Wintering Snow Geese

It is December, 0530hrs and pitch dark. The temperature has dropped to -10°C with the wind chill factor. The seven of us have been up since 0430hrs to allow time for a hot cup of coffee before the 20 mile drive to the reserve, and we are now standing shivering on a frost covered viewing platform overlooking an ice-covered lake.

Fingers and toes have lost all feeling and speech is almost impossible as teeth chatter and chins become immobile. We are watching for the first glimmer of sunlight to appear on the horizon. We are waiting for the Snow Geese.

I have come on a photographic holiday to capture images of Lesser Snow geese (Anser caerulescens caerulescens) and Sandhill Cranes (Arus canadensis) on their wintering grounds on the Bosque del Apache Reserve in New Mexico. Every year, over thirty thousand geese and fifteen thousand cranes make this their winter home and the spectacle is irresistible to wildfowl enthusiasts, be they bird-watchers or photographers.

My group consisted of two professionals, four advanced amateurs and me. There were also lots of Americans who all had lenses like saucers and all the latest gear right down to the correct make of earmuffs! I soon realized that this was no 'point and shoot' event and that I was the poor relation with my entry level SLR Canon EOS Digital 300D, my Tamron 28 - 300 zoom lens and a tripod head more appropriate to a telescope. As it turned out, I had the advantage when photographing flying birds, as the cumbersome prime lenses on tripods used by my colleagues could not be manoeuvred fast enough to pan with the birds as they flew overhead. I became known as the opportunist grab-shooter!

Back to the Reserve - the expectation was palpable as we all strained ears and eyes towards the sunrise. Then we heard them!

A distant murmuration, then a rumble gradually increasing in volume as the geese came into sight. Thousands upon thousands in loose skeins filled the morning sky as they flew over us and in front of the full moon. The sight and sound was awe - inspiring and, for fifteen minutes or so, we all forgot how cold we were.

Still overcome with wonder, we climbed back into the van to drive round to where some of the birds had landed to feed in the corn stubble with the Sandhill cranes, to start taking photos in earnest. By this time batteries had ceased to function and had to be revived in hand-warmers - again I had the advantage, as I had been clutching my camera, while everyone else had perched theirs on tripods exposed to the frost.

In the brilliant sunshine shutters clicked as if there were no tomorrow - with digital, of course, it didn't really matter - although personally, I think one should try for a good shot first time. I don't use multiple exposures fro flying birds, but hope to catch the movement on one 'frame' - I can always delete it if it looks blurred in the review screen!

Although we did little else than admire the geese, time flew by and, at midmorning, we went to the visitor centre where a welcome coffee machine did overtime to seven, still cold, goose-watchers. The shop at the centre was very well stocked with books and good quality souvenirs, so our leader had to drag us away before I cold spend too much.

The next move was to go back to out motel for either downloading our images or having a short nap before lunch at one of the diners downtown. Socorro is a one-horse town' with nothing but drive-in or sit-in fast food outlets, nilsecurity loan offers, van repairs and spare-part garages - but it does boast an opera house! We had lunch at Denny's, served by a typical ' have nice day' waitress called Sheralee.

By 1330hrs, we were on our way back to the Reserve for an afternoon's goosing (in the best sense of the word!), hoping for a spectacular sunset, when the birds would begin to fly off to their night roosts again. During the daylight hours, it was sunny but still a bit windy, so we still had to work hard at keeping warm. Cars were coming in to the Reserve covered in snow and there was a forecast of more general snow for the next day. It was very cold for a location just 100 miles from the Mexican border and we all silently dreaded the early start again tomorrow. During the afternoon, we experienced a 'blast-off' when thousands of geese, spooked by a coyote or eagle, all take off together in one great burst. This was a moment of absolute bliss for photographers, and shutters whirred as geese filled the blue sky. They circled noisily before landing back in the field jostling for space and re-joining the cranes, which had not stirred during this exciting goose frenzy. As I scanned the field with my binoculars, I saw several 'blue phase' Snow geese - these birds are not actually blue but the body colour assumes various shades of grey, leaving the head and neck white. This variant only occurs in Lesser Snows - not in the Greater Snow (Anser caerulescens atlanticus), a slightly larger goose wintering along the Atlantic coast of America. All reports of blue Greaters have turned out to be hybrids between the two races.

It was gratifying to see fairly large numbers of the current year's juveniles, indicating a successful breeding year. Scanning carefully, I was thrilled to spot a few Ross' Geese (Anser rossii) amongst the masses of Snows. This is a small goose with a 'stubby' pink bill and shorter neck and body. In older birds, small greyish warts appear on the side of the bill. Blue phase Ross' are very rare and I didn't see one. It was good to show the Ross' to my colleagues who were not 'birders' and wouldn't have spotted them amongst all the Snows, had I not told them what to look for. (A general rule of thumb is to think of Greater Snow &
being 70cms long. Lesser being 60cms and Ross' 50cms). The next five days followed the same procedure and every morning was at least as cold as the first!

We had some good sunrises and sunsets, but the professionals amongst us were a bit disappointed that we didn't get rising mist in the mornings, because it was too cold. They were, of course, hoping for perfect pictures to sell. I was more than pleased to come home with hundreds of images of geese to edit, print and to make an album of my wonderful week amongst thousands of geese!

Mo Warren