Three Nightscapes

As the sun slips past the horizon and night begins its march across the land, many of us head indoors. We turn on the lights without a second thought, and continue our day inside. Should we glance toward a window, we see a square, if you have square windows, of inky blackness. We look away and enjoy the pleasures that light brings us. But what was it like long ago before the advent of electricity? What did our distant ancestors do after dark?

To begin to understand this we have to find truly dark skies. Today, that is not an easy task. You need to be far away from the nearest significant light source, and you might be surprised at just how much light even the tiniest of towns emits. There are places which are still truly dark, though, which is a good thing. Out west, it is a little easier to find dark skies.

From the moment you turn off all light, be that the sun or whatever light you brought with you, your eyes will begin to adjust. This is a gradual, slow adjustment, but a richly rewarding one. The stars slowly come to life, one by one, two by two, dozens by dozens and before you know it you are staring into the depths of space and a sky filled with countless stars. The more you look, the more you find, and the more you find, the more you look. In some locations and at some times of the year, you can see the core of the Milky Way, and that is a completely staggering sight. It can literally leave you speechless.

One startling thing about the night sky is that it isn’t quite as dark as you might first think. If there is even a sliver of the moon you will be able to find your way around. If it is a full moon it might as well be broad daylight and you will know it is night, but it won’t slow you down. Conversely, if you find truly dark skies on a moonless night, well, it is dark. Such nights are perfect making photographs of the night sky.

These three nightscapes are some of my favorites, and represent how different the Milky Way can look.

Yavapai's NightYavapai’s Night was made in the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Although the Grand Canyon isn’t quite as dark as it could be, it is still a good location for photographing the Milky Way. This photograph was made just after true dark, which is two hours past sunset. The Milky Way was just rising over the canyon rim, and the sight was certainly inspiring The Milky Way has a different personality every day, and it can take on different hues and colors depending on the time of the year, where you are, and importantly, the current atmospheric conditions. There is no predicting it, but Mother Nature will always provide a show. This night beautiful purple tones came out, making an excellent contrast to the canyon. The red glow on the far horizon is Tuba City. It doesn’t take much light to go a long way.

The sun began its decent toward the horizon, hurrying as it went, and thus the transition from day to night began. It was quiet in the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Study Area in New Mexico, but this was usually the case for this particular wilderness is little known, little visited, and perfect for finding peace, tranquility and solitude. Best known for its hoodoos, it features much the same topology of its more famous cousin, the Bisti Badlands. Alone in the trackless maze of hoodoos it is easy to become disorientated; as the sun leaves the sky it is downright simple to lose your way. The setting sun, though, brings up another amazing sight—The Milky Way. Far from the lights of civilization, Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah boasts some truly dark skies. On a moonless night you cannot see anything, not even your hand in front of your face. It is that dark. The Milky Way shines clear and bright in those dark skies, and it simply takes your breath away. Also, in this photograph there is a vertical streak just above the horizon to the right of center. This streak is a falling star—a meteor—that happened when I made this photograph. Don’t forget to make your wish!

Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah’s Night was made in the badlands of New Mexico in the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness Study Area. This area is little known and well off the beaten path. Few people venture out here, but that is their loss for it has some amazing rock formations, and some of its hoodoos are beyond the imagination. On this moonless night it was dark as dark can be. Even with my eyes fully adjusted I never could see my hand in front of my face. However, that was to my advantage because I was able to create the entire scene. I lit up the hoodoos that I liked, and positioned the Milky Way where I wanted it, making this beautiful photograph. As a completely unplanned bonus a meteor streaking through the frame (you can see it as a small vertical line jus above the hoodoos in the back). The wish I made certainly came true!

As the daylight seeps out of the day and the early evening shadows begin their march to darkness, the world quiets down and tranquility settles in. Perhaps a few crickets chirp to announce the arrival of night, and perhaps a lone coyote howl echoes in the far distance, but other than that, all is quiet. The ruins of the Abo Mission also quiet down, and prepare to hold fast through the night once more. In the centuries before electricity and reliable light at night, twilight meant the day was almost done, and night’s darkness was broken only by a cooking or watch fire and there. The Abo residents would be stirring before sunrise, and their lives were governed by the rhythm of the daylight hours. Standing there, alone, at the ancient ruins of Abo at the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument in New Mexico, let me reflect on that time. The stars above shone as bright as I had ever seen them for the skies in this part of New Mexico are reasonably dark. The lights of Socorro, sixty miles away, provided a faint glow on the horizon, and the light of Albuquerque, just further than sixty files, another glow on the opposite side of the mission. As in the opening narrative above, a coyote howled in the distance, letting me know that some things never change.

Abi Night is the last of the three nightscapes and showcases the mission and pueblo in the Abo unit of the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument in New Mexico. Although unoccupied since the 1600s, the mission still stands and makes an imposing foreground to the New Mexico night sky. Although not quite as pitch-black as the Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness, it is still dark and the stars shine exceptionally bright. As with the Grand Canyon, however, modern civilization intrudes, with the cities of Socorro and Albuquerque contributing their glow to the scene. Still, it is not hard to imagine how this scene must have looked more than four hundred years ago.

When you get a chance, turn off your lights and step outside. Take a few moments looking up at the sky and let your imagination wander and roam. The stars above will be your guide. If you are in a city and you find yourself in the country, take a moment there to look up.

In the meantime, let these nightscapes inspire you!

