Its one thing to photograph animals at the zoo - but something completely different in the wild. I've never had much luck with wildlife. Animals usually like me but don't seem to cooperate when the cameras come out.
I'm not much of an outdoorsman either - my idea of roughing it is checking into the nearest Motel 6. I don't like being too hot, or too cold - and sleeping on the ground, in a sleeping bag? Forget it! If I can't take a warm morning shower and relieve myself in a sanitary porcelain convenience - I ain't doin' it! :-)
But, when the opportunity to photograph real wildlife in a nature preserve, close by - with hotels, running water and restaurants - I'll reconsider.
Well - this weekend my student and I traveled to Whitewater Draw Wildlife Reserve near Willcox, Arizona to try our luck with birds. Hearing there were thousands of Sandhill Cranes wintering over at this location, we figured the odds were better than average we might be able to get one or two of these animals "on film" - all the while roughing it in the nearby (57 miles) Holiday Inn Express.
Our plan -Saturday - drive to Willcox, AZ; spend the night in the posh Holiday Inn Express; rise very early Sunday morning (4:30 am) and make the drive to Whitewater Draw to photograph the Cranes at sunrise - if they were there.
Saturday Morning . . .
Leaving Tucson late Saturday morning, we arrived in Willcox just in time for a liesurely lunch at the Big Tex BBQ around 12:30 pm. Replenished, and armed with a map of nearby sites where Sandhills had been sighted, we decided to take a drive around the Willcox Playa in search of the supposedly plentiful photographic prey. First stop - Coshise Lake - a small watering hole just a mile south of town. We drove around the entire lake - spotting a few ducks and small song birds but no sign of Sandhills anywhere.
Not yet discouraged we proceeded south down Kansas Settlement Road on the east side of the Playa - the map indicating numerous areas where Cranes were known to feed during the day. Miles and minutes passed. At each indicated site - no Cranes! To the bottom of the Playa we drove, turned west then north and up the west side of the Playa - looking, looking - no Cranes! No Cranes anywhere! We proceeded up US 191 back toward Willcox and the Apache Station Wildlife Viewing Station next to the Apache Power Plant. Surely, there must be Cranes there.
Arriving at the viewing station we were greeted by several power plant employees manning a booth with free infromation and refreshments. A free soda, a potty break, and a breif conversation with the well informed volunteers - we were able to spot four (yes "4") Sandhill Cranes at what seemed to be about a half mile away in high grass, visible only with the extraordinary aid of 30X binoculars! Geez! This wasn't encouraging at all! We were getting worried now. Was this a portent of the views we could expect at Whitewater Draw?!?
From our current location, Whitewater was another hour drive south on US 191. It was getting late - (3:00 pm). We had only another two hours of daylight left. The thought of driving to Whitewater Draw in the dark the next morning and having nothing to photograph was daunting.
A decision was made. We bite the bullet, drive NOW to Whitewater and check out the venue before it got too late to see in the fading light. Find out if there were any Cranes - if not - slink back to Tucson and lick our wounds.
4 pm - we arrive at Whitwater Draw Wildlife Reserve. Pulling into the dusty parking lot only a few cars are present. This is a bad sign. The WOW (Wings Over Willcox) festival was in full swing this particular weekend (something we had hoped to avoid by arriving on Sunday instead of Saturday) and there were supposed to be numerous tours and public outreach programs in progress all over the Sulphur Valley - including Whitewater Draw. We expected to be fighting our way through throngs of birders and photographers - if there were really any birds here!
Looking through the windshield of the van we could see only trees, grass and a couple of elevated dirt berms that served as walking paths into the Draw. No signs of birds - certainly not the tens of thousands of Sandhills purported to be in the area. I shut off the engine of the car. We paused and proceeded to open the doors - planning a short walk to confirm our fears then head home with dashed photographic plans.
The air was still. No wind. But there was noise. A din of noise. A sound like nothing I've ever heard before. Like geese, but not like geese - lots of them - somewhere in the distance but not too far. They're here!
We grabbed our cameras, tripods, lenses and accessories and proceeded to march along the pathway to the north. And there they were - Sandhills, hundreds of them, huddled together in the low shallow waters of the Draw's ponds. Still quite distant from the viewing stations, but within range of our longest lenses. We felt relieved and just a little excited.
We setup our equipment next to one of the elevated viewing stations and began filling memory cards with Sandhill images. Smiles all around.
