Herons are solitary birds. Unlike cranes that go about their business in large flocks, herons are found on the edge of things: walking slowly and quietly along a canal, drainage ditch or river, hunting for their dinner. Although they are monogamous, they are rarely seen out together in public.
When I make my annual pilgrimage to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, the skies and the ponds are filled with raucous, gangly, yet somehow graceful cranes–thousands of them. The typical heron count is three or four. So, I spend a fair amount of time cruising slowly along the drainage canals looking for these elusive birds.
Sometimes, when I’m patient, I’m rewarded with a capture like the one above. I had followed this guy (girl?) for close to half an hour, moving when he moved, but giving him plenty of room. When I saw him extend his neck, I fired a continuous burst of about five exposures and this is the result.
There are other times when patience has nothing to do with it. Robin and I came across this heron standing along the edge of a canal on the south side of the Flight Deck Pond. We were easily within twenty-five yards of him and he acted like we weren’t even there.
Every once in a while, he would close his eyes as if napping. After about thirty minutes we had gotten all the exposures we wanted and drove off leaving him standing there.
I made this last image while my daughter Lauren and I were walking her dog at a dog park in Madison, Wisconsin. Luckily, I was a little ahead of them and had time to warn her off. Otherwise, her dog would have been after the bird and this capture would have been lost.
I made my annual “pilgrimage” to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge last weekend. I came home with well over fifteen hundred images to work through. I’m not finished, but I do have some “keepers” from the first batch of processing.
The first image was captured early on Saturday morning at the North Chupadera Pond along Highway 1. I was looking for a full wing shot, but was having trouble catching one.
I have a pattern that I follow while at The Bosque in order to optimize my interaction with the birds. After the cranes have all flown off from the ponds where they spend the night, I drive the entire loop looking for whatever might be there. I can usually find a Great Blue Heron along the edge of one of the channels that run through the refuge, and this year was no exception. This one seemed to be dozing off and on while waiting for his breakfast to appear.
There was certainly no shortage of take-off images. The cranes signal their intention to get airborne by leaning forward and stretching their necks as if they are testing the wind (perhaps they are). If you are a photographer waiting for some action, this should be a heads up that things are about to get interesting.
I captured both of these images as the cranes were running to reach the speed they need to take off. The movement in these images is horizontal and normally calls for a landscape orientation, but when I took the second photo, I was looking for something specific which would be better served by a portrait orientation.
My patience was rewarded when this lone crane spread his wings. The reflection was a bonus.
When I go on a photo expedition or lead a tour, I take two cameras and all the lenses I could possibly need, all packed into my Lowepro AW 300 Trekker backpack with my tripod strapped to the outside. It’s a load and can sometimes become a bit much after trekking through the desert all day. But, I do it because I know I’ll have whatever I need to capture the images that I see.
Recently, I flew to Madison, Wisconsin to visit my lovely daughter Lauren. The baggage and carry-on restrictions prevented me from bringing along all of my gear, so I made the trip with one camera, two lenses, and a flash packed into a shoulder bag. As a result, I was forced to look at my photography in a whole new way, and I am quite pleased with the images I brought home.
I made this portrait of Lauren on one of our early morning dog walks. If you knew Lauren as I do, you would also know that this is the perfect setting for a portrait of her.
I made this image at Lake Mendota, the bigger of the two lakes which border Madison on the north and south. This gull was walking up and down the pier like a miniature Charley Chaplin. It was pretty comical and I made close to forty exposures of him, but when he stopped and looked over the edge, he provided the perfect counterpoint to the fisherman.
Believe it or not, this image was made in one of Madison’s many dog parks. This one has its own wetlands complete with a green heron. Luckily, I spotted the bird before Lauren’s dog did.
This last image is of a lotus flower and lily pads in the Japanese Garden at House On The Rock in southwestern Wisconsin. House On The Rock is an amazing place and deserves more than just a nod in a photography blog. If you’re ever in that part of the world, I highly recommend the tour.
So, aside from spending a wonderful week with one of my favorite people, this trip also forced me to look at my work in a different way. Art, like anything else in life, needs to evolve; otherwise it stagnates and looses its appeal.
I have been stuck in the Photographic Doldrums for the past couple of months, so I have been spending quite a bit of time searching my archived images. I’m not one to live in the past, but I’ve found that it can be rewarding to revisit my older work. I have rediscovered some of my best work rummaging around in old files. I have also found photographs that, for some reason didn’t make the cut when I first edited them, but over time, with my ever-changing vision and some changes in my workflow, they suddenly take on a new life.
This first image was taken in Canyonlands National Park in Utah. Mesa Arch is an iconic location for landscape photographers, but the shot almost everyone takes is of the sun rising behind the arch. Being a bit of a crank, and wanting to make an image that spoke of my vision and not some other photographer’s, I made this photograph in the late afternoon and used the arch to frame the incredible landscape that lies beyond it.
