Tuesday morning was cold, breezy, and bright with no colorful sunrise. The birds, both snow geese and sandhill cranes, were elusive, probably resting on ponds in the restricted areas of the NWR. Basque del Apache has many such ponds and large areas of the reserve are off limits to visitors. After driving around the Loop we stopped at one area where a fairly large contingent of snow geese was assembled. We waited and, mid morning, we were rewarded with another explosive blast off, even more incredible and thunderous than those we witnessed on Monday.
Nothing could fully prepare me for the spectacle of thousands of snow geese exploding en masse into the air and swirling around in a whirlwind of flapping wings and a cacophony of honks. I was awestruck and was a silent observer of this spectacular pageant that replays over and over throughout the day. We witnessed this at close range several times on Monday at Bosque del Apache NWR. It was at once breathtaking and overwhelming. I witnessed much of the show through the viewfinder of my camera each time we were lucky enough to be in the midst of this snow-like blizzard of birds. The long lens sees nothing but furiously flapping wings, honking beaks, and beady black eyes. What a joy it was to experience this phenomenon.
We met at 5:15AM to drive to Bosque del Apache NWR for sunrise and to witness the “explosion” as thousands of snow geese rise up from the water to fly to their day time feeding ground. The temperature was a balmy 50° at that hour and the sky was filled with clouds making for a potentially gorgeous background for the morning take-off. The bad thing was that the wind was brutal. I’m not certain what the wind speed was out on the “Flight Deck,” a viewing platform that extends over the water’s edge, but the water was very choppy. The wind was severe enough that I was afraid something would blow into my eyes so I removed my contact lenses in favor of eyeglasses to avoid a calamity in the midst of trying to photograph the morning’s event. I had my 600mm with my Nikon D5 on a tripod to photograph the birds and my 18-35mm lens attached to my Nikon Df hanging from a strap so I could photograph the sunrise. New Mexico sunrises are legendary. I was not disappointed but the gorgeous colors and god beams disappeared within minutes and because the explosion of geese had already happened, no birds appear in this shot.
I’m visiting Bosque del Apache in New Mexico, part of the National Wildlife Refuge System, a national network of lands and waters set aside and managed for the benefit of wildlife habitat. At Bosque, fields in the preserve are cultivated and flooded in rotation to provide a critical stopover for migrating waterfowl. Thousands of sandhill cranes, geese and other waterfowl winter there each year but the numbers appear to be dwindling. In the coming days, we’re hoping to see more birds and to capture the excitement of the “explosion” as thousands of cranes and snow geese take off en masse.
I had a rocky start on Saturday morning. The early morning sunrise was a disaster for me as I fumbled with my tripod and gimbal head and didn’t get a single decent photograph. After some coaching and straight talk from Moose, I got my equipment in order. Later in the morning, and by paying attention to detail, I actually managed to grab focus on some cranes and keep them in focus and in the same relative position in the frame, avoiding birds flying out of the frame and preventing clipped wings and tails. I’m determined to improve my technique and to increase the number of good shots I get.
This is a Lesser Sandhill Crane as it came in to forage in one of the Farm Field ponds.
I’ve decided to name the male Anna’s Hummingbird who tenaciously protects his territory and who has appeared so often in this blog. I’m calling him Homer because, as one of my friends pointed out, a hummer photograph on my blog usually means I’m home. The Anna’s Hummingbird is the most common hummer along the Pacific Coast. It rarely migrates except to find better feeding sources. Because I keep my hummingbird feeders filled year around and make sure they stay thawed by taking them indoors at night during freeze warnings, I’m pretty certain I’ve been photographing the same Anna’s hummingbirds (along with the occasional Black Chinned hummer) for a few years now. I’m not sure what their life span is but according to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the oldest documented Anna’s Hummingbird was 8.2 years when it was recaptured and rereleased during a banding operation in Arizona.
