Blastoff at Bosque Del Apache

Each November and December, photographers and bird-lovers from around the world travel to Bosque Del Apache, New Mexico, to photograph and experience the world-famous “blastoff.” Each morning, around 7 am, thousands of snow geese and sandhill cranes take off in a fast-paced flurry . . . silhouetted, usually, against a brilliant sunrise. Yes, they do this all together within a matter of seconds.

Bosque Blastoff 1
The “blastoff” lasts for less than one minute, but for all those on site, the experience of standing in the cold, usually starting at 5 am, is worth it. How cold? It can be below zero, which is why you want to dress very warmly and use hand and toe warmers.

Here’s a movie I made of the blastoff in December 2012. There is no sound because the folks next to me were talking loudly and their voices ruin the mood of the scene.

After the “blastoff” things calm down. Photographers take solo shots of the birds in flight, which usually are on their way to several crane pools in the area.

During the day it’s warm enough to switch to a T-shirt. Remember, you are in the desert, where the temperature changes rapidly.

Not much happens in Bosque Del Apache until around sunset, when the birds come back in for a landing. Sometimes photographers and bird-lovers get lucky and see end-of-the-day “blastoffs.”

If you plan to go to Bosque, here are some tips that will help you capture your experience with your digital SLR.
Bosque Blastoff 2
Cut the clutter and compose carefully. Getting a clean shot can be a challenge. Look for isolated birds to draw the viewer into the scene. When composing with the sun in the frame, place the sun off center for a more interesting composition. When you place a strong object in the center of the frame, your eye gets stuck on that object. Important: When shooting into the sun, remove all filters. If you don’t, you may get a ghost image of the sun in your picture.
Bosque Blastoff 3
Freeze the action. You may be freezing, so why not “freeze” the birds. Use a shutter speed of at least 1/1000th of a second to stop the fast-paced action. And speaking of freezing, cold weather zaps battery power. Pack an extra battery or two.
Bosque Blastoff 4
Go wide and tight. You’ll want at least two lenses at Bosque: a wide-angle zoom, say in the 24-105mm range; and a telephoto zoom, perhaps in the 100-400mm range. I took this solo shot of a sandhill crane with my 100-400mm lens. All the other photographs here were taken with my 100-400mm IS lens.
Bosque Blastoff 5
Expose for the highlights. Photographing white subjects against dark backgrounds can be a challenge – because the dark background can fool your camera’s exposure meter into thinking the scene is darker than it is, and therefore overexposing the main subject or subjects, the birds in this case. To prevent this from happening, activate your camera’s overexposure warning or highlight alert, and make sure your highlights are not blown out.
Bosque Blastoff Satellite
Visit the VLA. The VLA (Very Large Array) is only about one hour from Bosque. You can find it on Google maps. You can go during the day or at night. If you go at night, bring your tripod and be prepared for shooting at long shutter speeds, 15-30 seconds. Yes, you’ll be out in the cold again, but you’ll have an amazing experience and get some amazing shots. Also, bring a head-mounted flashlight so you have both hands free for taking pictures.

One final tip on photographing in Bosque: You will not be alone. Many other photographers will be on site. Please be considerate of your fellow photographers. For more on that topic, check out this post I wrote on Bad Workshop Behavior.

As always, Explore and Capture the Light.

Rick Sammon is the Adventurous Traveler Blog’s regular and intrepid photo columnist. To see more of his work, and to learn about his photography workshops, check out his web site: You can send questions to Rick at