A black pickup passes me on the dark stretch of highway between Sand Antonio and the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. It is not quite 6:00 AM and only the faintest light on the eastern horizon distinguishes the still black mesa from the almost black sky. I don’t drive too fast here as the road is narrow with no indication of a shoulder.
When I reach the Bosque del Apache Tour Loop, I drive out to the flight deck, which is my favorite place to set up camera and tripod for shots of the snow geese and Sandhill Cranes as they do their morning fly-out. I pull into the parking lot next to the black pickup that passed me only moments ago. There are only a couple other vehicles here at this time of the morning. The flight deck is reached by a little walking bridge that takes me to a platform over the water. I set up my tripod and camera in the dark, check the settings, decide on a high ISO setting, wide-open aperture, and no polarizer to get shots at first light. Then I wait patiently, sipping hot tea from my thermos, listening for the birds to stir and watching the slowing increasing glow on the horizon in front of me.
I am warmly dressed, as it is cold out here at this time of day -the water near the edge of the pond is frozen – but even so, my hands get cold as I take gloves off to handle camera dials. Soon more and more people arrive. Some, like me, come with cameras and tripods, others have point and shoot cameras, some just hold up cell phone to take photos, quite a few come with binoculars, others with dogs or small children. Old and young come here every morning to watch the natural spectacle of thousands of birds flying up from the yet dark and silent pond.
Now I can hear the snow geese stirring. They sound like a bunch of yappy little dogs. Usually none of the snow geese flocks are close to the flight deck, but this morning there is a small flock not far out. The Sandhill cranes are way over on the other side of the pond, looking like black lumps as they stand sleeping with their heads tucked under their wings. The light from the still hidden sun brings a glow to the horizon, slightly illuminating the pond.
Then the yapping becomes strident and with a roaring whirr, thousands of snow geese rise up out of the water on the far side of the pond. The density of their wings and bodies darkens the horizon. There is not enough light to get good clear photos, but I shoot like crazy anyway, filled with unexplainable joy at the sound of this mass exodus from the pond. This happens several times as flocks of thousands rise up one after another.
The sky becomes a more intense golden color on the eastern horizon and the water on the far side of the pond takes on a deep orange hue. I can see the cranes still looking like so many black lumps out there in their orange pool. All over the pond, ducks are busily feeding, spending most of their time with heads under water and tails tipped skyward. By now I have changed my ISO and aperture several times in relationship to the available light. The sky pales and then right at the horizon an intense white glow signals the rising of the sun. A lingering flock of snow geese to the south of the flight deck rises with a whirr and crosses over us on its way to the feeding grounds to the north. They fly so close and fast, I am unable to photograph them, but I am thrilled to see their bodies glowing golden as the light of the just-risen sun catches them in flight.
Now I turn my attention back to the cranes, who, as they awaken, make a gurgling cooing sort of sound. The cranes begin walking slowly northward and as they cross the beam of sunlight reflected on the pond, I take photos of them. Now and then some of them take flight, but most are still pond-walking until they are out of my line of sight.
Two bald eagles are spotted in the dead tree across the pond from the flight deck. I change lenses to get a closer shot of them. I have seen them in that tree on previous trips to Bosque del Apache, but it is exciting to see them again. I know this is not the best angle to get a good photo of them, but it will have to do for this morning.
I take a few more shots of ducks bobbing about near the flight deck before reluctantly packing up my camera and tripod. Daylight is here, the geese and cranes are gone for the day, and it is time for me to head back to Socorro where Clifford is waiting. I am sorry he has missed this morning’s outing, but we will be back this afternoon to witness the fly-in as 24 thousand snow geese and over 11 thousand Sandhill cranes return to the safety of the pond for the night.