Sandhill Crane Soundtrack

Yesterday morning, I got up at 5am and drove out to one of our Platte River prairies. Surrounded by lingering stars, I crouched low, carrying a heavy load of photo gear and supplies into a riverbank viewing blind so I could spend the next few hours photographing sandhill cranes on their overnight roost. Recent reports from others using the blind had been fantastic, so I was ready for a great morning.

The crescent moon was low in the eastern sky, not far from where the sun would soon appear.

As I’d walked toward the blind in the dark, the landscape had been full of throaty croaks as thousands of cranes started to wake up all along the river. It was clearly going to be a great morning. I very quietly opened the door to the blind and slipped in, moving immediately to the front windows to see how many cranes were awaiting me. I peered through the holes in the burlap and saw a wide stretch of empty river. Not a single crane was in sight.

I scanned upstream and downstream and could see and hear thousands of cranes in both directions, but all were too far away for the kind of photography I was hoping for. Well, now what? I’m very fortunate to have had plenty of other excellent opportunities for crane photography, so this wasn’t a catastrophe, just a mild disappointment. Rather than sit in the blind and fruitlessly aim my camera at distant birds, I decided to instead enjoy a walk around the prairie just to the south.

Cranes flying past the rising sun. The sky was filled with them, including right above me, as they headed out to spend their day in nearby fields and meadows.
Synchronized early morning flight.

As I watched the sun rise, I reminisced about how excited I was when I first saw the big sandhill crane migration. Friends and I drove slowly down the gravel roads along the Platte River and stopped to watch and try to photograph big flocks of cranes feeding in fields and meadows. We’d spend ten or fifteen minutes watching a big group and then pull ourselves away so we could drive another half mile and repeat the process with a nearly identical bunch of birds. I still enjoy the annual migration these days, but what I love most is the overall ambience created by the sound and sight of countless cranes milling about overhead as I go about my day.

As the sun rose, so did small groups of cranes, lifting off the river a few at a time to go feed. I tracked their far-off silhouettes as they flew past the rising sun and heard the sound of their wings as many passed directly overhead. I wandered through prairies and wetlands with absolutely no sense of urgency, soaking in the relaxing soundtrack of sandhill crane song. It wasn’t the morning I had planned, but it was turning out just fine.

Here are some of the photos from the rest of my walk.

Down feathers from cranes were all over the edges of wetland pools, where the birds had recently spent time feeding and loafing. Since I wasn’t photographing the cranes themselves, I busied myself making portraits of their discarded feathers.
Down feather and wetland plants.
Small crane feather.
Red-winged blackbirds were vocally asserting themselves as I walked past them. They’d fly a short distance when I got close, but never left their newly established territories.
This photo begs for flowery language about how reflective I felt as I wandered through the morning prairie. Blah blah blah.
This wasn’t the crane photo I had planned to come home with, but I’m pleased with it anyway.
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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.

8 thoughts on “Sandhill Crane Soundtrack

  1. Oh, I get it–the soundtrack thing. You are listening to the sounds as you walk and contemplate. Thanks for “bringing us along” to enjoy the experience through your photos. I was there many years ago and can still hear them and feel the awe.

  2. I’ve been enjoying cranes on their stopover at Monte Viste National Wildlife Refuge in south central Colorado. They stop over here for about six weeks to fatten before going on up to the Yellowstone River Drainage to breed. Ours have all left us, so I was glad to get another “glimpse” of them.


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