An avid nature enthusiast might as well just forget about the element of time when touring the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge, simply because there is such a wide variety of wildlife to view. A planned short visit will likely turn into an all day affair in this remote wilderness area, so it is best to stock up on plenty of snacks and water for the excursion. Herds of pronghorn antelope and deer can be seen grazing throughout the rolling hills and there are several captivating prairie dog towns that can be seen along the dirt road touring loop. The real action begins near the water and there are several migratory bird ponds that actually offer a short viewing distance. In fact, the birding action is so hot in the Arapaho NWR that it is easy to completely forget about whatever was planned for the rest of the day. This is especially true in late summer and early autumn, when the mass migrations begin.
The Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge is located in northeast Colorado near the Wyoming Border in an area where the mountains meet the high plains. This entire region is composed of BLM public lands, National and State Forests, so this definitely is the land of wide open spaces. There are several Colorado State Wildlife Areas in this region and each features ponds or lakes that attract migratory species. The small town of Walden is the only option for stocking up on goods and the Arapaho NWR is just a few miles south on Highway 125. Accommodations are limited in this old town and setting up a basecamp in one of the many campgrounds in this neck of the woods is what most visitors do. Jackson County is the moose capital of the world, so do not be surprised to see these gigantic animals walking down the middle of the street while shopping for trail mix in Walden!
The Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge was originally designed to accommodate displaced species from midwestern agricultural areas. The natural wetlands and ponds in this region have always attracted plenty of migratory birds and herd animals, so protecting this big patch of land was the natural thing to do. There are several sections of the Arapaho NWR that feature unique environments and the most popular spot for birding is the automobile touring loop, which goes around a few large ponds. This dirt road is well maintained, so an average passenger car can do the trek. There are rules and regulations to become familiar with before starting the auto tour, which mostly have to do with not approaching or disturbing the wildlife, especially during the spring and early summer nesting season.
The rule of thumb for wildlife refuge auto tours is to just observe from inside the vehicle or next to the vehicle, in order to minimize impact and not send the animals into a state of panic. Wild animals in remote areas like this will have a very low tolerance for the human presence, so the more peaceful a visitor behaves, the more wildlife will be encountered. Attempting to stalk or get a closer look will result in an entire flock taking off for the far side of the pond and there will be far less exciting views. For this reason, it is best to pack binoculars or a powerful camera lens, in order to shorten the distance.
The best time for viewing pronghorn, deer and other four legged critters at Arapaho is early in the morning, preferably just before sunrise. The birding action is guaranteed to be good all day long, but there are a few peak times to remember. The migratory waterfowl, wading birds and pelicans take to the skies in mid morning after feeding and the massive flocks return during the hours before sundown, so these are the best times for capturing images of birds in flight.
On a side note, the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge is where I learned manual mode wildlife photography and for those who are interested, a day at Arapaho will certainly increase the skill set. The performance of modern high dynamic range digital cameras far exceeds the limitations of full automatic mode shooting functions, so if you prefer point and shoot style bird photography in full auto mode, the percentage of keeper photos will likely be only about 60%. In full auto mode, a camera will not always pick the best shutter speed for flying birds and going home to find a bunch of blurry objects in pictures is really no fun. Learning manual mode camera functions is essential for birding, so be prepared to put on the thinking cap.
Basically, if you have never shot in manual mode before, you will become a seasoned pro by the end of the day at the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge! Getting artistic with the bokeh can be part of the learning experience too, which is essential for capturing keeper photos worth framing. For the images in this article, I used a 1.5 crop sensor Nikon D7500 Camera with a Nikkor 200-500mm ƒ/5.6 Lens. This semi-pro combination is one of the best budget minded wildlife photography kits currently available, especially in the gray market. Getting the most out of an ƒ/5.6 lens does require some experience and the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge certainly will provide plenty of opportunity for practice. A birding photography venture at Arapaho will also be a test of physical endurance, because it is not easy to hold a camera and lens that weighs over seven pounds steady for several hours on end. For this reason, pack plenty of trail mix and protein snack bars for the venture, so the arms do not feel like rubber by the end of the day!
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