Father-son bonding experience, Part I

I’m in New Mexico, home of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the White Sands Missile Range, and the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

Among other things.

I’m here with my son Patrick to take photos of migratory birds. There are thousands of them, actually tens of thousands of them. There are Sand Hill Cranes, Snow Geese, ducks, and a few miscellaneous others.

Bald Eagles, for example. We saw three this morning.

A Sand Hill Crane on approach to Bosque del Apache International. This bird stands about three feet tall on land.

The Bosque, (pronounced boz-kay) as the locals call it, is the winter home to hundreds of thousands of birds as they fly from Canada to Central and South America. From season to season, week to week, the number and species of birds change.

And I promise that you have never seen anything like 50,000 snow geese flying toward you as if in a cloud. It is exhilarating, exciting, and almost frightening to see. And, the sound is like nothing I have ever heard.

Another Sand Hill Crane, this one making a bee-line for the field next to the viewing platform. Each morning and afternoon, photographers gather on these platforms to watch and record the flights of these beautiful migratory birds.

Two weeks ago there were 79,000 Sand Hill Cranes at the Bosque. Today there were estimated to be only 1,000. The other 78,000 have flown north to gamble in Las Vegas, New Mexico (they didn’t get the memo about that being the other Las Vegas).

A crane flies south with the background of mountains behind it. I was shooting with a 600mm Canon telephoto lens on my Canon pro camera. The results are excellent!

This is a photographic expedition for us. We have cameras to beat the band, and tripods, and a rented lens as long as my arm (I have short arms). We head out to the Bosque each morning before sunrise, stopping first at the Socorro Denny’s to get a quick breakfast. In the late afternoon we return to see the birds at sunset.

This morning we got to the bird-watching overlook just in time to see about 500 Sand Hill Cranes take off at the same time. The sound was comparable to a Boeing 737 doing a reverse-thrust push-back from the gate. I was stunned by the amount of air that 500 cranes can move at one moment.

That rush of air was quickly replaced by the cacophony of cranes barking out orders to each other about altitude and flight path. This is definitely flight-by-committee. No single crane is in charge, but there is a collective will about them that carries them into the morning sky. Where they go is anyone’s guess, but they return at sunset, squawking their way back to the ponds and fields of the Bosque.

Our photography has been very successful. We are armed with two nice cameras – one for stills, the other for video – and a variety of lenses from ultrawide to ultra-telephoto. We have two tripods, one with a smooth fluid-head, and we switch off between them from time to time so that both of us can get tracking shots of the birds in flight, or a nice wide shot of the gorgeous Bosque sunset.

Patrick’s nice Red Epic video camera is capable of some extraordinary feats, one of which is extreme slow-motion at very high resolution. His best shots from the sunrise bird-launching event are breathtaking. He was shooting at 300 frames-per-second at 5K resolution. The resulting video images are stunning, looking like a ballet performance by Sand Hill Cranes. In flight, the cranes’ motion is descriptive enough for a study in the musculature of large birds. It’s poetic motion, and like nothing I have seen before.

I am posting a few of my still photos here, and will follow in a few days with links to my son’s videos from this wonderful place.

Tomorrow we go back for more, to photograph a few tens of thousands of snow geese, or a crore of cranes. On Sunday we are moving west to see the Very Large Array of radio telescopes (you’ve seen these in various movies). These things are must-see subjects for me, two more things on my life’s checklist.

Check back here to see more as we move around New Mexico taking more photos in the coming days.


About Brian Lawler

Brian Lawler is an Emeritus Professor of Graphic Communication at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo and was a Guest Professor at Hochschule München from September, 2021 to September, 2022. He writes about graphic arts processes and technologies for various industry publications, and on his blog, The Blognosticator.
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