Photographing the annual Sand Hill Crane Migration
Three years ago I met Michael Forsberg, the premier Midwest/grasslands photographer in the United States at a photography workshop in Jackson Hole Wyoming. Aside from being a great person, and photographer, Michael has a true passion for preserving the grasslands and rivers that cover a vast area of the United States. Less than 150 years ago, grazing herds of buffalo covered this immense area. The rivers, full of spring runoff swelled the Platte River to miles wide at times. Massive flocks of birds travelled across the plains on their way to summer nesting or winter feeding grounds. Sand Hill Cranes have been migrating through the Platte River Basin for almost 10 million years (according to fossil records)
Much of this has changed, and not for the good. The Platte River is all but dry now even in the spring as thirsty farmer’s fields divert the water. The buffalo are all but gone and a single remaining large animal species, the San Hill Crane still migrates across this land. I grew up near this land in Omaha NE. I saw the crane migration when I was young, but I don’t’ remember it at all. Something in the images and the descriptions of this migration ignited my interest. I had to go and witness it myself. I’m glad I did and I recommend that you find the time to witness this yourself. You don’t need to be a photographer to witness the spectacle.
So, what is so interesting about seeing some large birds you might ask? Think about 400,000 of these birds, about 3 ft tall, 6 ft wingspan and weighing about nine pounds apiece, all either calling at once or taking off at once in the morning. I have never heard a sound like this in the past. The sheer numbers of the cranes is amazing.
Armed with a bit of information, a 3 day reservation at a hotel and two viewing blind reservations at the Rowe Sanctuary, I headed off to Kearney Nebraska., the self-proclaimed “Sandhill Crane Capital of the World”. From Colorado Springs, my GPS indicated a six hour ride. I find I make too many stops for food, bio-breaks and photo opportunities. We left at 7:00 AM, and didn’t arrive till about 3:00 PM. My first blind reservation was a 5:00 PM so we had a few hours to drive around and explore the area.
Kearney is a typical Midwestern town with about 32,000 inhabitants and home to the University of Nebraska at Kearney. To a Colorado boy, this land is flat. No mountains to tell direction here. There is a river that runs West to East (when it is flowing) . This is the primary landmark of the area. There are few trees, unless you are next to the river, else, it is what you expect… grassland.
We headed towards the river. Most roads run North/South or East/West. We headed for the trees and the river. As we didn’t have reservations in the Rowe Sanctuary viewing blinds for every sunrise and sunset, we stopped at Fort Kearney for information. Fort Kearny was founded in 1848 as an outpost for the US Army. Now, it is a museum and visitor site for the local area. The people there are very friendly and happy to help with crane viewing, local restaurants, where to go during the day, or when things aren’t busy, anything else you want to talk about. This is the Midwest. The people here are friendly, open and eager to meet people. I don’t think I met a rude person my entire time there. We asked, where to go when we didn’t have a blind. Most of the land along the river is private property, so there aren’t many viewing areas. The closest to Fort Kearny is the Fort Kearny Recreation area. There are great campgrounds here and for a small fee (you can purchase a day ticket at the Fort) you can park there and walk (1/2 mile) to the old railroad trestle that has been converted to a viewing bridge. The second area is of course the Rowe Sanctuary located off Elm Island Road and right on the Platte River. The final location is at the corner of Lowell Rd and Elm Island Rd just a few miles from the Rowe Sanctuary. There is a viewing deck here and Elm Island Rd follows the river for about ½ mile with easy viewing of the river. As neophytes to this spectacle we asked, “what are we looking for?”
