Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Spring’s Beginnings

This post was written by Evan Barrientos, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Evan is a talented writer and photographer and I encourage you to check out his personal blog. If you would like to see more of his photographs, you can follow him on Facebook.

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Although crane migration is just beginning, I couldn’t resist trying to photograph the early arrivals from one of our blinds along the Platte River last weekend. At 6am I parked 200 yards south of the blind. A full moon and the encouraging sound of cranes calling guided me through the dark. When I was 50 yards away from the blind I started crawling so the cranes wouldn’t spot me with their excellent night vision. I made it into the blind successfully and waited for the sun to rise. In the moonlight, I could see that there were only about a hundred cranes near me, but they were close enough to photograph. Instead of being quiet and sleepy as I had expected, they were quite vocal and active. Several small groups flew in and joined the assembly, loudly announcing their arrival. The group seemed eager to start a day of foraging for corn in 70 degree weather.

As soon as there was enough light I took a few test shots. I’m glad I did, not just because the scene was beautiful and the slow shutter speed gave a ghostly look to the cranes and water, but because about 30 minutes before sunrise a volley of shotguns nearby spooked the cranes and sent them flying away.

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I left the blind with frozen feet and fewer photos than I had hoped for, but with lots of good experience for next time. Speaking of frozen things, I was exploring Martins Reach State Wildlife Management Area later that day and found half-dormant bullfrog. Although clearly alive, the frog’s body felt as cold as melting snow. Because he was cold-blooded and couldn’t move, I used the opportunity to take some very close photos of his beautiful, golden eyes. This was a special experience for me because one of my earliest memories in nature is of finding and poking another half-dormant bullfrog as I explored a pond with my dad. We still joke about that memory, never expecting one of us to re-live it.

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Other signs of spring on this warm weekend included Red-winged Blackbirds establishing territories, several small spiders crawling in the grass, fish swimming in thawed ponds, and dozens of brown lacewings fluttering through the air.

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.