Norfolk County, where we live, is located on the north shore of Lake Erie in southern Ontario, Canada. In early to mid-March, the annual spring migration of mixed flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles begins. Immense numbers of these birds move north across the lake into the Long Point Biosphere Reserve over a period of weeks. Before dispersing throughout the province, they feed on the remains of corn stubble in nearby agricultural fields, roosting overnight in wetlands along the shoreline.
For a half hour or so around sunrise, tens of thousands, (sometimes hundreds of thousands) of these birds stir into action. A paved road between the marsh and the inner bay allows easy access to the area, and a raised platform provides some height and a sweeping view. Arriving 20 minutes or so before sunrise, we position ourselves. Suddenly, the pre-dawn silence is broken as flock upon flock rise up in a sudden collective impulse from their overnight resting area in the adjacent Big Creek marsh. The sound is intense and the instant shift from quiet to chaos is thrilling.
The birds alight on the leafless trees along the road, completely covering every branch in black splotches. They then take to the air, flying everywhere—across, between, through, overhead; moving restlessly north along the shoreline.
The action is fast, chaotic, unpredictable. I photograph on low burst mode at ISO 800, hand held with a 40-150mm lens on my Olympus OM-D1 mk2. From the platform a few metres above the ground, my field of view covers the wetland, tree line, inner bay and a swath of sky. Depending on the changing light levels and the speed and density of the flocks, I strive to capture both motion blur and sharpness, including the habitat of trees, water and sky to give a sense of the immensity of this natural phenomenon. On clear-sky mornings, I photograph in colour. On this day, the cloud cover removed any colour or textural interest from the sky, so I processed in monochrome.
Within 15 minutes, the birds have dispersed, moving away from the area.
Silence returns. No trace remains of the chaotic energy that moments before had totally engaged all of my senses.