Thursday, March 14, 2013

Sandhill Cranes in Nebraska's Central Flyway

I'm blessed to live just a couple hours away from one of the great spectacles of nature:  the migration of half a million Sandhill Cranes from their winter homes in Texas to their summer homes in Canada & Siberia.  En route, these 4-foot-tall birds stop over along central Nebraska's Platte River for 5-6 weeks each spring to bulk up for the journey ahead.  It's quite a sight, and one that people travel from all over the world to see.  My family has been driving out to see it every year for a while now.  Enjoying a profitable trip can be pretty hit & miss if you don't know what you're doing, so I wanted to give some pointers on getting the most from the experience.

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
The cranes spend their daylight hours in the corn fields, eating the leftovers and bulking up for the second half of their journey.  Rural Nebraska is criss-crossed by a one-mile grid of gravel roads.  You can get surprisingly close to the birds by just cruising the county roads within a few miles of the river.  When you see a flock, pull completely off the road, roll down your windows, and shoot from your car.  Be careful not to block any driveways or intersections when you stop.  Vehicles make great blinds because the cranes are accustomed to them.  If you get out, you're likely to spook them.  Although the cranes are protected in Nebraska, they're hunted as game birds in many other locations, so they get pretty apprehensive of humans.

Hundreds of cranes arrive in unison
As sunset approaches, the cranes make their way back to the Platte River, where they'll spend the night.  The shallow water and wide, clear sand bars on the river make it difficult for predators to sneak up on them, so they gather there by the tens of thousands every night.

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.

Soft landing
Although the cranes will camp out anywhere between Kearney and Grand Island, I've found that they're typically much thicker in the western half of that range between Kearney and Denman.  I tend to get off I-80 at exit 291 and wander the county roads as I make my way westward.  The birds seem to spread equally both north and south of the river.  Since I-80 parallels the river on the north side and most of the larger towns are also north of the river, the car traffic tends to be thicker over there.  I therefore find the viewing conditions to be better on the south side of the river.

Sunset from the Ft. Kearney bridge
I usually try to be near exits 279-285 at sunset.  The Ft. Kearney State Recreation Area has an old railroad bridge (now a foot bridge) that crosses the river and provides excellent views to a popular roosting ground about a quarter mile west of there.  The trail starts at the eastern edge of the campground and heads north for almost half a mile before it hits the river.  There's a simple campground at the rec area, if you want to spend the night (bring small bills, as the pay station is unmanned).  We've slept there in the back of our truck a couple times.  If you want more comfy accommodations, there are plenty of hotels in Kearney.  We've found the Super 8 to be inexpensive and quite adequate for the short few hours we spend there.

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
If you want to avoid crowds, you can follow Elm Island Rd, which runs literally 30 feet south of the river for a mile or two east from Hwy L10C (Lowell Rd, exit 285).  It provides good sunset views, and there are good sandbars at that point on the river.  Whether or not large flocks will roost at that particular spot on any given night is always a crap shoot.  I spent sunset and sunrise there last year and saw just one other car-load of photographers.  The birds were quite distant (to the west) at sunset, but I got some nice silhouette photos against the setting sun.  A good number of cranes had gathered there overnight, so we had some decent photo ops at that same location the next morning.

Inside a boxcar blind at Rowe
If you want a more intimate experience, you can rent a spot in one of the riverside viewing blinds owned by the Rowe Sanctuary.  Rowe sits right on the south shore of the Platte River two miles west of Hwy L10C (Lowell Rd, exit 285) on Elm Island Rd.  Rowe is an Audubon-sponsored visitor education center that's definitely worth stopping at during their business hours.  They have three boxcar-sized viewing blinds at the water's edge, each with a couple dozen portal windows for cameras or binoculars.  They'll lead a group of silent viewers out to the blind before morning's first light and stay there with you until well after sunrise, when the birds are mostly gone.  A similar routine takes place at sunset.

Playground fight
For the really hard core photographers, Rowe also has what we call "coffin blinds."  The staff will lock you and one friend into a 4x4x8' plywood box well before sunset, and you can't leave the box until all the birds are completely gone the next morning.  They give you a bucket in which to take care of business.  It's not comfortable, but the degree of access you get to the cranes is unequaled, as these blinds are located right in the middle of the typical roosting grounds.  Time slots for these coffin blinds open for registration on January 1st, and they sell out almost immediately.

Shooting at sunrise
On one Saturday in late March, Rowe hosts a "Crane Carnival" (part of Kearney's week-long Crane Watch Festival), which features lots of kid-friendly festivities.  My 10-ish-year-old daughter loves attending each year enough that we plan our trip around it, weather permitting.

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
When photographing the cranes at sunset or sunrise, pay attention to your compass points and the direction at which the river runs.  If you line up your shots with the setting or rising sun in the background, you can get some really cool shots.  That generally means being on the south shore at sunset and the north shore at sunrise.

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
I always carry a DeLorme Nebraska Atlas & Gazetteer with me when I go, even after I got my smart phone with Google Maps.  The Gazetteer shows every county road, and I've penciled in the name of every road within five miles of the river so that I know where I am when I hit an intersection.

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!

1 comment:

  1. A friend asked, "How fast of lens do you need for the sunset type shots? I have a 70-200 f2.8 on a crop body, but thinking I might rent something longer. I was wondering how fast it needs to be?"

    The faster, the better, if only for focusing speed & accuracy.  For the silhouettes, you'll probably want to stop down for a deeper depth of field and less flare.  If your body has decent ISO noise (like my Canon 7D), you can probably go higher than the ISO 200/400 that I used for the above shots in order to keep your shutter speed reasonable.

    I shot most of the images above with my old, manual-focus Vivitar 400mm f/5.6 lens.  The sunset shots were probably wide open at f/5.6 at a shutter speed between 1/350 and 1/1000. Take that with a grain of salt, though, because cloud cover and even 10 minutes toward sunset will make a dramatic difference in the amount of available light.  The daylight shots were at either f/5.6 or f/8 with shutter speeds surpassing 1/1000.

    You'll definitely want something longer than 200mm, unless you're content to get only "big picture" environmental photos.  This year, I've added a 70-200/2.8IS and a 1.4x teleconverter to my arsenal, and I plan to rent/borrow a 2x teleconverter for the trip as well.  Combined with my "new" Exakta 400mm f/4.5 lens, that will give me 400mm f/5.6 AF/IS or 560mm f/6.3 MF. My daughter uses my 70-300/5.6 lens, and she always complains that she can't reach out farther than 300mm (even though she's not strong enough to hold anything larger). Rockbrook Camera rents some equipment, and there are several online rental shops as well.

    For dusk/dawn shots, some sort of camera support is helpful.  A monopod works well.  A tripod with a gimbal head works really well.  I may try to borrow a gimbal head for my trip, too. I did that once, and it was sweet.  A tripod with a traditional ball or pan/tilt head is better than nothing, but doesn't allow much flexibility when trying to follow moving birds.

    After sunset and before sunrise, shutter speed is your enemy. You'll want the fastest lens and the cleanest high-ISO noise possible. Do whatever is necessary to make that happen, and I guarantee that you'll still come away frustrated that you missed some good compositions due to inadequate light. I always have my 50/1.4 lens with me for those times of day.

    Just remember: you can clean up high-ISO noise in post (to some extent), but you can't do squat about a blurred subject. Use whatever ISO is necessary to freeze your subject.

    Hope this helps.


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