Cranes In Flight

September 01, 2017

Originally posted Feb 29, 2016


If in Nebraska you are a runner, sooner or later you have to run the Lincoln marathon.  If you are a cyclist, you eventually have to prove that by undertaking and completing BRAN, the Bicycle Ride across Nebraska, which I’m proud to say I did a number of years and several pounds ago.

And if you consider yourself a wildlife photographer – and especially if you want others to do so – sooner or later you have to turn your skills to photographing Sandhill Cranes during their annual visit to the Cornhusker State.

Over a half-million Sandhill Cranes drop in here every March, as they have been doing for millennia.  They’ve wintered south of here and come spring, they leave on their journey as far north as the Arctic Circle to mate, nest, and raise their young.  On their way back south, in the autumn, Nebraska will only be flyover country, as they have no real reason to spend time here on that journey.

The reason they hang around, in the Central Platte Valley, for a month or so in the spring is because Nebraska is and has been for thousands of years a staging area for them.  They stop in here to put on 30% of their body weight and gain strength for the long flight north.  One political wag once suggested in a public hearing, at the Nebraska Legislature, that the cranes are like state senators: they come to town early in the year; put on 30% of their body weight; and, then leave in late spring.

Regardless, the cranes put on a great show for us while they are in residence here.  At night, they are at roost on sandbars and in the shallows of the Platte River, as a protection against predators.  In a river as broad as the Platte, coyotes, foxes and others who might wish to help themselves to a crane meal can’t get close enough to them un-observed to get the job done.  That’s one of the reasons why it’s important to regulate the flows in the Platte to maintain a broad, braided channel, as so many others – people like Tom Mangelsen and Michael Forsberg – have pointed out repeatedly.

Roosting cranes are interesting, but what will really get your attention is when they leave the river in the morning and when they return in the evening.  At those times, the birds can virtually darken the sky, and the noise of their call is almost as loud as a rock concert…something that has to be seen to be believed.

It’s also difficult-off-toward-impossible to photograph.  In the morning, the cranes begin to lift off fifteen to twenty minutes before sunrise, and once there is enough light for a reasonable exposure, they’ve cleared out, headed toward corn and bean fields to spend their day cleaning up what the combines missed or spilled last fall.  And, they’ll return to the river and their roost in the evening, but again, the really massive fly-in, takes place in the minutes after sunset, when picture taking light has pretty much faded.

Photographing cranes in the mid-day fields is also a difficult challenge.  They are not an especially colorful bird, and spring being spring in Nebraska, frequently overcast skies don’t light them up sufficiently for a photo to capture what beauty they do possess.  Also, Nebraska is one of the few states not to have a hunting season on Sandhill Cranes (we did once, but somebody finally realized it was costing our state a load of visitor dollars, plus cranes are, I am told, perfectly dreadful to eat) which makes them extremely wary.  They light in the fields well back from the roads, and if you are going to picture them, you have to have some really big glass, which comes with its own challenges, only one of them being cost.

I’ve been after a great crane photo for about a decade now and have yet to shoot one that really knocks me out, though the one we are putting up on the web site today certainly pleases me, for a combination of reasons.  It was taken standing in the middle of a gravel road, of cranes headed to join colleagues feeding out in a nearby corn field.  Flying birds, of whatever kind, I think are hard to photograph, the major challenge being to get them sharp. They are moving, and assuming you are using a big lens, you could well be shooting them with a shallow depth of field, and those two things along with getting them in a decent composition, is kind of like rubbing your stomach and patting your head.

Cranes in Flight-blogCranes in Flight-blog I was helped in capturing this particular photograph by a well-known professional photographer by the name of Jim Zuckerman.  Jim publishes an electronic magazine that I subscribe to, and ironically, this month’s issue features an article on photographing flying birds.  As it happened, I read the article yesterday morning just before heading out to the Kearney area to take crane pictures.  Jim’s instructions on camera settings were something I’d never tried, but boy, did they work.  What Jim’s method boils down to (and it may be quite common, but I’d never heard of it personally) is to set the camera mode to manual, the shutter speed to 1/2500 or 1/3200 to stop the bird’s motion, the aperture to f/8 to give a reasonable depth of field, and then set the ISO to automatic to get the exposure correct.

So I did it just that way, using my new Sigma 150-600mm with the Sigma 1.4 extender, and voila! Flying cranes, and they are tack sharp.  In shooting these photos, I was especially pleased with the Sigma lens over the Nikon 600mm which it replaced.  I find that it performs just as well – or at least well enough - that I’ll never tell the difference, and it can be handheld, as it was here.  Thank you Sigma.

Now, Jim, if you have any spare ideas about shooting Crane portraits, please bring ‘em on.

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