I made this image of Shiprock while driving to Utah a couple of years ago. I was drawn by the bright yellow rabbitbrush and I was also going through what I like to think of as my “fence phase”. These two elements made the perfect foreground for the great volcanic plug and brooding skies.
This is an image of the Virgin River in Zion National Park. The overcast settled lower and by the next morning, the rain was continuous, making my hike to the Subway impossible due to high water and flash flooding. But this moment, looking down canyon with the soft light penetrating the swollen sky is one of my best images from that trip.
Twilight at Chupadera Pond in Bosque del Apache NWR. These three cranes were hunting for their dinner. They had just flown back from a day of foraging in the farm fields at the northern end of the refuge and now they were continuing their seemingly endless search for food in the pond where they would spend the night. The color of the light in this image has not been altered. For one magical moment between sunset and the onset of night, the entire landscape was bathed in this golden-orange glow.
This final image of the Egg Garden in the Bisti Wilderness has gone through numerous iterations and I think I finally have it just where I want it. I know the composition goes against the venerable “Rule of Thirds”, but sometimes it’s good to break the rules, and sometimes it’s good to revisit the past.
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is one of those places that keeps drawing me back. I make an annual pilgrimage there in November (the weekend after Thanksgiving to be exact) to pay homage to the cranes, and of course to photograph them. OK, so why am I writing about this in June? Well, it’s at about this time that I start to look forward to this year’s trip. I’ve posted about the last one, but I have since found some images that were not included in the post that (I think) deserve to see the light of day.
Sandhill Cranes have very specific habits related to their behavior. The first image shows a crane readying himself for take-off. He leans forward into the wind perhaps to get a feel for the speed, direction, etc. This serves as a great heads-up for onlookers, passers-by, and frozen photographers that the action is about to start.
I caught this pair right after they took off from the Chupadera Pond. Robin and I (along with about twenty other photographers) had been waiting since sun-up for this. There were about five hundred cranes in this particular group. They went through their rituals for nearly three hours before they had all left the pond. At times they would take wing only to land again and start the whole process over.
These last two images are my favorites from that trip. The trio above was captured at sunset. Cranes usually fly in a group. These three were landing at the Flight Deck Pond. They were coming back from a day of foraging to roost in the pond where they are relatively safe from predators.
I found this Great Blue Heron wading along one of the ditches on the refuge. Unlike cranes, herons are solitary creatures. This one didn’t seem to mind when I set up my tripod (at a reasonable distance) and followed him up the channel. At one point, he stopped and became very focused; I knew he was about to strike, so I was able to anticipate this moment successfully.
To those of you who are close by, or who may be traveling in this part of the world, I recommend a visit to Bosque del Apache. The best time to catch the cranes is November-February.
My trip to Bosque del Apache NWR the weekend after Thanksgiving has become a tradition. This year’s outing was particularly rewarding, both because of the number of birds which were present and the number of high-quality images I was able to capture through a combination of tenacity and serendipity. This is an image of Snow and Ross’s Geese on Chupadera Pond which greeted us on Friday evening as we were entering the refuge. It represents just a small section of the expanse of birds that covered the water.
By the time we drove around the Farm Loop to the Flight Deck, close to fifty people-mostly photographers-were squeezed onto the platform. I jockeyed for position and began shooting. The cranes were landing at the northernmost end of the pond. I made this image as the sun was setting. I was struck by the bands of pastel colors which seemed to divide the scene into layers. Soon after the light was gone and we headed back to the motel for the night.
The next day, Saturday, we took a leisurely drive around both the Marsh Loop and the Farm Loop. At the north end of the latter, we found several hundred of the more than fourteen-thousand Sandhill Cranes that were estimated to be at the refuge that weekend. The two below are “dancing”; such posturing is practiced from an early age to improve co-ordination, train flight muscles, and share emotions. Dancing is a form of social bonding in a family unit and is also a prelude to mating. For obvious reasons, this posture is called: “the jump”.
As we drove through the refuge, the cacophony of cries, hoots and wails from the birds reminded us that we were in an extraordinary place. As I mentioned earlier, there were more than fourteen-thousand cranes at the refuge at the time we were there, but there were also: eighty-seven-thousand ducks, fifty-seven-thousand geese, and a number of other avian creatures too numerous to count. Once again, as we had the night before, we found ourselves at the “Flight Deck” as sunset approached. This evening, however, we found a less crowded place from which to view and photograph the flight: a small, flat area at the north end of the pond, right at the water’s edge, where a couple of other photographers had already assembled. From this vantage point, we had an unobstructed view of the incoming cranes and, as most of them were favoring the north end of the pond, we were much closer to the action than we would have been on the deck. I made this image of a Sandhill crane as he stretched his wings shortly after landing. The sun was low and the light subtle.
