Let’s be clear. I am neither a bird watcher nor a bird photographer but …
In December 2015 I went with the American Nature Photography Workshops to Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico to photograph the annual winter migration of sandhill cranes, snow geese, and other water fowl.
I got some nice photographs from the workshop
yet my general takeaway was that this kind of bird photography, at least with the equipment I brought, is kind of difficult. Aside from the technical challenges of shooting flying birds very far away in low light, it’s not like you can say, “hey birds, would you mind separating a bit more in your flight so you don’t overlap with one another?” You just have to take what you get and hope for the best.
I stayed in the area an extra day after the workshop ended and returned to Bosque the next afternoon to photograph a cool tree we had driven by. That tree just happened to be close to a bird viewing platform.
Our workshop leaders had done an excellent job in scouting the birds’ favorite places and behaviors before we arrived. It’s just that the birds didn’t always cooperate. I remember standing in the dark one very early morning waiting to capture the epic lift off and landing at sunrise. We knew exactly when and where the takeoff should occur and we were ready, but I don’t know … we saw a lot of birds flying far in the distance in front of us, but the whole thing just didn’t really materialize, at least not in my camera.
So on my extra day, I photographed the cool tree and then drove to the viewing platform we had never visited and that’s when everything became a little more memorable.
I could hear the birds in the distance and as they got closer and louder I began seeing their approach. It wasn’t long before I realized OMG – this is the lift off and landing our leaders had wanted us to see – and they are landing – swarms of them – directly in front of me. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen or likely will ever see again. Think 1,000+ birds – many of them 5′ tall and with a 4-6′ wingspan in diameter – all swarming down to the water directly in front of you. It was loud, chaotic, and lasted for maybe 15-20 minutes or so. I didn’t really feel I was in harm’s way as the viewing platform was pretty well protected, but I did feel a little bit like I had crossed the set of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds into Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.
With the low light and all the flurry of the backlit birds flying in I decided to take some video – that way I also would be able to record the cacophony of loud bird sounds. I also just stood for minutes at a time and marveled.
As the sun began to set and the birds began to settle in for the evening, I started photographing again. You can maybe get a sense of the serenity that replaced the previous chaos by looking at the top photo above. Really, the quiet beauty and serenity before me then was just as or maybe more powerful than the chaotic, frenzied landings that had preceded it. The whole thing was just extraordinary.
So in these past two weeks we’ve seen Harvey flood Houston and eastern Texas, an earthquake destroy parts of Mexico, wildfires spread through the Pacific Northwest, and Hurricane Irma level the Florida Keys, flood many other areas, and leave millions without power. Against this backdrop, we learned that Equifax has been hacked leaving millions of Americans a good bit more vulnerable and, on a personal note, the hard drive on my computer crashed. In a big way. With unrecoverable data.
Not the best of times.
You know what though? Some inner voice or perhaps a “Godwink” (defined by Squire Rushnell as a “a message of reassurance from God” www.whengodwinks.com) kept pulling me back last week to the serene sunset photo of the sandhill cranes above. So I’d see some heart-wrenching pictures from Harvey and then for some reason, maybe later that day, I’d find myself pulling up the sandhill cranes photograph and feeling a little better. It brought anxious me back down a notch or two.
After viewing the photo from time to time for a few days, I think the larger message of the Bosque sandhill cranes experience finally sunk in. The sunset photo wasn’t just to calm me, it was to help me understand the bigger picture of these past two weeks, that being:
- there will always be natural forces much bigger than any of us;
- despite our best efforts, we cannot control them or even accurately predict what will happen;
- there are patterns of behavior in nature — sandhill crane migrations and hurricane seasons – that will come and go;
- accept this fact and stop worrying – God is in control;
- there is typically a beautiful moment that follows chaos and uncertainty — a gorgeous sunset or people coming together to help others in need; and
- God is always there to guide and comfort us, maybe even sending a “Godwink” along the way.
I’m glad I had the opportunity to go to Bosque Del Apache. Thanks for letting me share this bit of self-reflection with you.