I’m on a dirt road in the middle of a farm field. The cut stalks of corn sit on one side of the road reaching out for what must be a kilometer or more before pressing up against the edge of the cypress swamp. On the other side, winter wheat. This is wildlife management, North America style.
I’m working the edges of fields on a National Wildlife Refuge that was put in place for the sole purpose of protecting wintering waterfowl. These days, it harbors a whole lot more. Black bears, whitetail deer, bobcats, and the real jewel of the place: red wolves. This is 277 square kilometers of protected coastal plain, an admixture of blackwater creeks the consistency of Guinness, an assortment of grain fields grown for the express purpose of migrating waterfowl, pocosins (meaning swamp on a hill in the native Algonquian language) and wildlife. Lots of wildlife.
Technically I’m here looking for American black bears, but I’m not being picky today. Its Fall. Or well, technically Autumn. Us Americans like to interchange the two, but there is a difference. Fresh bear tracks have been conspicuously missing this morning. My best guess is that the prints I’m seeing along this dirt road are a few days old.
There is a distinct oddness about the landscape up the road that I feel myself strangely being pulled towards like a siren’s song at sea. A few hundred meters a head, everything changes. Well, sort of. It’s still dirt road and corn and wheat and ditches and Autumn. But it’s all black. The road is black. The fields are black. The whole place seems to be moving.
Red winged beauties
I bring the truck to a stop some 50 meters out. Binoculars to eyeballs, I realize what I should have already known. Red winged blackbirds. But this isn’t just a big flock of these guys, this is something different. This is something that defies belief. Something I find myself wholly astonished in the presence of. I’m pretty sure my mouth was open.
I grabbed my 200-400mm lens and slid out of the truck. The mass of birds were moving toward me. They covered everything in my field of vision. The sheer magnitude of these birds was unfathomable. Hundreds of thousands? Millions? I can’t place a number on it. I just know that it was extraordinary.
Around these parts, few so much as lift an eyebrow in response to a red winged blackbird. Yet this wasn’t just a bird. It was something innumerable. In his environmental classic, Henry Beston wrote in the Outermost House about the constellations of shorebirds he watched in migration. I have chewed on this for years. I like it. I like the image it invokes. But it is now obvious to me that Beston was never so fortunate as to see that which is currently playing out before me.
The migration is at hand, a time when many of the animals of the Northern Hemisphere are on the move. Elk are beginning to travel down from the high country to the lower valleys. Shorebirds that nested on the high arctic are flooding our beaches creating those constellations that Beston waxed so poetically about in the 1930s. Waterfowl are filing in by the tens of thousands to the estuary behind my little cabin on the barrier islands I’m calling home for the winter. Even salamanders are on the move from Massachusetts to Montana. Seasons are changing. Soon, the north will be in the grips of winter. In some places, it already is.
The mass movements of the World’s animals are driven by a simple set of circumstances. It’s what drives all life on Earth. We can talk about all the various factors, obstacles and nuances of each species and their natural history and responses to the natural world. But in the end, it all boils down to just two things: food and sex. The need to feed and the need to breed. What else could be so important as to convince so many to risk everything, leaving the comfort of the familiar, and for some, traveling entire continents and ocean basins?
When photographing the migration, choices are to be made. The nature of these events presents the well-prepared wildlife photographer with options. At face value, there are the hordes of individuals we find all in movement together. This is the obvious. The blast off of 100,000 snow geese. The throngs of northern pintails. But peel back the layers of excitement in response to such abundance, and we find the individuals in the midst of the struggle for life. Due to the numbers, they feel a degree of safety, due to the preoccupations with eating you can find yourself in positions to shoot that are often not possible otherwise without blinds.
The waiting game
Given that these red winged blackbirds are infinitely more concerned with filling their bellies than they are with me, I decide to wait. They are moving in my direction. It’s always better when the wildlife approaches you than chasing after them.
The feeding pattern is much like snow geese. As the flock moves forward, those toward the rear are left with the leftovers. In response to this, they rise up and fly above the rest of the flock to land on the leading edge. In this way, the entire flock is steadily moving; the rear lifting into the air, flying forwards, and landing. Who was once first becomes last and the whole thing rolls again. They are many. They are one. A singular living organism. Moving, rolling, consuming all. And they are doing so straight towards me.
Within minutes, I find myself completely engulfed in red winged blackbirds. The sounds of their wings, the flush of air from the beating of their feathers, they are all around me. There is no horizon. No sky. Only a three-dimensional tapestry of black, red and yellow. These may just be red winged blackbirds, but this was one of the coolest experiences of my life – and I do this sort of stuff for a living.
When autofocus is useless
Enveloped in this swirling vortex of entropy that is this foraging flock of birds, autofocus is useless. There is too much going on. Too much confusion. I manually focus once and leave it at that. Some birds will be in focus, some will not. Likewise, I’m locked and loaded in manual exposure: f/8 for depth, 1/125sec to emphasize the movement. For me, that is what the photos here are all about: movement. It’s an artistic choice we make. Stop the action? Or let it blur out just a touch for emphasis? Neither is right or wrong. It’s your artistic vision. It’s the story you are trying to communicate.
Be it red winged blackbirds, snow geese, northern pintails, or neotropical warblers, the great migrations of planet Earth are a thing of beauty to behold and offer us epic opportunities for photography. Like the changing of the seasons, wildlife ebbs and flows with those seasons. And there is no passport or visa required to take advantage of these great wildlife spectacles. The migration turns farm fields, old dirt roads, hedgerows, beaches, grasslands and every forest behind our homes into a stage for one of the greatest shows on Earth.