Creative: AG23 Field Report, Birding Southern New Mexico

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Morning at Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

“Why are you the way you are?” “I think it’s anxiety, your entire family has it,” she said. “I’m not anxious at all,” I replied. “I am driven, and I have limited time combined with an agenda to create,” “I’m here to enjoy this,” she said. “To relax.” “I’m not,” I replied. It’s true. My family suffers from their own version of anxiety. My father had it and used Valium, way back in the day. My mother had it and still has it, and I think my siblings might have a dose from time to time. For some reason, I did not get the anxiety gene but yet I’m viewed as a high-strung, tense individual, especially by those who aren’t high-strung or tense.

I can easily see how my behavior is viewed this way. I tend to get up and go. When I woke the morning of this trip I was ready to go, but I was not alone. I had to hold back. I had to consider others and I had to recognize this trip meant one thing for me and another for them. The experience for me was second nature, perhaps. While what lived ahead was outside the norm for my companions. Sleeping in the van in fourteen degree weather. Skipping meals and showers. Being outside an hour before sunrise planning my photographic attack. Taking a break midday to mount the Salsa for a twenty-mile, flat gravel burn then kitting up once again to hunt birds in the later light.

This birding thing is new to me. I’ve got a massive amount to learn. I’m under lensed. (Maybe) I lack the training and birder instinct. I lack knowledge of bird behavior, so I’m asking A LOT to even ponder the idea of great. Some would say it’s arrogant to even discuss it. But I do. Because I’ve seen it. I know what it is.

And I know it’s out there.

I feel incredible pressure to perform, but the pressure comes from internal forces as opposed to external forces. “Where are you going to show this work?” a photographer asked me this morning. “I’m not,” I replied. That’s not the plan. The plan is to make the best work I possible can while learning along the way. At some point, somewhere down the line, when I have something of value, I’ll make a stand. I’ll come to you and say “Here, this is something you should see.” In the meantime, a short film released on the AG23 site, just a quick reminder of the current state of bird and the first step in building out our community, something that is top of my to-do list for 2023.

Birds are in real trouble. Not all but many. Species are dropping, numbers are dropping and the projections do not paint a pretty picture. So, my job on this day was to record. Camera, pen, audio recorder although doing three things at once is nearly impossible for me. On this day, the audio recorder was a near complete failure. I was also learning new kit. This was my first real shoot with both the XH2s and the XH2. The “s” had been programmed using the “C” dial and was set to go. C1 being my stills setting, C2-C5 were set to a variety of motion options like 4k 120fps, 4K 24p, and 1080HD. The XH had yet to be programmed, so I mostly kept to the camera for stills and defaulted to 240fps super slow motion for the video settings, something I’m very glad I did. (The footage is stunning even at lower definition.) I was there to show the atmosphere. The dangers that impede. And to show the absolute beauty and spectacle that birds truly are.

The drive down was beautiful and uneventful. Winter light is crisp and clear although Albuquerque smog could be seen easily as we dropped from the heights of Santa Fe. We arrived to Bosque del Apache midday to mild temps and high wind. Because the light was bad we decided to bike first, so I unpacked and assembled the bikes only to ride to the park entrance where I was told the bike was considered a “vehicle” and our pass would only admit ONE of us. So, we cycled back to the van, stuffed in the bikes and drove back so that we could be considered one vehicle. At times, the park service feels like their plan is to double down on bureaucracy and forego any semblance of logic and is one reason why so many people, including me, are so frustrated with park service protocol. Bosque del Apache is the PERFECT cycling park. Flat, smooth, wide, safe gravel and miles of it. Not to mention birding by bike causes less stress on the birds, causes less dust and has less of an impact on the roads, not to mention produces far fewer emissions. The park service should be PROMOTING bikes in this park.

The late afternoon was spent scouting for the following morning. I made a list of species I wanted to capture in early morning light. Bald eagle, northern harrier, sandhill crane, snow geese, kestrel, red-tailed hawk, and any other species that might appear. Bosque is quite spacious, the main loop is broken into south and north regions. One full loop is right at fifteen miles. Portions of the preserve are flooded which provides protection and habitat for cranes and geese who flock by the tens of thousands.

Our frozen bed for the night.

We overnighted in the van at a small patch of BLM land where I had to do battle with a mouse that wanted to live in my engine compartment. The heat of the motor must have felt like a sauna and the little bugger would not budge. I finally gave up thinking “If you can build a nest in five hours, well, I’ll just applaud your work ethic.” The night was cold and still. A full moon blazed above and our sleep was peppered with the passing of trains. By morning the inside of the windshield was covered in ice. I fired up the van at precisely 6:14AM with the temperature reading 14 degrees.

