A Bright Day in New Mexico: Photographing Life on the Rio Grande

For the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday Mai and I got up well before dawn and drove down the Rio Grande Valley to watch the birds fly out of the Bosque at sunrise.  We’ve done this before but the silky movements of so many birds in flight together, their buoyancy in the air, their smooth and supple gracefulness, pulled us back for more.  We ended up spending the entire day there.

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There were not as many Sandhill Cranes and Snowgeese at the Bosque refuge as the last time we visited.  The guides at the Visitor Center told us the corn fields a little further north at the Bernardo Refuge were providing more abundant forage so there were more birds there.  We ended up spending sunset up at Bernardo.  There were still lots of serious looking photographers in the morning at the Bosque.

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I’ve always enjoyed listening to people talk as they walk by, at restaurants, or in any public place just to tune into the everyday vernacular.  You can tell a lot from small soundbites!  It is especially intriguing to hear people speak at National Parks, Monuments and Wildlife Refuges and on public lands.  So many retirees are experiencing America anew after all these years, and many hunting people have taken up tuning into wildlife with quick snapping cameras.  What really is striking is the joy and enthusiasm people express here at the Bosque.  Big smiles and faces aglow.  I’ve seen people awestruck by birds gliding overhead.  The rush, what a show!

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It reached 60 degrees by lunchtime but in the morning it was definitely below freezing.  Our hands were “permanently cold” as Mai put it.  But observing these birds waking up and easing into the day brings on a kind of euphoria.  Photographers high.  There is this rising feeling watching the easy athleticism as the birds take flight but at the same time their movements are basic, a harmonious chord that is true to life.  They get up and get on with their work every day, a simple existence of finding what they need to live.  I’m reminded of this song.

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The human family and the bird family have known each other a long time.  The Federal and State Wildlife Services work here with local farmers and residents to manage human activities so these birds have what they need to live.   This includes growing crops specifically for the birds.  Even though this river ecosystem has been significantly altered by extensive human settlement and resource manipulation such as irrigation canals, scientist are tuning in and adapting to be sure the ecosystem still provides all the services to the traditional wildlife as well as being nurturing habitat for human beings.  I’m quite impressed at this symbiotic mutualism.

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Deer emerged from the edge area between grasslands, desert scrublands, and river forest.  There are also elk, bobcat, coyote, mountain lion and many raptors here.  At Bernardo a father and daughter were observing the field from up high on a viewing platform.
Dad said, “Watch where the field meets the trees.  Maybe we’ll see a big buck come out.”
Looking over there she asked, “Dad, do you like deer or elk best?”
Dad said thoughtfully, “Hmmm,” followed by a long pause.  “That’s a tough one.”
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Since we’ve been here a couple times this winter I thought maybe we’d seen it all.  Not true!  It keeps opening up for us and the more you learn and more country you see the greater your realization the world is really deep.  Local places are immense.  The local people and animals are endlessly delightful.  Photography is a fun way to aid in discovery.  You have to frame what you see and focus in on what tells the narrative, select what to show.  This place is a symphony of life including the Chihuahuan desert ecoregion which bridges Mexico, Texas, New Mexico.
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Cranes are the keepers of a history beyond our reckoning.  As Barry Lopez recorded in Arctic Dreams, ‘those animals know way more than you do.’  At least about their migrations, how to tell other birds where to find the best food, how to survive as they do, how to fly with long arcing feathery wings.  The Cranes do these little dances too.  It is good we’ve made keeping up a fair deal with our bird and wildlife neighbors part of our legacy.  It is so cool to be in the company of birds and wildthings as we develop new traditions to celebrate the old ways.
Can’t get enough birds?  Here’s Mai’s video of the Fly Out at sunset at Bernardo.

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