Bring a Knife to a Gunfight? Using the Leica M for Wildlife

Jul 25, 2018 
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by Mark Bohrer

Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight, right?

Conventional wisdom says use a long lens for wildlife – at least 400mm, and longer is better for birds. And leave the short lenses at home?

Not really. Alongside the super-telephoto on the DSLR, I always carry a second camera with not-so-long lenses when I’m shooting wildlife. I’ll need it for landscapes and close-ups, and just maybe for group flight shots.

That second camera is a Leica M10. The 135mm viewfinder frame and lens lets me track wildlife motion outside what goes on pixels, making usable captures much more likely. The M10 and 135mm lens came in very handy at a well-known National Wildlife Refuge.

Waterbirds Go To Bosque For the Food

The Arctic feeds at least 500,000 breeding sandhill cranes each summer. Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge hosts 5,000-10,000 of those cranes every winter, along with 12,000 to 24,000 snow geese and other migrating water birds. Cranes and geese will fly over 3500 miles to get there before winter snow covers their food.

I’d last been there in December 2003 after reading about bird photographer Arthur Morris’ trips to the place. I captured snow geese thundering up in a single noisy cloud against a pink dawn sky on that trip and wanted to take another shot at it with better gear.

Bosque is a short 107-mile drive south of my home base in Albuquerque. As usual, it took us a while to get dogs, humans and a small RV ready in the morning, so we arrived in midafternoon. After a brief stop at the visitor center, we drove in.

Marsh or Farm?

The refuge has two loop roads, the Marsh loop (south) and the Farm loop (north). Snow geese like water, so you’d expect them on the Marsh loop. But we found them in the ponds on the Farm loop. Sandhill cranes like corn and alfalfa leavings in the farm loop area. But they were also mostly in the ponds that afternoon, and not very close. I was disappointed by my lack of frame-filling opportunities with the big lenses, but I shot evening light with the M10 anyway. I figured I’d probably gotten a few good silhouettes, but sunset color was fleeting and duller than my last trip 14 years ago.

After a barely-edible dinner in Socorro and what I thought was unproductive shooting the next morning, we took a break for better food further south in Ruidoso. I hadn’t done as well as I thought I should with the 400mm and 1120mm-equivalent telephotos. What I didn’t think about were the shots captured from the Leica’s shorter lenses, the in-your-face wetland landscapes, reflecting ponds and marshes with sun-starred winter trees that hadn’t quite lost their leaves (more later on how I made those shots).

Morning Captures

When we arrived back at Bosque a day later, I was refreshed and ready to go. After another early morning at Chupadero Mountain RV Park a few miles outside the refuge, we went searching for snow geese. As the fog burned off with the rising sun, we found them. They were in the empty cornfields where the cranes usually hang out, on the north end of the Farm loop.

A few hundred gabbling geese looking for food on the ground will just hit you with their noise. Add heavy wingbeats and excited ‘out of my way’ calls of a mass liftoff and you have a sound riot rivaling an enthusiastic crowd at the Hollywood Bowl. I didn’t get the liftoff with sunrise pinks and reds I’d wanted, but I did capture one in mid-morning. And it was still a spectacle.

All good things come to an end. In this case, the low-angle December sun extended my shooting time. But around 9:30 am, I could hear old mentor Moose Peterson’s voice in my head saying, “Light’s getting pretty hard – time to pack up!” We headed north to Socorro’s old Spanish plaza for revitalizing hot chocolate and coffee. Breakfast beverages were at least reliable there.

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