Primeval Pulse

Frans Lanting and Chris Eckstrom are leading an exclusive flying photo safari in Namibia in September 2012. Check for details.

The annual spring migration of shorebirds is an awesome phenomenon. Untold millions of them fly from wintering grounds all over the Americas to reach summer nesting grounds in the Arctic. As they cover distances spanning half the globe, their food demands are critical, and high-energy refueling stops are essential. One of those is Delaware Bay, where horseshoe crabs gather every spring to spawn in a ritual that evolved more than 300 million years ago, before there were any predators on land that could feast on their eggs. But these days, the crabs’ eggs, which are pure protein, get gobbled up by multitudes of migratory shorebirds—and yet the crabs endure.

I went there one spring to document this annual gathering. Delaware Bay is large, and it took some time to figure out the most promising spots and the best times to be there. Both birds and crabs respond to the tide, and I noticed that many shorebirds were converging on a narrow strip of beach just vacated by the falling tide to look for eggs. When I saw a dense group of red knots and ruddy turnstones surrounding a lone horseshoe crab lying immobile after a spawning orgy the night before, I approached carefully on foot with a camera and a 400mm lens already mounted on a tripod.

I closed my aperture all the way to slow my shutter speed down to a range where I could experiment with interpreting the birds’ feeding frenzy. Blurring motion works well when you can add stationary elements to your composition. The crab was one focal point. Then I watched for moments when one or more shorebirds looked up long enough to stay sharp during my long exposure of around a quarter of a second, which added a face to the flock. In my favorite frame, I saw what I had been looking for: an ancient, slow-moving invertebrate juxtaposed with modern, fast-moving birds—the confluence of two primeval rhythms.

Frans Lanting has been hailed as one of the great nature photographers of our time. For more than two decades he has documented wildlife and our relationship with nature in environments from the Amazon to Antarctica. He portrays wild creatures as ambassadors for the preservation of complete ecosystems, and his many publications have increased worldwide awareness of endangered ecological treasures in the far corners of the Earth.