Archive for February, 2009

NRAO-VLA

Sunday, February 15th, 2009
NRAO-VLA

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array is a mere 46 miles to the west of Socorro along U.S. Highway 60.  After two decent evenings in the refuge, I had planned to spend my third evening in the area at the VLA.  When I emerged from this room after editing and a shower, I was disappointed to see that the entire sky was covered in a blanket of high, thick overcast.  One lesson I have learned is to never alter my photo plans based on the weather at my current location.  I knew it was likely that the area of the VLA would likely have the same cloud cover, but I still wanted to see the array.  I had wanted to see it for decades, and being this close, I couldn’t pass it up.  Besides, the crappy light here would not lead to worthwhile wildlife photos. 

The drive up into the high desert scrub brush area was really quite lovely.  I repeatedly noted scenes I would love to have photographed, given that the sun was out.  And the angle of the sun would have been perfect for great shots.  I still managed to stop for a few scenes that demanded my attention. 

The VLA is an impressive feature on the landscape.  Twenty-seven massive satellite dishes, measuring 82 feet in diameter, forming a Y with nine dishes on each vector.  I could explain what the VLA does, how it works, but why not just quote from the VLA web site:  “The VLA is an interferometer; this means that it operates by multiplying the data from each pair of telescopes together to form interference patterns. The structure of those interference patterns, and how they change with time as the earth rotates, reflect the structure of radio sources on the sky: we can take these patterns and use a mathematical technique called the Fourier transform to make maps.”  As they note at the Visitor Center, when they filmed the pivotal scenes from “Contact” at the VLA, the movie makers took a little creative license to make the magic happen – the VLA is not for listening to space noise.  

One of the things I learned about the array that really surprised me is that the dishes not only rotate, but can be moved out along their axis from the control center along a railing.  Depending on the experiment being run, the dishes will need to be closer to each other or farther apart.  They can be as condensed as all within 0.4 miles on their axis from the compound, or spread out as far as 13 miles away.  It’s hard to judge distances, but it looked like they were about a quarter of a mile apart from each other when I was there. 

Guided tours are rarely given at the VLA, so when you go there, you are on your own with the limited walking tour, centered around the building compounds at the heart of the array.  On my way around, I happened upon several jackrabbits, doing jackrabbit things.  One, who noticed that I was about to take a picture of him just when I had him in focus, decided to leap into the air and bound off into the shrub brush for cover. 

All around the loop

Sunday, February 15th, 2009
All around the loop

Once the geese have moved on to the farm fields to the north to feed for the day, the only thing left to do for the next hour or two, before the light gets too harsh, is to drive around and look for opportunities.  Since I have previously only driven the Farm Loop, I thought to take the wider route going out on the Marsh Loop.  It’s quite a bit different than the look of the farm loop, much more like a wooded marshland than the captured ponds and canals of the Farm Loop.  It’s quite beautiful in several areas, and I made mental notes on where to return for first light tomorrow after the flight of the geese.

Along the way, I catch a flight of cranes, a little late in making their way north to join where most of the cranes have gathered.  A buck mule deer also suprises me.  I had begun to wonder if I was going to see any kind of wildlife other than birds in the refuge.  There was the coyote that ran across Highway 1 in front of me this morning, but hardly a photo op.  I pull over along a particularly picturesque marsh setting and set up my tripod to take the featured image, when I notice some sort of owl far away in a tree.  The coloring of the breast and shape of head tell me it’s an owl, but it is too far away, even with the 500mm, to get an idea of what it is. 

On the way north out of the refuge, I stop at the Visitor Center to spend some time with a rather large group of redwing blackbirds clustering in several of the trees in the area.  A pristine pond plays host to a gaggle of ducks further north on a pond to the west of the highway; another good morning scenic location. 

Geese of a morning

Sunday, February 15th, 2009
Geese of a morning

Heading out to capture the birds at dusk in Bosque is a bit unlike any other photo location.  Normally, when you are a photographer, you are generally alone in the dark and the cold, waiting for the light to come and wash its warmth and color across the landscape.  But in Bosque, with the birds following somewhat of a daily routine, and the sun coming up at a certain time, you are never alone in the dark.  In fact, once you take the Highway 380 exit off of Interstate 25, you find yourself among a stretched out line of cars, all heading to one place for one purpose.  You are one of many photographers, joined by a host of birders.  The families with the annoying rock-throwing children, fortunately, are too lazy to get up that early. 

At first glance at the main pond this morning, shortly after 6:00 a.m., there was no sight of the geese.  Joined by Roy, Mark, Eric, Donna and Cathy, we decided to go around the Farm Loop to see if the geese were at their late-afternoon spot yesterday.  No sign of them.  By the time we got back to the main pond, a moderate-sized group had formed.   Several waves come in, one by one, to join the main group, forming a large flotilla, the size of which I would not know how to estimate.  There were some thin, high altitude clouds in the skies, adding a nice detail that was absent yesterday. 

Consistent with yesterday, a massive group of geese exploded from the water and took the skies the moment that the sun came up over the mountains to the east.  But different from yesterday, a smaller group, but still numbered in at least the thousands, remained behind to bathe in the warm light of the sun.  This presented a nice opportunity to capture the geese in warm side lighting, and added a nice bonus to the morning.  But, eventually they left as well, joining the group in the fields to the north. 

A gathering place

Saturday, February 14th, 2009
A gathering place

Bosque del Apache is a superb gathering place for birds, as well as photographers.  At 57,191 acres, it provides a wide variety of habitat to birds of all needs, whether the dust traveling road runner I photographed earlier today, or the snow geese who favor the more wet areas of the refuge.  These days, the birds are not being predictable, as I noted earlier.  This evening, the snow geese and cranes decided to settle down in a completely different part of the refuge than they did yesterday.  I don’t know if this means that they will stay there for the night and I will have to look for them there in the morning.  It will probably be prudent to get to the park as early as they allow visitors and scout out the morning location.  I think it makes much more sense this way.  Wildlife should never be too predictable.  They are wild animals after all. 