To answer this question, you need to know a little bit about Sand Hill Crane behavior. The cranes come to this Midwestern area to rest up, fatten up for the long migration north, and mate. San Hill Cranes mate for life and you will typically see bonded pairs with possibly one or two other immature birds with them. The parents “show the way” to the juveniles each year. In the morning, the cranes are on the river. The Platte is wide, shallow and the water is slow moving. There are many sand bars in the middle of the river. This is where all the birds roost for the night. It helps with protection from predators such as fox, raccoons, coyotes, wolves, cougars and bobcats. 10,000 – 20,000 birds will group together on a section of the river in a roost. These roosts are amazingly loud. Early in the morning, around sunrise the birds will take off, typically all at once. You can often see this in the distance. You see a black cloud of birds rising, then the next roost, then the next. It is like a huge wave. You see the wave before you hear it. The train just gets louder and louder as it passes by and the birds cover the sky. Before you know it, the mass assent is complete and the birds fly nearby to the fields to feed and “Dance”. You have basically all day to watch the birds in the fields. I don’t know there is a better or worse time. However, you get up around 5:00 and have been standing for a few hours in the cold. It is time for a big breakfast. There are many great places to eat within 15 minutes of your viewing area. So off we go.
Late mornings and afternoons are spent tracking down the birds in the fields. They are on both the north and south side of the river, typically within a mile or so of their roosts. The birds are in open fields. They don’t mind cars coming nearby the field. They do mind people getting out of their cars with their phones up in the air chasing them in the fields. They will fly away quickly if you try that. Your car is a great viewing blind. Stay in it with the windows rolled down, the music turned off and the car turned off. Enjoy the exhibition. The birds are feeding on corn left over from the previous harvest. This is a symbiotic relationship. The farmers don’t have to cleanup; the birds feed and “deposit” some fertilizer while they are there. The farmers have more issues with crane viewers stopping in the middle of the road, and travelling on private property. Pull of the road and respect property rights and everyone will be happy. The interesting part of the day is when the young birds “Dance” as part of their mating ritual. The two will jump high into the air throwing their heads back. You will take a lot of pictures of the cranes. Unless you have a good telephoto lens, most images won’t do this justice. As the sun goes down, the cranes will often fly towards the river and roost very nearby still calling and milling about. Just at sunset they will gather in large groups on the river. Sunrise and Sunset are excellent times for photographing. The sun will rise/set very close to the center of the river (if you pick the right spots). However, this is often low light and the birds move about. You will need a camera with low light capability (ISO 1600 – 3200) with decent noise performance to shoot acceptable speeds catching the birds. During the day, most cameras will do just fine.
What images to capture. There are a series of images that you should strive to get. In the morning, of course the sunrise over the river is the shot to look for. A few clouds make it all the better. I would get to your location at least 1 hour prior to sunrise if not 1.5 hours. There is enough light that time of day. Images of the roost are great as the sun is coming up either as silhouettes or with the early morning golden sun reflecting off the river onto the birds. The birds filling the skies are great images also. During the day, images of birds landing (you will know what I am talking about when you see it) and birds Dancing. In the evening, catch the birds landing looking at the sunset. Be careful about internal lens flare shooting either directly at the sun, or far to the side of the sun. Reflections off the river with the sunset are great.. Roosts of birds silhouetted against the river in blues purples and reds are great images. Watch your shutter speed as the light goes down upping your ISO settings all during the evening till you are getting just too much noise. I find the evening the best for photos, possibly the mornings the best for crane viewing at a blind
When to Visit: There are a few things to consider here. The first is when the cranes will be there. This past year they arrived 2 weeks early in mid to late February. Typically they arrive in the beginning of March and leave the beginning of April. The crane festival is quite popular. This is the local’s best estimate when the most cranes will be there. Hotel reservations and blind reservations are difficult to get this time of year. You might want to consider the phase of the moon in your planning (The Photographers Ephemeris) application on your phone can provide great planning for this based upon your location. A full moon (or ¾ might be better) provides a great shot if you can get the birds travelling near the moon. Blind reservations go fast. In fact there is only a few days to make reservations in the beginning of January at the Rowe Sanctuary. Make your best guess and plan early. You can make hotel reservations most any time (except for the crane festival).
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