 100-400 lens, firmly convinced that the camera was faulty as none of my shots were “tack sharp.” One of the Canon reps suggested I take the new 100-400 mark II lens out to see how it compared. Fortunately, Chas’ workshop was right before the time I could go out to shoot. He gave some excellent tips on using manual exposure and spot metering (the concept is that by doing this, it frees the photographer to more fully concentrate on composition and focusing). It worked!
While the new 100-400 mk II is quite a nice lens, the results I was now getting with my old 100-400 were not too far behind (as the detail on this Northern Pintail can attest!). So, I saved myself $2,000 on a new lens!
Unfortunately, at the Hunt’s Camera booth across the aisle from Canon, they were displaying the 2 hottest mirrorless cameras side-by-side—the Sony A7RII and the Fuji X-T1. I must say that the little Fuji is really tugging at my wallet, especially as it’s on sale for the next month! Decisions, decisions!!!
I got to help out a variety of staff members on their tours and events-- our water manager, Brian, took us all over the backroads of the Refuge one afternoon to show off the water control systems. We got to walk across a footbridge over the Low-Flow Conveyance Channel of the Rio Grande--
Got a close-up look at one of the fancy, modern Langemann gates--
and a less close-up view of one of the older screw gates. Why the distance?
Because this little guy was taking his afternoon nap right next to the gate (can you spot him now in the photo above?). Yes, our Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes are still enjoying a final few days of warmth and sunshine before they head to winter hibernation.
On another day, I helped out Dennis, our senior maintenance staff member with his bus tour. Dennis thought he’d need some help identifying birds, but he managed to I.D. them faster than I could! Of course, he’s worked here over 30 years now, and I’m still just in my 1st season!
Driving the bus, was Dennis’ colleague, Anthony, another long-time employee of the Refuge.
Normally, Dennis and Anthony can be seen driving heavy equipment around the Refuge (doing major earth-moving projects such as removal of invasive salt cedar, or replacing giant drain pipes along the canals).
but, on Festival weekend each year, they get to take out this old beauty – an old Bluebird bus that the Refuge picked up from Yellowstone National Park years ago. Lots of life still left in this old girl!
A most-memorable assignment was getting to help Ranger Amanda with the duck banding demonstration one morning. Within 5 minutes of arriving, she asked if I’d like to hold this spectacular male Mallard. Heck yeah I would!!!
My job was to cradle him on his back in my arms like a baby while Amanda carefully put the metal ID band on his leg. He was incredibly calm (and an amazing experience to feel his warmth and breathing, and see his brilliant colors so closely). After banding, Amanda took him to confirm his age and check his wings, and then handed him back over to me to release. With one big underhanded pitch towards the sky, our little guy was back on his way!
Next, she showed off this cute little Green-winged Teal, and then an American Widgeon. The Widgeon is about twice the size of the little Teal (look at each bird compared to Amanda’s hands).
My next work assignment was to drive 70 miles up to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array (the “VLA”), up around 7,000 feet on the high San Agustin plains west of Socorro to assist with a nighttime photo workshop. The VLA is normally just open to visitors during the daytime, but during Festival, this photo workshop is allowed permission to be there at night.
I came prepared with gloves, a winter hat, multiple layers of jackets, my Canon full-frame 6D camera and 2 favorite night photo lenses, a Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 and a Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art. I arrived just after sunset, but scrambled fast enough to get a shot of the alpenglow behind the observatory antennas--
After the presenter gave a short slideshow inside, we all got bundled up and were now ready to start shooting the antennas illuminated by the moon and stars. I was able to get a nice multi-shot panorama, a normal shot, and a close-up with the 35mm lens while waiting for the presenter to get out to the field --
Unfortunately, once the presenter arrived, he insisted on herding us all to the opposite end of the field to shoot a much less interesting scene. Frankly, I was a bit appalled at his behavior towards the paying workshop attendees. Yelling rudely whenever someone was not in the exact place he wanted them to be, or using their headlamp at the wrong time, yet never communicating in advance what he wished for us to do. It was hard to conjure up inspired creativity in this kind of atmosphere, but I did the best I could with the angles we were given.
and even took a final shot of the photographers standing along the railroad tracks (the tracks are used to move the big antennas all over the vast plain depending on what area of the galaxy the scientists wish to study that night). All in all, a pretty incredible place to photograph!
On Saturday morning, the Expo exhibitors were out at the Refuge. Some were selling a few items, but most were non-profit wildlife rescue groups showing off their birds and hoping for donations.
Even if these were captive birds, they still were fascinating to get to see up so close! Like this cool collection of owls—a Great Horned Owl, Western Screech Owl, Burrowing Owl (with his dead mouse!), and a Barn Owl.
And this trio of raptors—a Swainson’s Hawk, Peregrine Falcon, and American Kestrel.
Saturday and Sunday afternoon, I worked the Visitor Center front desk. What a crazy madhouse that was! Normally, we see about 300 or 400 visitors on a Saturday, but on this Saturday we saw over 1,700! Sunday was a bit less intense but still way beyond normal.
Fortunately, not everyone coming thru the doors was looking for a map and information—many had come to shop at the excellent Nature Store (run by the Friends of the Bosque). Others, had come to see the exhibits or get a cup of coffee.
That gave me some slivers of time to chat with a few WinnieViews blog readers who stopped by—Lisa W. on Saturday, and Karen on Sunday. I failed to get a photo with Lisa, but Karen’s husband Greg snapped this photo of Karen and me. It was great meeting you both (and your spouses!).
While on Dennis’ tour, we rounded a corner to find this flock of wild turkeys casually trotting down the road. Dennis mentioned how smart these birds are-- that they seem to know exactly where the Refuge boundary is (and know better not to cross it less the game hunters can get them).
So, I’ll leave you with this final image—33 wild turkeys who are VERY THANKFUL that they managed to elude your dinner table today . They asked that you “eat less bird…eat more pie!”
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!