Photo of the Week – March 26, 2015

Despite snide comments from certain friends, I do – now and then – take photos of subjects other than insects and plants…

As I write this, the annual sandhill crane migration phenomenon is taking place on Nebraska’s Platte River.  The river valley abounds with tall gray birds feeding in crop fields and meadows and the sound of calling cranes fills the air.  I haven’t had a lot of time for crane photography this year, but have managed to pull the camera out of its bag a few times.  A couple weeks ago, for example, I was in a riverbank viewing blind with a group of birdwatchers, watching cranes coming in to their river roost against a rose-colored post-sunset sky.  The muted light made photography difficult, but I managed a few photos, including the one below.

Sandhill cranes landing on the Platte River, where they will roost overnight.  Because of low light levels, this photo was taken with an ISO of 2000, making it relatively grainy.

Sandhill cranes landing on the Platte River, where they will roost overnight. Because of low light levels, this photo was taken with an ISO of 2000, making it relatively grainy.

After the light and color faded a little more that evening, I decided to try a short video.  If you have never been to the Platte River during this time of year, this will give you a tiny glimpse of what it’s like to watch cranes coming to the river in the evening.

Watching cranes drop into the river at sunset is fun, but I prefer to visit them in the early morning as the roosting birds start to wake up and get ready for the day.  We have to sneak into the blind well before daylight and it’s often difficult to tell how many birds are on the river until the growing light slowly reveals their shadowy outlines.  On a good morning, we may have 10-20,000 birds or more within view as the sun comes up.  The sight and sound of those birds is astounding.  As the sun rises and the air warms up, the activity level of the birds increases, and we get to see a great deal of social behavior – preening, pair-bonding and courtship “dancing”, and aggressive posturing.  The short video below documents that kind of increasing activity through one morning this spring.

I am grateful to have a front row seat to an annual ecological phenomenon that draws birdwatchers and nature lovers from around the globe.  The sound of sandhill crane calls is a pretty great soundtrack to my spring.  The only regret I have is that the majority of crane-watchers never get to see the Platte River Prairies during the summer when – though we have no cranes around – our grasslands are teeming with the sights and sound of birds, insects, flowers, and generally spectacular prairie life.  Please come visit!

Flying cranes silhouetted against the dusk.  The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

Flying cranes silhouetted against the dusk. The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.  March 2015.

 

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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10 Responses to Photo of the Week – March 26, 2015

  1. Awesome post! Thanks for sharing the photos & videos. We will likely be driving through Nebraska this summer; I’ll put the Platte River Prairies on our list.

  2. Gay F Gilbert says:

    I’d really love to see your ‘short video’, but can’t find it……give me more clues……Thanks, Gay Gilbert

    Date: Thu, 26 Mar 2015 20:45:30 +0000 To: gagi-ii@hotmail.com

  3. Joanne says:

    I have got to return to Nebraska to see this — hopefully next year.

  4. Pat says:

    I listen for that sound every spring and fall. They don’t land here, but every once in a while they’ll ride a thermal and I’ll get to watch them a little longer. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Gretchen Graff says:

    Thanks, Chris. A lovely post about the Crane Show.

  6. John Bebout says:

    great pictures and video Chris. I enjoy all of your post keep up the good work.

  7. Kim Shannon says:

    I need to see these birds en masse in Nebraska. We catch a few glimpses of them in large numbers at the Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge in late fall/early winter but nothing quite this spectacular. Thank you for sharing!

  8. The photo looks great to me. I enjoyed the videos, too. It’s amazing they don’t run into each other. I’ve never been to see them, and keep thinking maybe next year. When “next year” comes, I want to be out in the yard if the weather is warm enough.

  9. Craig Hemsath says:

    Beautiful colors in that first shot. Wow!

  10. ann elder norz annelder@dcwis.com says:

    Cranes are back at my yard too, here in Door County Wisconsin. They enjoy my handouts as it is still cold with snow here. Ann

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