Of all the times to photograph the birds at the Bosque, I think the best (and the most difficult) is at sunrise. On Sunday morning, we were at Chupadera Pond just before the sun came over the Oscura Mountains to the east. The cranes were beginning to stir, and as they performed their morning rituals, they had to pull their feet through a skim of ice on the pond. All the grooming, squabbling, dancing, and posturing is preparation for the morning flight when the cranes leave their watery roosts and take to the skies in search of food.
These two are exhibiting a behavior which signals an imminent take-off. They stretch their necks, leaning forward as if to test the wind before they pull the trigger and take wing. Usually the birds will then fly off to the fields, but sometimes, they will fly only a short distance and then return to the pond.
I captured this male as he was landing during one of these turn-arounds. There were several hundred birds at the Chupadera Pond that morning. We stayed and photographed their comings and goings for nearly three hours before the last of them finally flew off. As we left the pond, we decided to make one last drive around the entire loop, which includes both the Marsh Loop and the Farm Loop. Near the southern end of the marsh, I noticed movement in the diversion channel and pulled over. It was there that I found this Great Blue Heron hunting for his breakfast. I carefully got out of the car and set up my tripod and camera. As he moved up the channel, I followed him. Finally, we were both rewarded as he darted forward and came up with his morning meal.
As a photographer, I gain a great deal of satisfaction from images such as these. The ability to capture a fleeting moment and preserve it for others to enjoy is perhaps the ultimate reward.
This was the scene at the farm fields at the north end of the Bosque del Apache NWR on Saturday morning. It is fairly typical for this time of year. Most of the birds have arrived for their winter stay at the refuge. On this particular morning there were 9,527 sandhill cranes, over 40,000 snow and Ross’s geese, 3 bald eagles, and over 300,000 ducks of various species. There were also innumerable LBBs (little brown birds), and an unknown number of deer, coyotes, bear, and other mammals. Oh yeah, and at least one mountain lion (one trail was closed due to recent lion sightings). All in all, a pretty respectable showing.
We had arrived the previous evening, and spent a couple hours on the “Flight Deck” watching and photographing the cranes flying back from the fields which surround the refuge to spend the night in the ponds where they are relatively safe from the predators (mostly coyotes) which are numerous in the Bosque. We were up and out the door at 5:30 in order to make it to the reserve for sunrise. It was cold–around 10°F, but there were at least twenty other photographers gathered at the edge of the Chupadera pond. I set up my tripod, and joined in the fun. As the sun rose, the cranes began to stir, and the cameras began to whir. I was suddenly reminded of the cold when my camera began to respond sluggishly, then stopped working. The shutter had frozen. I stood there helplessly while the birds took off and everyone around me continued to shoot. I’m not sure why mine was the only camera to succumb to the frigid temperatures, but I stubbornly tried, and tried again, to get the thing working even though I had another camera in the car not fifty yards away. I’ll have to work on that!
So, while I was busy trying to keep my camera working, Robin was next to me happily snapping away. She made this image just as the sun was starting to warm the scene with it’s golden light. Cranes go through a ritual before taking off. This one was stretching his wings in preparation for his first flight of the day.. The two birds on the right are just beginning the next stage: they face into the wind and stretch their necks, leaning forward. I think what they are doing is testing the wind, getting an idea of how they will get themselves into the air. This behavior is a signal to a photographer to be ready because take off is imminent. Well, any photographer with a working camera.
Next we headed into the refuge and turned south to drive the marsh loop. I was still toying with my camera and was happy to find that it was working again after thawing out. I had heard horror stories about shutters breaking after being frozen. It was shortly after this that Robin spotted this Great Blue Heron in the ditch on the west side of the road.
We stopped and spent about twenty minutes photographing him. He just stayed where he was, going about his business while keeping one eye on us. He finally spread his wings and flew off, and we packed up our gear and drove off, but we didn’t go far. About two hundred yards down the road, we came across hundreds of geese. They were in the marsh, and they would fly across the road to the field on the opposite side to eat, and then fly back across the road to the marsh. We spent quite a while watching them. Robin got the best photo.
The four geese on the left are Snow Geese, and the highest one is a Ross’s Goose. Collectively they are referred to as Light Geese. These five were flying to the field from the marsh.
We continued around the marsh loop, and on to the farm loop. We had just passed the Coyote Deck when we spotted several cranes flying low. We pulled over just as they landed on a berm between us and the flooded field beyond. This is one of them that seemed intent on watching us while the others went about their business. Perhaps he was the designated sentinel for the day.
Before we completed the farm loop, we made a stop at the Flight Deck to see if there was any activity there. Not surprisingly, there were no cranes or geese in evidence. There was, however, a lone bald eagle perched in “the tree” which stands out in the large pond in front of the Flight Deck. He spent quite a long time surveying his domain before taking wing to patrol the remainder of the refuge.
Bosque del Apache is undoubtedly a special place. I never tire of going there. The scenery combined with the thrill of seeing thousands of waterfowl and numerous raptors in one place at one time makes for a memorable trip.