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.

Photo of the Week – March 21, 2014

During the big sandhill crane migration spectacle each spring, about 600,000 cranes stop by to visit the Platte River.  Most of them stick around for a few weeks, put on as much body fat as they can, and then head north to nesting grounds.  However, a very low percentage of cranes never get to leave.  Some are killed by powerlines or predators, others just die of old age or other ailments.  We see these dead birds here and there through the spring, and so do the predators and scavengers that take advantage of the abundant food source.

Our crew stumbled upon a dead crane this week, and before the scavengers got to work on it (much) I took advantage of the opportunity to get some close up photos.  It’s not often I get this close to a crane, and I’m guessing the same is true for most of you.

Wing feathers of a dead sandhill crane, found along the Central Platte River in Nebraska.

Wing feathers of a dead sandhill crane, found along the Central Platte River in Nebraska.  As always, you can click on an image to see a larger and sharper version of it.

The combination of gray and brown feathers on the wing are particularly attractive.  The gray is the natural color of the crane’s feathers, but they stain their feathers by spreading iron-rich soil on them.  I’ve actually watched them do this in our restored wetlands, where streaks of iron deposits can be seen in bare sand.  In places where the sand is saturated when groundwater is high and dry when groundwater falls, the iron in the sand rusts and turns a deep reddish brown.  We use those rusted iron deposits as indicators when we’re deciding how deep to excavate wetlands during the restoration process, but they’re also a great place for cranes to find staining compound!

Given the propensity of humans to dye their gray hair other colors, we probably shouldn’t wonder at cranes doing the same kind of thing.  At least cranes can claim (legitimately) they’re doing it for camouflaging purposes.

Sandhill crane feathers (dead crane).  Platte River Prairies.

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Sandhill crane feathers (dead crane).  Platte River Prairies.

While the wing feathers were very pretty, the head of the dead crane was the most interesting to examine up close.  Some of you may know that the red patch on the head of a sandhill crane is not made up of red feathers, but is actually a (relatively) bald patch.  The red cap is a sign of maturity for these cranes – birds hatched last year don’t yet have one.

In cranes, at least, “crane-pattern baldness” is a good thing.

A close up of the red patch on the head of a dead sandhill crane, showing the absence of feathers.

A close up of the red patch on the head of a dead sandhill crane, showing the absence of feathers.

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