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Field Notes: Bosque del Apache

Thursday, January 28th, 2016

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

– Mary Oliver (1994)

Geese, with their cacophonous honking, have filled my dreams lately.

Earlier this month, I visited the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge with my dad.  In winter, thousands of Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese converge on this area of south-central New Mexico to feed and prepare for their migration back north to nest; he and I have both always wanted to visit.

I admire several very talented wildlife photographers, and I can’t even pretend to make images of birds on par with theirs.  However, I’ve always loved birds of all sizes, and as a friend recently pointed out, I’m one of “those” birdwatchers.  As Terry Tempest Williams writes, “The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated.”   How can one not be comforted by the dark green and snow white plumage of ducks, or admire their fidelity to place, migrating in a choreographed annual cycle that spans continents and is embedded in their genes?

bosque del apache snow geese fly in

Sandhill Cranes, Bosque del Apache

Even at the refuge, the daily cycle of the birds quickly becomes apparent even to the casual observer–en masse movements to and from the nighttime safety of water to daytime fields for what seems like a very conversation-filled meal.  Arriving with the focal length of a landscape photographer, I wanted to photograph the feeling of the place, rather than individual birds, to capture the visceral excitement of an evening fly-in or fly-out.

Top all of this off with a green chile cheeseburger at the Owl Bar, and it wasn’t a bad trip at all.

snow geese on an evening fly out, bosque del apache

Snow geese, Bosque del Apache

Sandhill Cranes flying at sunset

A visit to Joshua Tree, part 1

Monday, July 12th, 2010

Last week, a friend and I headed out to Joshua Tree National Park in search of summer wildlife.  There’s no doubt the desert is not a fun place in July–we started the first of three hikes in 80+ degree temperatures and ended up hiking in 100+ degrees, but it was a productive trip.

We started the day near the Black Rock Campground in hopes of finding Scott’s Orioles to photograph.  We did see several orioles, but they buzzed by at top speed, with no interest in stopping for us to photograph them.  Instead, we did find several very accommodating Ash-throated Flycatchers, and I got some nice shots of these pleasant birds.  To see all of my Ash-throated Flycatcher images, click here.

ash-throated flycatcher, joshua tree national park, california

Ash-throated Flycatcher, July 2010

After spending a couple of hours hiking in this area, we headed over to the 49 Palms Oasis trail, which is a fantastic place to photograph Chuckwallas and Collared Lizards.  We weren’t successful in finding many Chuckwallas, but we did find a few flashy and cooperative Collared Lizards.  These are some of my favorites, and I was very happy to find some that were so willing to let us photograph them.  To see all of my Collared Lizard images, click here.

great basin collared lizard, joshua tree national park, california

Great Basin Collared Lizard, July 2010

Great Basin Collared Lizard, joshua tree national park, california

Great Basin Collared Lizard, July 2010

When its over 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside, its easy to see why these heat-loving lizards would seek refuge in the bushes rather than the rocks–its much cooler!  Even in the upper photo, you can see the lizard’s toes lifted off the rock–presumably they stay cooler this way.

After these two very hot hikes, we headed into the main part of the park to look for antelope ground squirrels and dragonflies.  No squirrels were to be found, but we did find a scavenger-like scrub jay, as well as several dragonflies, including a new one for me: red saddlebags.

scrub jay, joshua tree national park, california

Western Scrub Jay, July 2010

Red Saddlebags, July 2010

In addition to this, we found several desert bighorn sheep (future post), and a few other cool things.  Despite the heat, it was a great day in our local National Park!

Bolsa Chica Wetlands

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

Although I don’t normally consider myself a bird photographer, or much of a bird photographer, I do enjoy getting out to our local wildlife areas now and then.  Last week, I met Mac at Bolsa Chica Wetlands near Huntington Beach for an early morning, pre-work photo session.  I work about 10 minutes from Bolsa Chica so its the perfect place to hit before work during the week.  On weekends, you can expect to find several photographers on the bridge across the bay, all with more expensive glass than I can afford.  But, during the week, you have the occasional walker or runner, but otherwise it is just you and the birds.

image of pied-billed grebe at bolsa chica wetlands

Pied-billed Grebe, April 2010

Ecologically, Bolsa Chica is very important.  It provides a rich feeding ground for several migratory species of passerines and water birds.  It also has several unvegetated islands that provide a safe breeding ground for the endangered California Least Tern.  In a nearby eucalyptus grove you can find nesting Great Blue Herons, and multiple species of raptors are also common, including Red-tailed Hawks, Red-shouldered Hawks, American Kestrels, and Peregrine Falcons.  You can also find the uncommon Belding’s Savannah Sparrow here.

Common tern landing at Bolsa Chica Wetlands

Common Tern, April 2010

As the seasons pass, you have the opportunity to shoot many species here.  Right now, several species of tern (Least, Common, Elegant, Forster’s, etc…) are beginning to get active near the bridge and with some luck you can get some good flight shots of these species (I quickly learned this is much easier said than done…see some results here and here).  In winter, you can photograph Brown Pelicans in breeding plumage.  Shorebirds like sandpipers and larger birds like egrets are present all year.

Common egret at bolsa chica wetlands

Common Egret, April 2010

In addition to birds, there is the opportunity to photograph wildflowers, sunrises/sunsets and various other fauna (rabbits, southern Pacific rattlesnakes) at the wetlands.  With this in mind, if you’re in the area, its worth your while to stop and spend a few hours at Bolsa Chica Wetlands.

sunrise in California

Sunrise over Bolsa Chica Wetlands, December 2009

Abstract Wild Animal Park photos

Monday, April 5th, 2010

A few posts ago, I talked about a great day at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park.  Its a fantastic place to visit, but with large crowds and harsh midday light, photographing animals can be difficult.  Maybe I’m just in an abstract mood lately, but I found a lot of interesting patterns in bird feathers, etc.  One particular shot I liked was of a Chilean Flamingo (Phoenicopterus chilensis), which I’ve honestly never found to be a photogenic bird (at least not in captivity).

By underexposing the image by 1 2/3 stops, I was able to largely blacken the background, and introduce some contrast to the contours of the feathers.  That allowed me to boost the vibrance and saturation a bit, giving an eye-popping splash of color to the Flamingo I’ve always struggled with.

Flamingo feathers, detail

Chilean Flamingo, detail

Not only have I been in an abstract mood lately, I’ve also been in a black and white mood.  Thus, I converted this to black and white as well, really cranking the red channel up to make it contrasty.

Flamingo feathers, detail black and white

Black and White

I like both of these a lot, for different reasons?  Do you have a favorite?  I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

A visit to Bolsa Chica wetlands

Saturday, December 19th, 2009

The last two posts, I’ve shared sunrises from Bolsa Chica Bay and wetlands near Huntington Beach.  Although I didn’t plan it this way, yesterday morning my friend Mark and I went out there to see if any birds were active.  We arrived before dawn, and were able to photograph a pretty sunrise before walking out on the bridge to photograph passing birds.  I think it has been just about a year since I’ve visited Bolsa Chica, and at least that long since I’ve made an outing to just photograph birds.  It felt a little awkward, but good, to be “back in the saddle again.”

I’m still in the process of editing images, but here are a couple of my favorites from yesterday.  The Kestrel was taken with Mark’s 800/5.6 + 2x converter; with the 1.6x crop factor on my 30D, that’s 2560 mm focal length!  I don’t know if it will blow up for a big print, but I am happy to have been able to add a Kestrel to my portfolio.

American Kestrel, Falco sparverius

American Kestrel, Falco sparverius, December 2009

Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, December 2009

Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis, December 2009