The overcast skies when I took this shot made Homer’s gorget really shimmer. Did you know that one of the names for a group of hummingbirds is a “shimmer?” And, I should point out that since the skies were gray, the blue in the background is my blue Weber grill and the whitish background is the pink stucco wall of my house. I was standing only a few feet away when Homer came to one of the feeders. I was experimenting with my 300mm lens and 2X teleconverter so it became a 600mm lens and I also had the camera set to High Speed Crop to bring him even closer so in essence I had about a 900mm lens…and almost clipped his tail out of the frame.
I found another sanderling shot that has the etherial feel and narrow focal plane that comes from using a long lens at ground level.
Today, I have chosen to indulge myself with my favorite meal: fresh cracked Dungeness crab and crusty San Francisco Sourdough bread, along with a zesty bottle of Zinfandel. I realize the Sourdough is not Paleo but sometimes you gotta go with the real deal! I will not miss the traditional Thanksgiving turkey but I will miss family and friends who graciously invited me to join their festivities. Because I’m leaving early tomorrow for another photography adventure and I needed to spend Thanksgiving Day getting ready for my trip,I chose to stay home and do my own thing.
And, this year, I am especially thankful because last year there was no local Dungeness crab due to harmful neurotoxins that cancelled crab fishing south of Washington State. It’s been quite a while since I have enjoyed this delectable treat. This year, the Patron Saint of the fishing fleet, the Madonna del Lume, came through for the fishermen and all of us who enjoy this delicious crustacean. Mille, mille grazie alla Madonna del Lume!
A couple of weeks ago on North Padre Island near Corpus Christi, TX, I lurched awkwardly across the sand on my belly like a beached walrus pushing along my D5 and 600mm lens mounted to a Frisbee in an attempt to capture some sand level views of shore birds. When I saw a Ruddy Turnstone examining a mossy, sandy, mollusk-encrusted log high up on the beach far from the waves, I was intrigued. Ruddy Turnstones are tenacious. Once they fixate on a possible food source, they are persistent, leaving no stone unturned, figuratively and literally, until they have exhausted the source. I knew I had to try to photograph it.
My problem was that I was downhill from the Ruddy Turnstone. At ground level, the smallest rise of sand created a hazy look on the bird’s legs where the lens was blurring the foreground. To avoid the obstructing area of sand and to get closer to the bird, I had to move up hill a little. I practiced my “five steps forward, stop, wait, assess” approach method that I’d learned the day before when I lead the group toward another Ruddy Turnstone on another beach. But this time, I was on the ground with no tripod so I would raise up to my knees and inch forward pushing the camera laden Frisbee in front of me at the same time. When the bird was undeterred by my approach, I stretched out and peered through the viewfinder to determine if I was past the obstruction. After several minutes of this exercise, I was close enough that the haze covered only the bird’s feet. It wasn’t good enough yet but if I pushed any closer, I risked flushing the bird so I took a few shots. Suddenly, the Turnstone placed its head at the bottom of the log, leaned in and opened its beak creating a fulcrum that pushed the log down the slope to a flatter area of sand. The Ruddy Turnstone followed the log and I was left up the incline with the mounds and rises I’d just crawled over blocking my view again. A little bit of dehaze applied in ACR corrected most of the haze over the bird’s feet. And, with regard to the slanting horizon, the Ruddy Turnstone was on an incline down which the log rolled when it was pushed.
Huge flocks of white-faced ibis have descended upon some of the rice fields in Sutter County. Scores of ibis were feeding in one flooded rice field and scores more were flying overhead toward another field. The white face feathers appear only in breeding season.
This Northern Harrier sat on a fence post for quite a long while as we watched from the vehicle. The bird had kind of an odd look about it and kept craning and twisting its neck. Jim and I unhurriedly exited the vehicle and began to step slowly toward the hawk, using a tree in front of us to shield our approach. We watched and photographed the harrier for about 20 minutes as we inched slowly forward. We stopped to watch as it regurgitated a pellet which is apparently why it was craning its neck. I thought only owls did that but it makes perfect sense that any raptor that ingests small birds and rodents would do it as well. After the bird flew off, Shirley and Jim tried to locate the large mouse-sized pellet but it had disappeared into the grass. I took this shot about 15 seconds or so before it hocked up the pellet which is probably very uncomfortably in the bird’s throat and could explain the interesting posture.