Tuesday, December 20, 2005

A Photographer's Winter Morning

Early morning is a special time. Symbolically it is the start of a new day. While I am not a "morning" person, sunrises are worth getting up for. As a photographer, getting to your photographic spot well before dawn is important. Part of the experience is seeing the world turn from a dark, black and white place in a crescendo of brilliant colors. That first hint of glow in the east is a promise of a new beginning. And the sky joyfully gets brighter and brighter until the glory of the sun finally breaks the horizon in a golden burst.

The early morning is also a good time to view animals. We had a chance to go back to Bosque del Apache in New Mexico. In the winter months thousands of snow geese, sandhill cranes, and other water fowl migrate here to spend the winter. Arriving at the refuge before dawn allows one to experience these beautiful creatures' morning rituals.

The snow geese stay together in flocks of several thousand. They come and go in a noisy group of powerful, beating wings and loud, honking calls. This year they seemed to make one initial move before dawn filling the sky in the distance with beautiful white graceful V-shaped lines. So our first task each morning was to discover which pond they had chosen. Our first morning was the coldest, the ponds had a layer of ice. We found many of the snow geese asleep on top of the ice. The beautiful golden rays of the rising sun gave them almost a heavenly lighting. It was fun to watch them wake up, go through their morning grooming rituals, and then doze off again, floating in the water with their heads tucked under their wing.

As a photographer, I wanted to capture their incredible take off. I discovered that you do have a few moments warning. Something will startle them, they all begin honking. Sometimes it is a false alarm and they settle back in to splashing and grooming. But other times, that caucophony of sound is the signal, and they all leave the pond at once.

Each day I positioned myself in a different place to try to capture the magic of thousands of birds in close proximity taking to the air at once. I tried slow shutter speeds to catch an artistic blur and I tried faster shutter speeds to get sharp details on each bird.

The sandhill cranes have a total different morning regimen. The frantic flight of the geese leaves them undisturbed. The cranes leave for the feeding grounds in family groups of two to five. They run across the ice or water in order to gain enough momentum for flight.

There are also signs to watch for to be prepared to capture their take off. You will see a group begin to stretch their necks out together in one direction. It is almost as though they have to psyche themselves up. If you are patient and quick with your shutter finger, you can catch them in the act of running and slipping clumsily on the ice before they are finally airborne in an incredible graceful flight. Because so many congregate on the ponds, you have plenty of opportunities to practice your panning and your eye-hand coordination to capture their beauty and grace.

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