Wanting a better, closer venue I decided to pick up my equipment and head further along the path in search of a cleaner vantage point. A half mile up the berm the path ended and I found myself in among several other birders and photographers imaging what appeared to be the largest of the gatherings of Sandhills visible from the limited venues of the Draw. It was getting late - sunset was approaching rapidly now. As I setup at the new venue I struck up a conversation with another Canon shooter sporting a nice 300mm F/2.8L IS lens, tripod and Canon 5D Mark II camera. His voice sounded very familiar, and as I introduced myself he turned and reached out his hand and said - "I'm Guy - Guy Atchley". Yep - the Channel 9 News Anchor from KGUN TV in Tucson! Nice guy (no pun intended) and a good photographer too!
As we spoke and shot, the last of the Sandhills began returning from the fields. Great flocks of them, at times completely filling the frame of my 5D Mark II, 400mm F/2.8L IS lens and 2X teleconveter. (I know - the 2X converter really sucks! But at the distances we had to work with - its was a necessary evil.)
As the sun set, I was getting worried about my student - Frank, and, after saying my goodbyes to Guy, trodded off the see how Frank was progressing. On the way back I happened upon a rather loud flock of Yellow Headed Blackbirds returning to the Draw in search of a communal roost for the night. They would, en masse, fly from one set of Cat Tail reeds to the next making a sound not unlike a troop of agitated monkeys.
It was so dark by now that even at an ISO setting of 1600 and the necessary F/13 to achieve even a modicum of Depth of Field, shutter speeds were so impossibly slow that motion blur was all but certain to destroy any chance of freeezing the hyperactivity of these little beasts. Out came my trusty 580EX flash equipped with a fresnel lens to concentrate the beam at the 20 meter distances I was working.
By the time I found Frank, it was nearly dark and we decided to return to Willcox, eat dinner, and get some rest before our early morning return to the Draw for the sunrise ascension of the Sandhills.
Sunday Morning . . .
We woke early, 4 am, performed the morning "SSS" rituals, packed the van, checked out of the hotel, grabbed a cup of Joe at the local Circle K and were on the road to the Draw by 5 am.
Sunrise was due at 7:21 am and we arrived at the Draw at a little after 6 am. It was dark, very dark. It was cold, very cold. Anticipating this we had equipped ourselves with flashlights and dressed in layers - four layers for me - as I said - I don't like being cold.
Flashlights in hand, we proceeded to gather the photo equipment for the march to the most remote part of the Draw accessible by humans. Just as we were about to leave, Guy arrived and after a brief greeting, we trodded out together.
The wait seemed interminable. As the sky slowly brightened, we could see great masses of airborne Sandhills in the distance - flying north - away from our location! The cranes closer to us seemed to stay put - waiting for sunrise proper I guess - leaving the early risers to fly to the more distant fields to the north. (I know the feeling - just a few more minutes after the alarm goes off in the morning . . .)
Clouds made for a spectacular sunrise. Pinks and reds, Blues, Yellows and Gold painted the southeastern sky.
Finally, with fingers nearly numb from the cold and our faces red with the sting of the morning air - the locals flew.
The day had begun, and all was right - at the Draw.
Shortly after sunrise, we returned to the van to warm our chilled hands and feet, review the events of the last hour and plan the rest of the day. We ventured away from the draw in search of the Crane's feeding grounds - in the fallow corn fields to the north. We had limited success. A few Cranes were found in fields to the north and east of the Draw - but were pretty camera shy and still required 800mm or better to only partially fill the frames of our cameras.
Lunch at the Elfrieda Steakhouse was tasty. Some more photography of the local "architecture" (old dilapidated farm houses) and local fauna rounded out our pursuits for the early afternoon before the return to the Draw . . .
Vermillion Flycatchers . . .
Road runners . . .
And yes . . . a snipe! Really - it really is a snipe! A "Wilson's Snipe" or so I was told.
After our return to the Draw, we spent the remaider of the day improving upon or previous efforts. Digital photography is such a wonderful thing - being able to review the images as you take them and learn from the mistakes of the shot before has greatly improved the photographic skills of even the most hardened pro. I know I learned alot - like I should sell all my cameras and take up something easier and less demanding - like - I don't know - computer programming?
All in all - the expedition was a success. I had fun and had a good student who - I hope learned something from me. I learned that Sandhills are shy, noisy, and not all that attractive. Wildlife photography is challenging and frustrating at times. I thnk I'll leave it to the real pros . . .