I heard it before I even knew what it was. There was a sound that reminded me of a jet airplane taking off. It was so real that I started looking around for a runway. Then I saw it. The sky, bathed with the pink glow of the sunrise, literally went dark with tens of thousands of snow geese.
This was why I came to Bosque del Apache. The birds. Tens of thousands of them. Particularly sandhill cranes and snow geese. They leapt into the sky, wave upon wave. Driven by instinct and almost as if on cue, they made their departure northward for the farm fields that provide them with their sustenance.
It was over in less than 30 seconds. My entire body was tingling with excitement. I was both elated and sad at the same time. I was elated because I’d just witnessed one of the most spectacular scenes nature has to offer. I was sad because it was over so quickly.
The sights and sounds of the morning “fly-out” near Bosque’s famed “Flight Deck” were worth the trip, even if I hadn’t made a single picture.
Bosque del Apache (Woods of the Apache) is a 57,191-acre national wildlife refuge, 18 miles south of Socorro, New Mexico. Created by diverting water from the Rio Grande to create extensive wetlands, it borders the the Chupadera and San Pascual Mountains.
More than 300 species of birds migrate to the Bosque each year. During any visit, you may see great blue herons, mallards, snowy egrets, sandhill cranes, roadrunners, Ross, Canadian and snow geese, bald eagles, Coopers and red-tailed hawks and wild turkeys. During the fall migration, it’s one of the largest concentrations of birds in the U.S.
The story of the geese, their migration to and from Bosque and the images I’ve made are a big part of my photographic career. And I wanted to share the story of this particular image, because I think you’ll be surprised. It was in the film days, for one thing, but that that isn’t all. It was made with less than perfect tools.
100 years ago, when I was shooting a Canon EOS 1N HS and slide film, I had to work a little more by faith. I had no histogram to check. I couldn’t make sure I’d protected the highlights. And I had to worry about getting dozens and dozens of rolls of film through security at the airport without it getting lost or damaged.
And unlike digital, you couldn’t just dump your memory card to a computer, erase it and go back to the field. In 1996, when I made this image, I’d been visualizing this scene, but I didn’t count on seeing it after being shut out of a decent sunrise on several previous trips.
I was shooting Fuji Velvia back then. It was a slow (ISO rated at 50 but most of us shot it at 40) slide film that offered rich, vibrant colors. On this trip, I thought I had two boxes of film with me, which under normal circumstances would have been just right. But what I discovered was that I had two boxes with me alright. It’s just that one of them was empty.
By the third evening, I’d shot hundreds of images and was excited because I heard light clouds were forecast in the morning with favorable western winds. That evening, as I set up for the next day, I opened up my second film box, only to find it empty. I panicked. I admit it. I probably even said a curse word or two or three or four hundred.
After regaining my composure, I decided it was no big deal, I’d just buy more film. Problem: Have you ever been to Socorro, New Mexico? At the time, the Motel 6 was the fanciest place in town, and short of buying disposable cameras and Polaroid film, there wasn’t a single roll of slide film for miles. Using the Yellow Pages (Before Google that’s how you found stuff) I found a Wal-Mart up the road at the town of Belen. I had just enough time to make it before they closed.
On the drive north from Socorro I thought about how foolish I was for not having a better process for packing my gear. Those who know me now consider my trip lists to be a bit excessive. Now, you know why.
I got to Wal-Mart having no idea what sort of film (if any) they carried, but I knew it was my last chance if I was going to get the sunrise. I was too embarrassed to ask one of the many photographers on the flight line if I could buy a roll or two to get me by. That would have been the smarter thing to do, but being hard-headed I decided to do it the hard way. (Editorial note: When prompted with a choice like this, in the future, always take the easy way. It’s, well, easier.)
I went to the area where they sold electronics and noted there was some Kodak consumer print film, but I couldn’t find any Fuji film at all, and at first, no slide film. I rarely shot print film and was afraid I’d have to try it. Just about then a pleasant young woman approached me and asked if I needed help. I replied something like, “Do I ever?”
I asked about slide film and she said they did indeed carry “professional slide film.” I was overjoyed….for about 10 seconds. At that point she brought out the “Wal-Mart Professional Slide Film” box. I had no idea who the original manufacturer of the film was. I knew it wasn’t Wal-Mart. It was rated at ISO 100 so I decided what the heck, I’ll try it. I bought five rolls thinking I’d drive in to Albuquerque the next afternoon and buy more Velvia.
So I drove back to Soccoro, dead tired. I set the alarm for 4:30 AM, climbed into bed and fell asleep. I had bad dreams that night. In my dreams I kept trying to make a photograph but was always out of film. I woke up the next morning far from rested. I decided to load my Canon EOS 1N bodies at the hotel room for fear someone on the flight line would see me loading Wal-Mart film into my sophisticated professional film body.
I got to the refuge in plenty of time.
I positioned myself 100 yards south of the famed Bosque Flight Deck. The Flight Deck, a boardwalk along the main pond, is often crowded with not only serious photographers, but bird watchers and tourists. This crowd can make it nearly impossible to get a good shot. I grabbed my Canon 20mm F/2.8 wide-angle lens went low on the bank of the pond. I looked for the best possible angle based on the wind, which thankfully was at my back.
Then it happened. The sound, the blast-off, 10 frames in two short five-frame bursts, the sky filling with birds, and the incredible rush of witnessing this event first-hand. I stood transfixed for a good five minutes. The birds were long gone, but I stood there anyway, basking in the aftermath.
If this had been 2006, instead of 1996, I’d just hit the preview button, check the camera’s LCD screen, and look at the result. But in 1996, I had to pull that roll of film, mark an “X” on the canister to remind me it was special, pack it in a plastic bag to avoid water damage, and take it back to the hotel room until the flight back home to Seattle. Only after taking the film to the lab would I really know what kind of photograph I’d made.
My local professional lab looked at me a bit cross-eyed when I handed them the “Wal-Mart Professional Slide Film” for dip and dunk processing. I didn’t even go back to my studio after I dropped the film off. I waited at the lab for the slides. I told them not to bother mounting them. I wanted to see the results as soon as possible.
I had my own loupe with me. When the lab guy walked back to the counter with a big smile on his face I knew I was in the clear. All 10 frames I shot of the fly-out were great. The images weren’t as pristine as they’d have been using Velvia, but they were close enough.
I’d done it. I captured an amazing moment despite not having all my favorite tools.
Sometimes you have to shoot with what you have. You just may be happily surprised by the result.
NOTE: Previously – I’ve licensed this image for editorial use, but never sold it as a print. I’m excited to announce that this image is my latest Master Gallery Print. For ordering information, visit my order page.