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Bernardo Wildlife Area

A relatively remote location where there’s the possibility to make compelling photographs of beautiful migrating birds – sometimes hundreds at a time – flying high in a colorful sky. If you are lucky, you'll experience one of Mother Nature's breathtaking sound, light – and action – shows.

Where: Take exit 175 on Interstate 25, about 45 minutes south of Albuquerque, New Mexico. After you get off Interstate 25, follow the signs to Bernardo Wildlife Area. You’ll be there in about five minutes.

You probably want to stay at one of the hotels in Socorro, New Mexico, which is about an hour south of Albuquerque. From Socorro, it's about a 25-minute drive to Bernardo.

If you stay in Socorro, you'll also be close to Bosque del Apache, which is about 20 minutes north of this quaint Southwestern town - where you can enjoy some wonderful huevos rancheros and awesome green chili cheeseburgers.

When: In November and December, when thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese may stop by this area during their annual migration. Some years there are more birds here than in Bosque Del Apache, New Mexico, which is well-known for massive bird “blast offs.”

In planning a trip to Bernardo, as with all wildlife trips, remember this saying: “It’s not a zoo.” In other words, animals are not guaranteed to be in a location when you are there.

Photography: All of the photographs in this post were taken by the pond at the main viewing area in late afternoon and around sunset. The birds overnight in the pond, which provides a safe refuge from predators. That's the reason for the late afternoon "fly-ins."

On your way to the viewing area, you may find dozens of sandhill cranes and snow geese in the fields along the roadside. You might want to take a few shots here, but you definitely want to get to the main viewing area before it’s packed with other photographers and bird watchers who come for sunset.

Arrive about two hours before sunset and stay well into the blue hour. Don't worry, there is a porta potty for folks who drink lots of water, which is a good idea because you are in a high desert.

Speaking of the high desert, it can be below freezing before sunrise, so dress accordingly. By late-morning it's t-shirt weather for some. At dusk, it gets a bit chilly.

Keep your eyes and ears open. In fact, you may hear the bugle calls of the sandhill cranes and loud honking of the snow geese before you see them. So stay tuned, so to speak.

There is a bird "blind/hide” and lookout at the main viewing area from which you can make some nice photographs. However, I suggest walking around the area to find your own best angle and composition for in-coming bird photographs. NOTE: Go where you are looking! Fallen leaves and twigs can cover small pools of water. On one visit to Bernardo a photographer was not going where he was looking . . . and fell backward into a shallow pool of water – ruining his camera and lens, as well as his smartphone.

Pack a lens like the Canon RF24-105mm lens for wide-angle shots, and a lens like the Canon RF100-500mm for close-up shots of birds in flight. Personally, I prefer a zoom over a fixed lens (such as a 400mm or 500mm lens) because a zoom offers more flexibility when it comes to composition.

Set your camera to the highest frame rate to capture subtle differences in a bird’s gesture. As an aside, I often select my best shot from a photo sequence based on gesture.

To freeze the action of fast-moving birds, use a shutter speed of at least 1/1000th second. To blur the motion of birds in flight, which can produce an artistic image, experiment with slow shutter speeds, starting perhaps around 1/30th of a second.

Set your camera to continuous focus and, if an option, to animal tracking and eye detection.

Some folks bring a tripod and a gimbal head for long-lens photography, but for maximum flexibility you might want to consider hand-holding your gear – and boosting your ISO in low light, as I did for the low-light photographs in this post. The silhouette image that opens this post was taken at ISO 8000. The image did have a bit of noise, which I reduced with Topaz DeNoise AI.

If you do use a tripod, be aware that a photographer or bird watcher could trip over your setup in low light, which I have seen happen.

Don’t forget to bring a lens cleaning cloth to keep the front element of your lens or filter dust free.

Learn More: Click here to see a map of Bernardo Wildlife Area and to get more info about this wildlife wonder. For more tips on bird photography, see our post on Bosque del Apache.

© Rick Sammon

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