Gary Chappel is bundled up tight against the cold. Despite the hooded parka, the skin surrounding his bearded face is pink and his nose is red.
It is 6 a.m. this weekday morning at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, south of Socorro, and the 60-year-old physician from Winter Haven, Fla., is patiently waiting for sunrise. His gloved hands hold a rather large camera, while another with an enormous lens is mounted on a tripod.
Just after 6:30 a.m., the horizon to the east begins to illuminate. The soft but constant chatter from ducks, snow geese and sandhill cranes gets progressively louder as the sky turns shades of amber, red and purple.
With a sudden thunderous flapping of wings, tens of thousands of birds become airborne in the first wave of a morning flyout.
Chappel presses the shutters on his cameras, capturing moments in time that will never be repeated in exactly the same way.
He is not alone. To his left and his right, lined up along a dirt road that runs adjacent to a large wetland area, are other people outfitted with camera gear. They, too, awoke early in the morning darkness and cold to see, hear and photograph the wintering water fowl in their stunning natural habitat.
As things settle down, Chappel reviews some of his shots on the preview screens of his cameras. He stops at a photo of birds, frozen in various poses of flight, juxtaposed against a fiery sunrise.
The 27th annual Festival of the Cranes will be held Tuesday through next Sunday at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge south of Socorro.
Among the 142 events scheduled are tours, lectures and workshops on identifying birds, bird behaviors, and photographing and videotaping of birds.
Some of the events are free, though many require a fee and have limited space.
For a description of events and details, go to festivalofthecranes.com.
Today in Albuquerque, the Return of the Sandhill Crane Celebration takes place with free events scheduled from 9 a.m. through 3 p.m. at the Open Space Visitor Center, 6500 Coors NW.
Events include walking tours, bird displays, lectures and live music.
Call 897-8831 for more information or visit cabq.gov/openspace/visitorcenter.html.
“Wow! This is why I do this,” he says, exhaling cloudy wisps of moisture into the cold morning air. “Photography is really an excuse to come here. How else would I ever get to see something like this? There’s nothing like this in Florida. I’m a radiologist, so I look at pictures of people all day. This is much prettier and less depressing.”
Established in 1939, the Bosque del Apache is located along the Rio Grande Corridor, “a main migratory flyway in North America,” says Sean Brophy, the assistant refuge manager. “We get a tremendous abundance and variety of birds, some using the refuge as a stopover during their annual migration, but also many thousands of others that stay here through the winter.”
The refuge is 57,331 acres, of which 10,000 are managed as wetlands, Brophy says. In all, more than 530 species of birds can be seen throughout the year in addition to more common four-legged critters, including mule deer, coyotes, javelina, raccoon, beavers, bobcats and the occasional mountain lion and black bear.
Photography hobbyist Raybel Robles, 28, a resident of Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean, was in the right place at the right time when he unexpectedly photographed a coyote stalking and setting its jaws into a snow goose.
An accountant assistant, Robles said he and his girlfriend, also a hobby photographer, planned their visit around a trip to the Bosque del Apache.
“I heard about it in an online forum for people who photograph birds, which is my main subject,” he says. “Finding different birds to photograph is very challenging but also very rewarding when you get a great shot. If it was easy, you’d get bored quickly.”
Robles, who was in his third day visiting the refuge, says his most lasting impressions are “images of the birds with the mountains in the background, and the beautiful light.”
Larry Kimball and his wife, Barbara Magnuson, both professional photographers from Cotopaxi, Colo., have visited the Bosque del Apache about a half-dozen times in the last decade.
“It’s spectacular. It’s not like anything you can see anyplace else – the sheer number of birds, the colors, the killer sunrises,” says Kimball, 67.
“I love coming down here, particularly at this time of the year with the autumn colors,” says Magnuson, 62. “It’s different each time we come, and we don’t know what to expect. Last year, we saw coyotes lying in the grass waiting for some snow geese. The birds, the wildlife, scenery, colors – there are just so many options and potential subjects.”
Mike Cohen, 64, a retired attorney from Lighthouse Point, Fla., has been visiting the Bosque del Apache every day for nearly two weeks. He parks his camper van at a nearby RV park.
Although mainly interested in the sandhill cranes, the numbers of other bird species make the entire spectacle “kind of overwhelming and magnificent.”
Cohen was waiting along a field where a couple of thousand snow geese were feeding in the grass.
“It’s exciting when in a sudden burst they all take off at once,” he said. “I’ve got one camera set up with a fast shutter speed to capture action all in focus, and one camera with a slow shutter speed and a neutral density filter to purposely blur the shot, making it more artistic.”
For Phoenix resident Gerry Vandaele, 73, photographing the birds and wildlife at the refuge is his way of sending the message that nature is important and to see it now, while it’s still here.
“I worry that the wildlife will disappear and we won’t be able to see it anymore,” said the retired phone systems engineer. “I’m trying to capture the moment because, you never know, it may not come again. Different species are becoming extinct all over the world. I worry about that for my grandchildren.”