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.

Photo of the Week – March 28, 2019

I photographed flowers this week! Ok, they were just flowers on the little speedwell plant (Veronica polita) that grows as a weed in our yard, but still. Flowers! My photography brain muscles were starting to atrophy and it was great to flex them a little.

Those flowers were a nice sign of spring. I’ve never understood why people point to the arrival of robins as a indication of spring since there are migratory flocks here during most of the winter, but it’s hard to argue with blooming flowers as a harbinger of seasonal change. It’ll be a while before most prairie flowers start to bloom, but the tiny blue blossoms in our garden are a great step in the right direction.

The other significant sign of spring in our yard this week was the big ol’ Woodhouse’s toad Kim spotted as she was cleaning up the landscaping around the edge of our house. The toad must have just recently emerged from its winter burrow because it still had dirt on top of its head. I was so excited to have a small animal to photograph that I took (no exaggeration) 270 photos of the toad as it sat cold and motionless in our yard. As a favor to you, I’ve winnowed that batch of photos down to the five that I’m including here. She’s just so pretty…

In this photo, you can see the nictitating membrane (a kind of transparent third eyelid) toads can use to protect their eyes from hazards.

Cooler temperatures, and maybe even a little snow this weekend, will set us back a little, but spring is still coming… In addition to the flowers and toad, Kim also heard chorus frogs calling this week. Oh, and of course, the Platte River is full of migratory sandhill cranes – here for their annual spring staging event. Before we know it, prairies will be greening up and we’ll start to see and hear all kinds of activity again. Just…another…few…weeks…?