Of course, all of these birds in one place brings a lot of people who are interested in observing and photographing them.  Birders and photographers fill out the vast majority of the visitors here.   Then there was the annoying family who not only allowed their screaming children to thrash about in the bushes near the main gathering of snow geese and cranes, but joined with their children in throwing rocks into the water.  I was too baffled and in a state of disbelief to say anything, like, “Take your children to the McDonald’s playground in Socorro, please.” 

But, back to this being a gathering place.  Since NANPA is holding its annual conference in Albuquerque in a few days, there is probably a higher concentration of photographers in the refuge at this time of the year than usual.  I am pleased to be in the field again with my friend Cathy Hart from Anchorage, along with other ASONP colleagues Jim and Robin from Anchorage.  Then, as circles of friends go, joining us today as well are Cathy’s friends Eric and Donna from Louisiana, as well as professional photographer Roy Toft from California and his friend Mark, from Canada.  As several of us sat having drinks and dinner at the Socorro Springs Restaurant & Brewery this evening, I felt a warmth, not just from the beer, but from the added bonus of being a nature photographer that I get to know such fine people. 

San Antonio

Saturday, February 14th, 2009
San Antonio

As you travel down Highway 1 to the refuge from Highway 380, you pass through a small town, if it can even be called that, of San Antonio.   It is a collection of scattered homes, a rail yard, some industry, and a church.  On my way back to my hotel room, after the light was too harsh for shooting wildlife, I stopped to capture some of the character of what I could see from the road. 

Around the loop

Saturday, February 14th, 2009
Around the loop

After my chance encounter with the roadrunner, I continued on around the Farm Loop to see what I could find. I wanted to at least catch a glimpse of where the snow geese and sandhill cranes go during the day before they return to the ponds for the evening.  Along the way, I saw all sorts of birds and waterfowl, from the bald eagle being harassed by the crows in the main pond to a glimpse of the daytime location for the geese and cranes. 

Road encounter

Saturday, February 14th, 2009
Road encounter

As I first started my way east along the Farm Loop, I saw some movement along the side of the road.  A roadrunner skimpered away from the shoulder of the road and into the bushes.  But as I continued down the road, I saw him in my rear view mirror back along the shoulder of the road again.  I pulled over, grabbed my tripod and camera, and walked back along the road.  Surprisingly, he not only let me approach me, but eventually worked his way down the road, passing me along the way. 

I am going to have to do some research about road runner behavior to understand what he was doing.  He wold make his way along the road, then stop and look into the bushes.  After a few seconds, he would puff out his feathers and sometimes chat into the bushes.  My guess is that he is looking for some love.  I would think it would be a bit early for that, but, hey, it is Valentine’s Day.  He simply kept repeating the behavior over and over, until he disappeared along a side maintenance road in the refuge. 

Sandhill Cranes

Saturday, February 14th, 2009
Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill cranes are a bit more interesting to observe for the long haul compared to the snow geese.  Sure, the snow geese are fun to listen to, constantly chattering back and forth, rising and falling sometimes in volume.  But the action is limited to the short bursts when they take off and go somewhere else.  Cranes, particularly in the mornings, are a hoot.  While many are still trying to get as much out of their night’s sleep as possible, others are strutting around, chatting at each other, sometimes hopping and dancing, all along the way to the take off zone. 

First morning

Saturday, February 14th, 2009
First morning

Nature can be a funny thing.  I have read countless logs, journals, articles and commentaries on how mornings go at Bosque del Apache.  The geese in the refuge now aparently did not get the memo.  Normally, they do their mass take-off about a half hour before sunrise.  This morning, as another fellow Anchorage photographer, Jim Liebetz was asking, “I wonder what makes them all take off at once?”, the sun peeked over the horizon and their was an explosion of birds.  I had set up my digital with a shutter cable so I wouldn’t have to look through the viewfinder; instead, my attention was on the viewfinder in my Hassleblad.  While my right hand was clicking away on the D300, my left hand was on the cable release for the Hassleblad as I looked through the viewfinder waiting for the right composition of birds filling the morning sky.  Click. 

After the geese did their thing, I moved over to the “Flight Deck,” a viewing platform along the main pond, to photograph the cranes for a while.  Unlike the geese, the cranes work in smaller groups and, much like aircraft at an airport, take turns “taxiing” to the main take off area. 

Down in Bosque

Friday, February 13th, 2009
Down in Bosque

I flew down to Albuquerque today via Salt Lake City.  Funny how, from the airport, Salt Lake City reminds me of Anchorage.  While standing there waiting at the airport for my connecting flight, I looked over and standing by a bank of phones along the wall – yes, there are still payphones out there – was Wes Studi.  He had been in Anchorage for a few days talking to the youth of Anchorage about the importance of having dreams and following them.  An admirer of his work over the years, I had to thank him for his visit to Anchorage and tell him how much I have enjoyed his many movies.  He was on his way back to his home in Santa Fe, an exceptionally beautiful part of New Mexico.  Me, I was heading to the southern part of the state to spend a few days photographing prior to the NANPA Summit in Alququerque. 

First stop, the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge south of the town of Socorro.  Considered one of the premiere birding locations in the United States (along with Gambell, Alaska, if you can believe that), it is a large wintering grounds for snow geese and sandhill cranes, among many other bird species.  The current population numbers are about 23,000 snow geese and 14,000 sandhill cranes.  I will be spending a few days here, shooting in the mornings and evenings, exploring different ponds and areas where the birds gather and move throughout the day.