Photo of the Week – March 24, 2016

Early spring on the Platte River is crane season.  Every one of the half million or so birds in the mid-continent population of sandhill cranes spends a few weeks along Central Platte River each spring.  They roost overnight on the river and spend their days feeding in nearby cornfields, grasslands, and wetlands.  As we go about our outdoor work, there is a constant soundtrack of crane song in the background.  It could be worse.

Those who know me best understand that while I occasionally photograph wildlife, I’m really more about photographing little things like bugs and flowers.  I have quite a few photographs of sandhill cranes, but I get as much or more enjoyment out of photographing the small signs those cranes leave behind.  Plenty of great photographers, starting and ending with Mike Forsberg, spend lots of time each spring making great images of the birds themselves.  I don’t really feel compelled to compete with them.  Today, I present a photo essay on sandhill cranes that features exactly zero photographs of sandhill cranes.

Sandhill cranes spend significant time feeding and loafing in prairie wetlands like this one we restored from cropfield back in 1999. The cranes feed on invertebrates, and whatever else they can catch, but also spend a lot of time preening and socializing in these areas.

Sandhill cranes spend significant time feeding and loafing in prairie wetlands like this one we restored from cropfield back in 1999. The cranes feed on invertebrates, and whatever other small creatures they can catch, but also spend a lot of time preening and socializing in these areas.

Last week, as I walked along a low ridge between two wetland sloughs, nearly every sharp edge of the plants held a down feather, plucked - I assume - during some aggressive personal hygiene activity (preening).

Last week, as I walked along a low ridge between two wetland sloughs, nearly every sharp edge of the plants held a down feather, plucked – I assume – during some aggressive personal hygiene activity (preening).

Not all the down feathers ended up caught on plants. Some ended up splayed gracefully on the water's surface.

Not all the down feathers ended up caught on plants. Some ended up splayed gracefully on the water’s surface.

Among the most heavily-used wetlands on our properties this spring were some sloughs we excavated last last season on former crop land.

Among the most heavily-used wetlands on our properties this spring were some sloughs we excavated last last season on former crop land.

Sandhill crane tracks feature wide-splayed toes and lack the rear-pointing toe that perching birds have (cranes have a toe there, but it's so short it doesn't reach the ground).

Sandhill crane tracks feature wide-splayed toes and lack the rear-pointing toe prints seen in tracks of perching birds (cranes have a toe there, but it’s so short it doesn’t reach the ground).

Iron deposits in our soils rust where groundwater is high at times but low at others. We use that rusty red color to help us decide how deep to excavate. Cranes, in turn, mine that rusty soil and use it to stain their gray feathers for improved camouflage.

Iron deposits in our sandy soils rust at elevations where groundwater is high at times but low at others. We use that rusty red color to help us decide how deep to excavate our wetlands. Cranes, in turn, mine that rusty soil and use it to stain their gray feathers for improved camouflage – which is particularly important when they get to their nesting sites up north.

A close-up look at a crane feather forms a fascinatingly abstract image.

A close-up look at a crane feather forms a fascinatingly abstract image.

The beauty of cranes extends to the tip of every feather.

Feathers are simultaneously fragile and strong.  When the barbs separate, a bird can easily “repair” the situation by simply running its beak along the feather to reconnect the tiny hooked barbules that hold everything together.

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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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5 Responses to Photo of the Week – March 24, 2016

  1. Judy Parks says:

    Wonderful shots!

  2. Pat says:

    Love your macro shots. Wonderful that the cranes have learned to camouflage themselves in that way. Bird brains are nothing to sneer at.

  3. wyominglife says:

    Beautiful photos. Every year for the last three years a single pair of cranes has nested on an isolated pond nearby. This year four birds returned. Do I assume these are successfully reared offspring? I love the sound of their calls, and look forward to their (too brief) stay here in Wyoming.

  4. Linda Richter says:

    My family was just to Nebraska last weekend to see this marvelous move. Thank you so much for filling in some gaps of this wonderful creature. Knowledge is a blessing.

  5. Teresa Lombard says:

    Adore the closeup feather photos! I’m with you on loving the details and the gorgeous art that is just waiting there for someone like you to capture and share it.

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