Festival of the Cranes: Sandhill Cranes Migrate to Boque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

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A Sandhill Crane at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico: Bob Wells


It’s quite a challenge to capture them in flight: Bob Wells

By Bob Wells

As you might know I just went over to New Mexico for a week to spend time at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge at the Festival of the Cranes.

Every November they hold a large Festival to celebrate the return of the Sandhill Cranes. It’s popular enough that photographers come from all over the world to shoot the birds here.

To increase its popularity, they started adding photography classes to go along with a great opportunity to put your learning into practice. I probably would not have gone without the classes but they made it irresistible to me.

I have to be honest and say that was a little concerned that the classes would just be a re-hashing of things I had already learned in books I’d read on the subject. Fortunately that was not true at all. The instructors were top-notch in their fields and were not only very good at what they did, but also very good teachers; that’s a rare combination,

Even better, each class was a hands-on learning experience that really expanded my knowledge on that topic. I’m really glad I took the classes and I’m planning on returning next year to take more. This year I waited too long to sign up and many classes were already full so I couldn’t get in; next year I’ll get registered right away.


There are lots of Cranes at Bosque. But you are required to stay on the road and can’t approach them in any way: Bob Wells

Digital photography is so cheap and easy it’s possible to take literally thousands of pictures in just a few hours’ time — and I did. That means I’ve got thousands of pictures from the Festival. I promise not to subject you to all of them. No doubt you’re going to see more than you want, but I’ll try to restrain myself and spread it out over time.

Nature Photography has always been my number one hobby since I was a young man. I bought my first quality SLR camera in my 20’s and always had one until my 30’s when I finally “grew up,” got married, had, kids and “settled down.”

Being an adult left no time or money for hobbies so it went by the wayside. After the kids were grown and I discovered vandwelling, I decided it was time to dedicate myself to living a full, happy life and for me that included Nature Photography. When I retired and moved out onto public land I scraped and struggled and saved my pennies until I was able to buy a Digital Single Lens Reflex camera, known as a DSLR. Over the last 6 years I’ve taken lots and lots of shots, and you’ve seen many of them here on this site.


Since you can’t approach them on foot, the best you can do is shoot them while they are in the air landing or taking off. I really came to enjoy doing that, It’s quite a challenge to capture them in flight: Bob Wells

In the past I’ve focused almost totally on landscape photography because that’s what appeals to my eye. I enjoy wildlife and bird photographs, but it’s never called to me before. That changed when Judy and I went to Alaska.

I loved getting the shots of the Bighorn and bears in the Canadian Rockies and across Canada, and then when I went on the fly-in bear viewing trip into Katmai NP, I was hooked, I had to become a wildlife photographer.

There is so much excitement and thrill at the moment of being that close to wild animals that I got hooked on it. Later, while we were in Homer, Alaska I also tried shooting some Bald Eagles in flight and got a few decent shots so I also started to fall in love with bird photography. Since there are many more beautiful birds than beautiful scenes or wildlife, it’s easy to do bird photography year-around. That’s what led me to my new-found interest in birds and birding.

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Cranes are very gregarious birds and mate for life. When they have young, the male and female share equally in taking care of the young: Bob Wells

The main reason I’ve never done wildlife or bird photography is that it requires big, expensive telephoto lenses to do it well, but I’ve never had the extra money to spend on such a specialized hobby. Then last summer I got a cash settlement on a workman’s compensation case I was involved with and suddenly I had some disposable income. I decided that since photography was my one true hobby I’v loved my whole life, I would spend some of it on better gear.

I was not terribly pleased with the camera I had so I replaced it with a semi-Professional Canon 6D DSLR. I won’t get too involved with cameras because most of you aren’t really interested, but I want to give you some details for those that are. I chose the 6D because it’s a full-frame DSLR which gives it far better noise handling than a cropped-frame DSLR. That allows me to use very high ISO with virtually no noise. I never hesitate to shoot at 3200 ISO or even 6400 if need be. It also gives me very high resolution photos so I’m able to crop a picture down and still have it come out looking great.


While they are the epitome of grace in the air, they are actually somewhat gangly-looking on the ground and at take-off and landing: Bob Wells

If I was going to be serious about wildlife and bird photography then I had to send some money on a longer telephoto lens. The best telephoto lens start at about $5000 and that was way out of my budget; I couldn’t even consider one of those.

Fortunately Canon makes a very good and very sharp introductory birding lens and I decided I would bite the bullet and reach into my little nest egg and get one. It’s a Canon 400mm F 5.6 L lens and it has a reputation as having a very fast focus, being super sharp and also very small and light. If you’re going to shoot birds in flight those are the key factors you must have and this lens had them all in spades.

I think I can … I think I can: Bob Wells

I think I can … I think I can: Bob Wells

It has exceeded all of my expectations. Although this is my first real effort at birds in flight I am very pleased with how well they turned out. However, I have to admit, it’s not because of my ability, no, it’s because of how amazingly good today’s DSLR cameras are.

And you don’t have to buy a semi-Pro camera to get fantastic results either; $600 will buy you a very, very good introductory camera from Canon or Nikon. Add a 75-300 IS or VR lens with fast focusing and you can take any of these shots very nearly as well.

In future posts I’ll come back and show you photos of other birds from Bosque del Apache NWR, today we’re only looking at the cranes. Even if you aren’t really into birds, I hope you can enjoy them.


Cranky Crane. While they are gregarious birds, they are also fairly territorial, and there are constant little squabbles about boundaries. Looks like this one lost a few feathers: Bob Wells

Republished with permission from CheapRVLiving.com. Bob Wells has been a full-time Van Dweller for 12 years and love’s it. He hopes to never live in a house again.

© 2014, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.