|That's a center pivot irrigation system, for you city folk|
Crane season in Nebraska begins around the first of March, peaks toward the end of March, and continues until the second week of April. Plan your trip around the weather forecast, because trying to enjoy these birds in a rain storm kind of sucks. AMHIK. Being more of a night owl than an early bird, I prefer to wait until after Daylight Saving Time kicks in on the second Sunday of March.
|This is how the cranes spend their days|
|Hundreds of cranes arrive in unison|
The birds slowly arrive on the river beginning about an hour before sunset and ending more than an hour after sunset, when it's too dark to see them anyway. They leave in the morning with a similar schedule -- one hour before to two hours after sunrise. Occasionally, if you're lucky, something will spook the cranes in the morning, and a flock of hundreds of them will lift off all at once. That's quite a sight! That said, you should never try to spook them yourself. That's a one way ticket to the black list of everybody in the area. Let nature take its course.
|Sunset from the Ft. Kearney bridge|
If the half-mile hike to the foot bridge isn't your style, there are two river-side viewing decks just off the highway bridges south of exits 285 and 305. Those tend to get pretty crowded, and may or may not provide good views. Since they're near the highway, the cranes won't roost terribly nearby.
|Dusk on Elm Island Rd|
|Inside a boxcar blind at Rowe|
|Shooting at sunrise|
Besides Rowe, there's also the Crane Trust Nature & Visitor Center located south of Alda (exit 305) on the north bank of the Platte. They give guided tours to private viewing decks on the river near their building. It's got some cool art work inside, but I don't find it quite as enjoyable as Rowe.
If you plan to pick your own vantage point for sunrise/sunset, use Google Maps to find sections of the river with wide, clear sand bars. The cranes won't go near vegetation because it blocks their view of predators. You also want to find a spot with public access to the river. Most of the land bounding that stretch of the Platte is privately owned, and trespassing can really ruin an otherwise good trip.
|Sunset from the Ft. Kearney bridge|
A similar tip applies during the day: keep the sun at your back, unless you want to photograph dark silhouettes or washed-out corn fields.
One more tip: don't get so caught up in shooting close-ups of the birds that you lose sight of the environment. Rural Nebraska can be very pretty if you know how to look at it. Capture the entire experience!
|Another native crane species|
If you're the sort that likes to document where you took each photo, I've found that the "My Tracks" app for Android is wonderful. I start it running when I leave the Interstate so that it tracks my path all day. Every time I stop to take photos, I set a waypoint labeled with the image number of the first shot I take at that location. When I return home, it's easy to determine which photos I took at which location.
It's not just Sandhill Cranes that inhabit the Central Flyway. Plenty of Snow Geese migrate through the area at about that time. You'll likely see a Bald Eagle or two feeding on the river. If you're really lucky, you may catch a glimpse of a Whooping Crane. Whoopers are pure white with a black crest, and they stand a foot taller than the Sandhills, so they're easy to spot in a crowd. While there are half a million Sandhills passing through the area, there are only about 500 Whoopers in the whole world. I've only seen one in all the years I've been going out there. If you see one, please contact the experts at Rowe to document the sighting.
What equipment should you take? No lens is too long or too wide (except maybe a fisheye). I typically have the full range from 10mm to 400mm covered (with my 1.6x crop sensor body). I've taken plenty of environmental photos in the 10-17mm range, and I've frequently longed for something longer than 400mm. Teleconverters would help. I'm usually a big fan of old, manual focus lenses, but manual focus can get frustrating in this environment due to inaccurate focus at wide open apertures. That said, I've still gotten some good shots with my ancient Vivitar 400/5.6, including many of the images above. Bring as many camera bodies as you have in order to minimize lens swapping. I find a monopod very useful for long lenses, but a tripod can be a little inconvenient unless you also have a gimbal head. Bring as many batteries and memory cards as possible. Last year, my daughter & I each shot about 1000 photos in 24 hours. Continuous focus and motor drive are your friends.
One of my favorite things about this experience is listening to the squawking call of 10,000 cranes. You can get a little taste of it in the following video, which I shot from Elm Island Road on the bank of the Platte.
This second video was professionally produced by the Crane Trust, and really sums up a lot of the cool stuff about this experience.
You can read the blow-by-blow account of one of our crane-shooting trips in another blog post.
I could go on for pages and pages about this experience, but I don't want to bore you. If you can at all manage it, get out and enjoy it for yourself. When you do, I'd love to hear your stories and see your photos. Please post links in the comments below!