Dean M. Chriss
Winter Flight, Sandhill Cranes, Bosque Del Apache N.W.R.

Winter Flight, Sandhill Cranes, Bosque Del Apache

(Click image to enlarge)

At about 10°F with a constant wind, it was an abnormally cold December morning at New Mexico's Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. In fact it had been colder than normal for a week or so, which followed an abnormally warm spell. The good thing about cold weather here is that it brings tens of thousands of birds to the refuge. But on this morning it was so cold that most of the cranes tucked their feet up under their wings immediately after taking off instead of letting them trail behind as usual. This hides their legs entirely under their feathers, making them look like legless birds. That's not exactly photogenic. Since perhaps 80% of the birds were doing this and the chance of capturing a nice image of a group of flying cranes is small to begin with, I thought seriously about finding a warm spot in front of a hot cup of tea. But instead I stood there from about 30 minutes before sunrise until about an hour after, taking pictures as the legless cranes took off in small groups.

Groups of flying cranes are a common sight at Bosque Del Apache, but on previous trips I had always opted to go for situations that promised more success. This time I made the group images a priority even though I knew the majority (99.85% as it turned out) of my captures and time would be wasted. Since each member of any group must be nicely lit, posed, and positioned in addition to being sharp and properly exposed, there's no guarantee of any success. The worst problem is individuals in the groups being too far apart for the shallow depth of field produced by a 600mm lens, even when stopped down to F11 or F 16. Once in a while they were close enough together, but then some other factor was usually wrong. Often the birds appear to be overlapping one another, which destroys the image. But one day at nine minutes after sunrise all of the factors were right during the instant shown in the image above.