Photo of the Week – March 22, 2018

It’s always inspiring to hang out with other conservation photographers, especially when they’re really good at what they do.  As I mentioned in my last post, I recently spent an early morning in one of our crane viewing blinds and got to see a whooping crane right out in front.  My two companions that morning were Michael Forsberg and Melissa Groo, both of whom are incredibly talented and accomplished wildlife photographers, as well as passionate and effective advocates for conservation.

Also?  They have really really big lenses.  Like, intimidatingly large lenses.  And when there is a whooping crane hanging out on the other side of the river from you, a big lens is sure handy.  As a result, you should check out both Mike and Melissa’s individual Instagram accounts to see the photos they got from that morning.  I know Mike has already posted the amazing shot he took of the whooper stretching its wings, which turned out looking like a white angel in the midst of a dull gray mob of birds.  I don’t think Melissa has posted any photos yet from that morning, but she did post a shot of the same bird in a nearby field from a few days before.  (Check out their other work as well, you’ll be glad you did.)

Melissa’s lens was so big, you can’t even see Mike or his lens, which are right on the other side of her.

Good for them.  Seriously.  They had the right equipment for the job on that morning and were able to capture powerful images they’ll use for good purposes.  Me?  Not so much.  I spent my morning capturing the “atmosphere” of the morning, and enjoying my overall good fortune.  After all, I was hanging out great people, and looking at one of the few whooping cranes left in the world, along with four or five thousand sandhill cranes.  I was doing just fine.

The closest sandhill cranes were quite a ways from our blind, and the whooping crane was near the far bank of the river.  It’s not in this particular photo, but even if it was, you probably wouldn’t be able to see it!
With my cute little 18-300mm lens, I concentrated on capturing the overall feel of the morning, rather than individual birds.

Am I jealous that when I go out to take pictures, my entire photography kit, including the vehicle I’m driving, cost less than one of the lenses Mike and Melissa were shooting with?  Well, maybe just a little bit.  But mostly, I’m glad they’re successful enough to afford those lenses.  This is what they do, and they need to have the right tools for the job.  There are only about three or four days a year when I wish I had a longer lens.  The rest of the time, I’m usually looking down toward my feet for photo opportunities, not across a broad river channel, and I’m perfectly happy with that.  After all, it wouldn’t make any sense to have all conservation photographers capturing the same kinds of images, right?  Somebody has to chase little bugs around prairies, and I’m more than happy to help fill that role.

Speaking of photos near my feet, I’ve had a couple opportunities to practice my own brand of conservation photography in the days since my whooping crane morning.  I had a very pleasant walk through one of our recently burned prairies a couple nights ago.  Then, yesterday, I enjoyed an hour or so photographing prairie plants on what might be the last frosty morning of the winter.  Until my favorite subjects (bugs and flowers) start becoming more available, I’m feeding my appetite with whatever else I can find.

The prairies we burned a couple weeks ago have been popular feeding spots for hordes of sandhill cranes looking for underground invertebrates to feed on. Did I photograph those cranes on our burned prairies? No, I just found and photographed a dainty little down feather one of them dropped.
The brown scorched leaves of this shell leaf penstemon plant might give you the impression that it’s dead, but it will actually thrive this coming season because the cattle grazing in this burned prairie will help suppress its major competitors – grasses – growing nearby.
This penstemon leaf reminded me of a fish…
A frosty sunflower seed head. Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.
Indiangrass seedhead and frost.

I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to incorporate photography into my regular job.  It’s something I’m passionate about, and something I feel is critically important in order to help people understand and feel connected to nature.  I don’t often travel far from home to photograph nature, but I’m sure glad others do.  For example, I’ll likely never get to see the Arctic or Antarctic regions of this world, but I feel a strong connection to those places because of the photographs of people like Paul Nicklen.  In my own small way, I hope I can provide that kind of connection between people and the prairies I love – despite my tiny little camera lenses…

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.