Coyote Views

It appeared at the corner of my eye, a shadow perhaps, then was gone. I brushed it off as my far-too active imagination, but then I saw it again. Staring intently into the woods, I realized that the woods were not as empty as they might have been. It was a grey, gloomy day in the mountains of New Mexico, and the snow just added to the gloom; surely nothing was out and about. Little did I know I was about to experience some incredible coyote views. For what I did know at that moment was that a coyote was about to step out of those woods.

The coyote did not share my assessment of the day, and it was out and about on its business.

Hunting Coyote

My first good look at it was as it was gliding out of the woods into a small clearing. Covered in snow, it was completely intent on its prowl, and luckily, and paid no attention to me. That suited me more than fine. As it was moving through the clearing, more quiet than a whisper, it kept its gaze forward, and somehow, amazingly, didn’t react at all to me. Oh, I don’t flatter myself that it didn’t know that I was there; merely, it decided that I was not of concern. This afforded me the wonderful opportunity for the first of these wonderful photographs. The coyote drifted along a few feet.

Coyote's Winter

After a short bit, it stopped and simply stood there in the snow, a frozen tableau of nature. It’s sharp, keen eyes appeared to look beyond and through everything else; oblivious to the snow it was intently focused on whatever caught its gaze and attention. I was almost as frozen as it was, daring to hardly even draw a breath; the moment for us both seemed to last forever, and it was an extraordinary moment in time.

The coyote moved on into the winter’s day, yet these coyote views will let us relive this amazing moment in time.

Purchase Coyote Views

You can preserve this moment in a very tangible form for yourself, since Hunting Coyote and Coyote’s Winter are both available.

Ghost Watcher

Ghost Watcher

In the end, darkness claims all. It always does.

The transition between day and night is a time of magic, at least to those who watch carefully. The daytime colors ebb and the shadows creep across the land; sometimes this process is quick and happens in the blink of an eye, and sometimes the process is a leisurely and drawn out affair. Eventually, though, darkness claims the day.

I was in Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, hunting for that perfect sunset, whatever “perfect” might be. I was hoping for, perhaps, fiery colors that raced across the sky, lighting the desert up with fantastical colors. What I saw, however, was much more subdued. There was nothing for this sunset, I thought, and so I simply sat down on the ground to enjoy it. After all, the view itself was extraordinary. The spire of Chimney Rock jutted defiantly into the sky, daring the clouds to come any closer. Wisely, they didn’t. Instead of vivid colors in the sky, muted blues and purples took their place. I simply continued to watch and enjoy. And after a while I realized that I was not alone in my enjoyment of the scene; there, perched nearby was another Ghost Watcher. The bird had landed in absolute silence and together we retained the stillness of the moment.

As I watched, and reflected, this photograph was made. It is a fitting tribute to the moment, I think. A sunset doesn’t have to amazingly colorful to be amazing, and each one is incredible in its own way. This photograph reminds me of that, and I always feel serenity when I look at it. Having shared it with another silent sentinel made it all the more special to me, and to this day, I remember well my fellow watcher.

Eventually the darkness was absolute, the summer evening quiet and tranquil, as the world waiting for tomorrow. The watcher of ghosts had long given up and headed back to its home. Maybe tomorrow evening, around this time, it will return once again. And watch as darkness claims all, as it always does.

Own your ghost

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Junco Bath

Junco Bath

There is always something special about a warm spring day, isn’t there? After a cold winter, full of snow and chill, the contrast that spring brings is always heartwarming. Everyone responds to it, in some way or the other.

This dark eyed junco, or to be precise, this gray-headed form of the dark-eyed junco, has decided that a bath is the best way to celebrate the day. It flew in close to inspect the water, and to be sure all was OK. It was. It approached cautiously, for it knew I was about, but after a while decided I was no problem. It hopped into the water, again showing caution, but almost immediately forgot about everything else save the pure delight of the bath. It splashed and sloshed about, and you could see its delight in the refreshing water. It would hop back up onto a rock, but it wouldn’t stay out for long! Right back in it would go, and the splashing would begin again.

There is something magical and amazing when you share in the delight of birds, and I spent quite a bit of time watching them. Each one has its own personality, and over time, it is possible to recognize individuals. They come and go, yet, many of the same birds will visit you day after day, season after season, and year after year. It is one thing to watch them feed: it is quite another to watch them enjoy themselves, seemingly for the simple sake of the pleasure it brings. This junco is certainly no exception.

Eventually, it spread its wings and shook the water off, and relinquished the bath to the next lucky feathered occupant. After drying for a moment in the warm spring sun, it took off. Everyone’s day was made that much more enjoyable by the experience.

You can purchase junco bath for yourself!

Geese Drop-In

Geese Drop-in

It was a quiet winter morning at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, and the sandhill cranes were enjoying it immensely. It was sunny, the temperature was quite reasonable for January, and most of all, the field had plenty to forage on. In short, it was an absolutely perfect day.

That is, until the geese decided to drop in for brunch. At first, it was just one snow goose that decided it would join the cranes. But, where there is one goose, there are thousands, and before the cranes realized what was about to happen, the geese began to land. What was a quiet morning turned, in a heartbeat, into an intense, noisy affair. What was a serene field with plenty of room to spread out turned into a crowded, cramped space, with geese underfoot everywhere. What was the perfect spot to feed turned into something considerably less so. Worse, geese are flighty, constantly taking off and landing, and in the process, stirring up the dust up constantly.

The sandhill cranes, though, suffered their fate admirably. They, to the best of their ability, ignored their uninvited guests, choosing, instead, to focus on their brunch. And the geese? They were happy with their new-found bounty, and stayed on for dinner!

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