The Skies Darkened

I’ve have always felt cheated out of this Earth’s great wonders by being born to my generation. I read the accounts of William Bartram, John Lawson, the first expeditions to the Carolina coast, those first explorers to set foot upon a continent teeming with wildlife in such numbers as to quite often make up the lion’s share of those accounts of first contact. Oyster’s were once so plentiful in both the Chesapeake Bay and the Carolina sounds, that the entire bodies of water were filtered daily by these most useful bivalves. It was said that by spending a mere hour fishing in these waters a family could be fattened for a week. By no means was this continent “untouched” by man, as the Native American’s routinely shaped, sculpted, and regimented the landscape to suite their needs. However, in comparison to today’s standards, in comparison even to European standards in the 15th century this land was a Garden of Eden.

Where I live the birds come in force over the course of winter. As old man winter’s icy fingers stretch out across the arctic and northern states, birds are forced to push south in search of food for survival. It was during these migrations that explorers and colonists were thunderstruck by the awesome experience of watching several million birds soar overhead, blackening the skies for what would seem like hours. Today, such numbers are incomprehensible to us. We live only to see the children of those few survivors that somehow escaped the wholesale slaughter of industrial / market hunting. Be it meat for the table or plumes for women’s hats, nearly every bird of even marginal aesthetics were gunned down for the all mighty dollar. Brown pelicans were reduced to a single breeding colony off Florida. Egrets and herons alike were pushed to the edge of extinction, becoming non-existent in states north of Florida. This was how the Audubon society came about. This is why every town in the south is a posted bird sanctuary now.

Despite the onslaught of western civilization’s unclenching thirst for money and prestige, some of these birds did survive. In conjunction with modern-day game laws and a slight shift in cultural norms and ethics, many of these once great species are in deed rebuilding their numbers. Of course, just as many are still racing towards obliteration. However, those that have survived our presence here, those that have benefited from 20th century laws and regulations, now once again migrate by the tens of thousands – if not millions. Still a pale comparison to historical numbers, but progress all the same.

Researchers have long since claimed that the notion of flyways to explain migration routes by birds was far to simplified. Bird banding studies over the last half century have revealed a complexity of migration and individual variation that ornithologists have still yet to wrap their minds around what is going on. With that said though, the flyways concept still applies to basic understanding of migration in that the vast majority of birds in general tend to stick to these given routes. Being from eastern North Carolina, this is relevant to my photography as we still harbor innumerable birds over the winter.

The National Wildlife Refuge system has for the most part become the favored destinations for many of these migrating species here in Carolina. Other areas, for the waterfowl that is, the birds are hunted extensively and therefore those species have learned to refuge hop over the last few generations. Those that immediately come to mind are places like Pea Island NWR where 1,700 tundra swans and hundreds of thousands of ducks take rest either for the duration of the winter or long enough to rebuild fat stores in order to make the next leg of their journey. Lake Mattamuskeet NWR is another such oasis with tens of thousands of swans (eastern North Carolina winters 75% of the entire eastern population of tundra swans) and ducks in the millions. Poccosin Lakes NWR is the third major refuge in the area for winter stop overs in terms of swans, snow geese, and red-winged blackbirds.

Poccosin will, this time of year, typically hold 50 – 100,000 snow geese. Traditionally this was not the case of course. But with the extensive agriculture – corn – on the property for the sole benefit of wildlife, the geese now call this place home. This is something of a modern day phenomenon in general for the snow goose and has both helped its numbers rebound by learning to exploit our industrial agriculture, while at the same time firmly placing themselves in the minds of many as a nuisance and destructive species. Numbering in the millions and growing exponentially due to the endless food supply of America’s grain crops, the snow goose in one success story that many feel will blow up in our faces.

Inspired by a fellow wildlife photographers abstract rendition of a black snake, I decided to spend yesterday working on wildlife abstracts myself. The first place that come to mind for such a project was Poccosin Lakes. When I want swans, I got to Mattamuskeet. When I want ducks, I go to Cape Hatteras National Seashore and managed waterfowl impoundments, when I want geese however, I go to Poccosin. With this intention I left my house at around 4 am to make the 2 hour drive.

I found the geese almost immediately and worked them for an hour or so before the flock finally headed off to the back fields of the refuge. As I began to make my way around the dirt roads to try to access the North road where they few off too, I noticed the red-winged blackbirds and about 20 bald eagles and 10 or more norther harriers. Migration axiom number one: where there are large concentrations of small birds, there will be large concentrations of raptors to feed on the small birds. These black birds engulfed much of the field. The ground stretching out a  hundred yards in all directions was black with them. Even the trees sticking out into the field like a peninsula were black with birds. When you see numbers of birds like this, its difficult to quantify what you are seeing of course. Is a million birds an exaggeration? Or, is it a mere fraction of what you behold? Lets just say, there were a lot of birds.

Now how these birds feed and move is naturally in waves when they congregate on the fields like this. Just like the snow geese, the redwings will constantly roll over top of themselves in waves as they move to the center of the flock. It doesn’t take long to understand why they do this, and why they are constantly jockying for a central spot surrounded by others. It’s like all animals the group up like this for the most part – dilution. The more birds, elk, caribou, fish, etc. .  that are around you, the more likely one of them will be eaten instead of you. Obviously then, the closer you are to the center, the safer you are from predators. The trade-off though is that the more birds you are with, the more predators. But this is something of a necessary evil as winter is also the time for mate selection for many species of birds. To go it alone, would be to never sire offspring; to be an evolutionary loser in the game of life and the continuation of your species.

Such extraordinary numbers of birds lends itself well to creating abstract photographs. The creative options are seemingly limitless. Fast shutters for freeze frame, slow shutters for blur and motion, focusing at different depths within the flock, etc. . . All you need is timing and the time to experiment. Well one good thing about the bald eagles in the area (other than something else to photograph) is that when they dive the birds, the redwings explode into the air in a towering ink black mass complete with their red shoulder patches in threat display. Thus, if you watch the raptors, you will know when to get ready for a show – its as simple as that.

Here are a few photographs from the day. . . Still have 16 gigs worth of files to go through though.

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