Their take-off sounds like a discordant 80’s rock band on steroids, but once airborne the geese morph into a symphony, each swoop, dip and honk coordinating with their fellow geese. Mozart would be in awe of the Snow Geese Symphony.
Each November Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge along the shores of Lake Texoma looks like a snow globe with thousands of migrating snow geese and ducks that mow down fields of grain planted just for them.
Free entry and a photographer-friendly atmosphere make Hagerman the perfect place to learn the finer points of photographing wildlife.
The refuge sits on the border of Texas and Oklahoma. Since 1946 the park has provided marshes, creeks, lake front property and grain-loaded farmland for birds as well as resident wildlife like coyotes and armadillos. It’s especially important for the birds because the 12,000-acre sanctuary is smack dab in the middle of the Central Flyway, a major migratory route for many birds in the United States.
In our experience, winter is the most successful time for photos at the refuge. The shear number of geese and ducks make it unlikely you’ll return home without photos. The geese often mass along the fields of Wildlife Drive or not too far off shore on Lake Texoma. There are great opportunities to practice action photography as the birds fly between these destinations. You’ll also have many chances to practice close-ups of individual geese in the fields.
You’ll find plenty of ducks, great blue herons, double-crested cormorants and egrets in the marshy areas along Wildlife Drive and the Pad roads that extend like fingers into Lake Texoma. I can’t recall any season that we didn’t find at least one of these birds out on the Pads.
Each season at the refuge brings a new type of wildlife to photograph, although not in such abundance as winter. Some of the highlights are bobcats, white-tailed deer, the aforementioned coyotes and nine-banded armadillos, snakes, turtles, bald eagles, red-shouldered hawks, American white pelicans, scissor-tailed flycatchers, painted buntings, owls, butterflies and wildflowers.
As Dad says, “You can photograph these other guys, but you’re going to have to work harder at finding them. To find them you’ll have to hike some of the trails early in the morning and later in the evening when they are most active. You’ll also need some patience waiting for them to show up. Camouflaging yourself and your gear also helps.”
Five hiking trails take you back into the woods or prairies where you might find coyotes or deer. For a complete listing of the trails, check the refuge’s website.
We love to use the rolling blind when shooting at Hagerman. As you’ll see once you visit the refuge, it gets regular vehicle traffic all day. The birds and other animals have become used to cars to the point they allow you to get closer than you might think.
You’ll need a driver and a vehicle with an open section in the back. We use a mini van with the seats removed. The photographer hangs out in the back of the van with the side door open and his camera on a tripod. The driver slowly moves down the road until the photographer has a good position. Once the photographer has captured enough images, the driver slowly rolls on to the next position on the road.
Using this technique, the photographer never leaves the vehicle. Even so, we still recommend using camouflage on your gear like LensCoats’ line of camera, lense and tripod covers. Anything you can do to break up your human form is also great. A ghillie suit or even forest colored shirts, jackets, pants and hats help keep the wildlife relaxed.
We also offer a friendly word of advice. Stay on the park roads. These regular park roads will give you plenty of shooting opportunities because they pass very close to the grain fields the geese favor. If you veer off into the fields a game warden will come retrieve you. And, that my friends, will be the end of your photo shoot.
Gear to Bring
We suggest bringing a range of gear with you. Most of your photographs will require a long lens, anything from 200mm-800mm. So bring the big guns and extenders if you have them. Depending on how close the birds are to you, you may also want a 70mm-200mm zoom lens. For more scenic shots, you’ll want a wider-angle lens like a 24mm.
You’ll definitely need a tripod with a Wimberley head (if you have one) to hold up those long lenses. Throw in a flash with the Better Beamer extender (read about it here) and plenty of batteries.
We recommend shooting with two camera bodies if you have them. There are two reasons. First by having two bodies with two different lenses you’re ready when the animal decides move closer or farther away. All you have to do is pick up with camera with the right lens for that distance.
Second, you never know when your camera may die or be damaged. It’s important to have back up so your day isn’t wasted. Also be sure to bring plenty of camera cards and batteries so you don’t run out of storage space or juice for all of those practice shots.
If You Go
Call ahead to see what’s been spotted recently at the refuge. Take note of where the animal has been seen to give you the best chance of photographing it. Some days are dead as a doornail and other days are hopping at the refuge, so a phone call can save you a lot of frustration.
Check the weather. The Lake Texoma area gets some pretty bad storms during tornado season. In the summer, the area can be broiling and you never know when a winter storm will produce a sheet of ice up there.
Watch out for water moccasins, copperheads, timber rattlesnakes, poison ivy, oak and sumac and tree bark scorpions. Bug spray is a lifesaver in summer. It really is wild out there!
Make sure you know the rules of the refuge before heading out. Game wardens do actively patrol the area and you don’t want your photo shoot to end before it’s started.
Bring plenty of water and snacks. Fill up the gas tank before leaving home. There are no services in the immediate area of Hagerman, although Sherman and Denison, Texas are both about 25 minutes away. You’ll find food, gas and other services there.
The refuge is open from sunrise to sunset year round. To get further details for your trip, visit the Hagerman website.