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Weather or Not

Braving bad weather can offer us good opportunities.

November 28, 2019 Birds

Yesterday at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge was a typically-mild late- autumn day in New Mexico. The temperature rose from the low 40s at dawn to the mid 50s by lunch. The weather was calm and so were the sandhill cranes and snow geese I came to photograph.

Today was a whole different season. As predicted, the temperatures dropped overnight and so did six inches of wet, heavy snow. The scene outside my motel room window was a slushy snow-globe world illuminated by street lights. Sunrise was two hours away, but there was a slim chance of seeing it.

I had two choices: crawl back into a warm bed and wake up later for a hot breakfast or get ready now, grab coffee and a cold breakfast, dress in winter clothing, spend ten minutes clearing heavy snow off my SUV while wet flakes blow in my face, then cautiously drive another 40 minutes on slippery, snow-covered roads to the refuge.

It wasn't a hard choice. I was here and so were the birds. Weather or not.

Sandhill cranes in snow just before sunrise, Bosque del Apache NWR, New Mexico

So what's a tough day for making photographs? My definition revolves around conditions like dangerously-strong winds that rock the camera; driving rain or blowing sand that could damage my gear; dim, flat, lifeless light; an empty coffee mug. The last one is the only condition I can control.

But even though I can't change the weather, I can try to outlast it. Sometimes when I do and the conditions change, photographs beg to be made. That's what happened with the cranes in Bosque.

All night they stood in a shallow pond that protected them from predators. When the snowy weather arrived, they shook it off. Bundled in my own downy layers, so did I. About two dozen other photographers had the same quiet hopes that we would get some worthwhile light before the cranes flew off to the nearby croplands for breakfast just after dawn as they do every day.

What we got instead was soft light and wet flakes you could hear land on your rain jacket's hood and sleeves. The winds calmed a bit. The birds stirred a bit. Soon they began departing in small family groups of four or five birds, not as a flock like the snow geese do.

I'm not clairvoyant enough to know what the weather will be. And this weather wouldn't be my first choice if I was. But I wouldn't say "no" to cranes in snow. I dialed in a higher ISO and photographed birds as they lifted out of the water and banked away from the pond.

There are warm beds and hot breakfasts back in the everyday world. They'd have to wait. This morning was all about peaceable birds, soft snowflakes, muted light and hushed voices like we were in a church. Maybe it was all a prayer. And every shutter click was an "amen."


SUBJECT: Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) at Bosque del Apache NWR, New Mexico

CONDITIONS: Cold, calm, cloudy, wet snow; 28 degrees F

EQUIPMENT and SETTINGS: Nikon D850, Nikon 500mm f/4, Gitzo tripod, Really Right Stuff ball head, Wimberley Sidekick SK-100 gimbal head adapter, Camera Slicker rain cover for lens and body; Auto exposure, Matrix metering, FX format, Auto focus with back button, Continuous High shutter mode, Vibration Reduction off

EXPOSURE: 1/800 sec. at f/8, ISO 2500

A high ISO was essential here to get a fast-enough shutter speed for the birds flying in low light. Noise reduction was a worry for later -- I won't want to remove all of the grainy look to the scene from the snowflakes and mist. The auto-focus back button proved its worth again. The lens held focus when I pressed it down as I tracked the flying cranes. My finger on the shutter button was free to fire when I held it down.

The Wimberley Sidekick gimbal head adapter was essential all week for tracking the birds in motion. It's a compromise between using a good ball head on the tripod or a full gimbal head. The Sidekick slips into the ball head's quick release connector. Then the long lens slides into the Sidekick's quick release. Now the lens and camera can pan and tilt smoothly and quickly in all directions. I'll talk more about it here soon. Until then, check it out here: wimberley sidekick gimbal

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