You are allowed to access the park one hour before sunrise and my timing was perfect. When I found my vantage point there were approximately six other vehicles. Opening the door of the van I was greeted with an absolute din of bird action as well as a line of fellow photographers who crowded together near the shoreline facing the rising sun. Ultimately, there were license plates from a half a dozen states as well as birding contingents from both China and Latin America. There was even a famous landscape/nature photographer whose work I have seen for decades. (The Chinese group was all women and they were not messing around.) This was one of the few times in my life I felt happy to see other photographers. Birding photography is competitive but there is also, most often, a shared sense of “the bird is the real message.” (My experience is limited, however, and there are plenty of stories of birding photographers baiting birds with store bought mice so that the photographers can control shoots in an effort to look better on social media.)

By the time the sun began to peak over the eastern hills, birds began arriving by the thousands, gliding down for buttery landings on the flooded landscape. More observers began to emerge. There were a handful of hipsters in Native American blankets, East Coast financial types in fur boots and black long coats, hardcore birders who were clearly living in their car, and a range of those who may or may not even venture to see birds again. The message was clear, nature is where it’s at.

I had the XH2s around my neck with a 23mm 1.4 (35mm equivalent) and the XH2 with 50-140mm with 2x converter in my hands I did not use a tripod which allowed me to move quickly from scene to scene like I’m used to doing with other projects. Even though it had been ages since I was in the field, my old training returned instantly. I knew the mass ascension of birds would happen shortly after sunrise, but I also knew that the humans and the surrounding area would provide a wide range of image that would help tell the story of this moment.

I worked quickly with both cameras, moving from stills to motion and back and from wide to super-tele. Some of the first images are lost to motion blur due to NOT using a tripod but that was a risk I was willing to take. Within minutes of sunrise I had plenty of light and the rest of the images were tack sharp. The cameras felt strange in my hands and even stranger when I looked through the viewfinder. Anything new is a liability until you have worked with the kit enough to know it inside and out. My intention was good but my application was sloppy.

I felt completely and utterly alive. The cold, the interaction with humans, birds and photography made me feel like “This is where you belong.” My wife was still safely and warmly tucked in the van but she too squirreled herself into position as tens of thousands of birds exploded from the water. It’s difficult to know what to do when this happens other than get as much as you can. Long lens compressed, short lens wide, humans as foreground, panning shots, etc. There are a matter of seconds before the birds depart and the sky and water return to normal.

I am not showing you my best images here. No, those are filed away for later. I’m simply telling a story. I will use a few of the best images in the film I’ll make for AG23, but I feel like I need to build a bird archive before doing something more substantial. I know that some of you are into birds and others are not, and that is perfectly okay. As I mentioned before, I’m new to this endeavor and is most likely linked to a mid-life crisis that began in my forties and continues now into my fifties. A crisis of knowing I’m still a total dumbass with heaps yet to learn. (Heaps used as a nod to my Aussie readers.)

Over the course of the rest of the day we spoke to many other birders. We talked tech about Sony, Nikon and Canon. (There was only one other Fuji shooter in the entire area.) We also did another gravel ride, and we had our patience tested by waiting for birds to do things they didn’t end up doing. We gave van tours to those interested. We spoke to park rangers, all of whom were very nice, and we ate apples and cheese while watching a young bald eagle battle a northern harrier over the delicacy that is a dead duck.

So yes, I’m driven. My aim is no longer narrow, but I’m driven nonetheless. I know my time and resource are limited but I will work with what I have and be happy with that. If my work leads to some kid paying attention to the doves in his or her yard, well, then I’m on to something. We are all on a clock. Each year the ticks and chimes grow louder. We need to do what we can before these same ticks and chimes come to an end.

Comments 10

  1. Enjoying following your birding photography development. I bird and make images (nowhere near as expert in this area as you are). I tell both groups than only people who bird AND photograph understand how hard it is. You’re not just seeking to SEE and identify a bird; and not just making images; but trying to know where and when to be; to understand and anticipate what birds will do; envision an interesting image and then catch the image and yet also be open to unanticipated magic, all in the split second when everything aligns. And mostly it doesn’t. Plus, master your equipment to where you can change your plans in a spit second. Challenging and, when you get something you like, magical (yes, using that word again, with reason!). Looking forward to seeing more of your images.

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      Hey Nancy, you are spot on. Being in the right place at the right light and being able to frame up something as fast-moving as a bird is not for the faint of heart or for anyone who needs to always succeed when it comes to their photography.

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  2. Great story! I’ve just gotten into photography and birding over this past year and I am hooked. Living for the next beautiful bird or shot! Living on a lake here with tons of wildlife and I decided to give it a go. No regrets at all. Look forward to seeing your photos.

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      Once you start to notice it’s difficult to turn it off. Add in the sound and you have an entirely new adventure. I was just with a guy who could identify all surrounding birds just by sound. It was incredible.

  3. I’ve been photographing birds lately and enjoy the process far more than the actual results. It’s so difficult.

    I got a few frames of a red-billed leiothrix yesterday. Decent photos but I shot them at 1/1000 using continuous shutter. In two consecutive frames the bird is there in one, and gone in the other, nowhere to be seen. At 1/1000! It’s nuts.

  4. Pingback: JSP Visual Week In Review ~ 01.14.23 | JerseyStyle Photography

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