I visited Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico again in December of 2014. The refuge is home to tens of thousands of snow geese and sandhill cranes each winter. This is a place so dear in my heart that I have visited many times in the past. I have never left empty handed.
After I arrived at the refuge, I photographed at various locations the first day and figured out where birds were overnight. The behavior of birds was different each time I visited. This trip was not different either. So purpose of my first day was largely for scouting out the area. There were not many birds in the refuge this year. However, on the way back to my hotel in the evening, I saw hundreds of sandhill cranes stayed on a pond at road side. Therefore I decided to come back here to photograph them in the morning.
I arrived at the scene an hour before sunrise next morning. I could see lots of cranes over the pond but no snow geese. I setup my gear on a Jobu Heavy Duty Gimbal and patiently waited in the dark. Jobu DMG-HD4 Heavy Duty Gimbal is a Gimbal head our friend at Jobu Design asked me to evaluate. It was the first time I used it in the field.
Just before sunrise, I heard loud noise from the east. I saw the sky was blanketed with snow geese. There must be thousands of them. They circled around the pond and started to land on it in a very orderly fashion. I immediately started photographing them. The light at predawn hour was very dim. Instead of increasing iso and shutter speed to freeze the action, I deliberately slowed down the shutter speed to about 1/15 second to capture the motion effect of the wings. It is a technique I used often. Many of my published works were done with this technique.
The landing process took about 15 minutes. Almost at the instant when the last snow goose landed, all of them took off at the same time without any warning. I took me by total surprise. Fortunately, I was constantly capturing the landing action. All I had to do was continue to shoot. It was such a breath taken moment. The birds were so densely packed in the air that one could not see much of the sky. I always wonder why they don’t collide with each other. The takeoff lasted a few seconds, then all of them were gone. Apparently, this pond was used by snow geese as some sort of station ground to wait for all geese to arrive.
It was such a memorable experience that I decided to come back again next morning. I decided to do something different the second day. I brought a second camera with a wide angle lens mounted. I wanted to capture the environment when the snow geese took off.
It was a predictable event this time around when thousands geese arrived and started landing. I photographed landing scene as usual with my telephoto lens. But this time the birds did not take off immediately. They waited for another half an hour. When they finally took off, they did not take off all together. Instead, they took off in large groups. I photographed with my wide angle lens as each group of birds flying over my head.
I always capture images in RAW format to acquire as much information as possible in the field, even when I photograph wildlife. Memory cards are so cheap these days that I carried several 64GB cards with me so that I never have to worry about running out of storage. Back at home, I open them up Adobe Lightroom to make some global adjustment with exposure and color temperature before I send them to Adobe Photoshop for detailed adjustment. Here I would adjust contrast, saturation, sharpness, etc. During post processing, I converted “Dream Landing” into a monochrome image to enhance the dreamy effect.
I have photographed snow geese at Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge a few times before and I have witnessed the massive snow geese take off. But this was the first time I photographed them up close. It provided me a good opportunity to try something more creative. I often pre-visualize when I photograph landscape, but wildlife photography is largely a spontaneous sport. This was one of the rare moments I pre-visualized in wildlife photography. I had this idea, and I knew it was going to be a special shot. It was photographed with composition and technique just like landscape photography. Is it a wildlife photo or landscape photo? It does not matter. When I saw my picture on the back of my camera, I knew I nailed it.
On a side note, Jobu DMG-HD4 Heavy Duty Gimbal (Jobu Design) performed admirably. It levels well. Pan and tilt operations are amazingly smooth. It is definitely a keeper.