Monday, April 15, 2013

Shooting Sandhill Cranes with my daughter

My 11-year-old daughter loves animals.  She also loves art work, including photography.  Consequently, every year, she and I make a 24-hour pilgrimage to Nebraska's Central Flyway to photography Sandhill Cranes together.  It's a fun trip, and one that we've made for four years now.  My previous blog post explained the basics of the great Sandhill Crane migration and gave tips on how best to enjoy their annual, spring stop-over in central Nebraska.  This time, I wanted to share a play by play of our most recent trip.

I took Friday off work, and spent the morning gathering together all of the camera equipment that we'd take.  Since we travel in our Chevy Tahoe, storage space isn't an issue.  With two shooters, I took all three of my DSLR camera bodies (Canon 7D, 50D, and 400D).  Each of us would use a body with a telephoto lens, and the third body would wear a normal-ish walk-around lens all day.  I synced the time on all three bodies to be identical so I could accurately sort the resulting images by timestamp and get them all in the right order.  I usually shoot in RAW+JPEG, but I configured the cameras to shoot in RAW only this time to save space on the memory cards.  We filled all 58GB of memory cards last year, and I didn't want that to happen again.  Shooting in JPEG would have made this a non-issue, but when you're shooting into a great sunset or sunrise, you don't always get the right exposure, and I wanted as much latitude as possible for fixing things in post.

I brought a selection of long lenses (including three ways to reach 400mm), and some wide lenses covering as far out as 10mm.  In addition to the auto-focus zoom lenses, I packed several manual-focus prime lenses just in case something happened to an AF lens.  Here's the complete list of lenses I brought.  The zooms are all auto-focus; the primes are all manual-focus.

I brought every memory card & battery I owned, plus two tripods, a monopod, and more bags than I needed.  Most of our shooting would be within a few steps of the truck, but the Ft. Kearney State Rec Area bridge involved a mile-long hike, so I made sure I could easily carry everything I needed for that.

Besides the camera gear, I bought plenty of drinks and snacks, since we'd be spending the standard eating hours shooting on the river.  We brought dark or camo clothing, since the cranes can be spooked by humans.  One of the best accessories for these trips is my DeLorme Nebraska Atlas & Gazetteer, which shows every dirt road in the state, making navigation easy even when the smart phone is acting up.

I loaded the Google MyTracks app on my cell phone so that I could track our route all day.  Every time we stopped to take photos, I put marked a waypoint on the app that was named after the first image from that location.  This way, I can determine later where on the map all the good photo spots are located.

We left Lincoln around 2pm Friday and stopped for an early, fast food dinner in Grand Island.  We left there around 4pm and spent most of the rest of the day on county roads so we could stop anywhere we wanted to shoot cranes from the shoulder.  As usual, we didn't see a huge number of cranes near G.I.  By 6pm, storm clouds started rolling in, and we headed west on I-80 to get out from under them, but not before enjoying the birds silhouetted against the orange clouds.

Our standard road-cruising configuration has me in the driver seat (obviously) with my bag of gear sitting open and ready to go in the front passenger seat.  Noelle sits in the back seat with her bag of gear.  This allows both of us to shoot out the windows on either side of the truck without any obstructions.  If a third person were to join us, they and Noelle would have been in each other's way much of the time, especially since the rear side windows only roll half way down.  Stupid DOT safety standards...

The Canon 70-300mm lens that my daughter was using on her Canon 50D body had been acting up on her, so I let her use my Canon 70-200/2.8IS + 2X teleconverter (effectively a 140-400mm f/5.6 lens) while I used the old, manual-focus Tele-Ennalyt 400mm f/4.5 lens that I'd picked up at a garage sale last summer.  Love means letting your little girl use the $2500 lens while you use the $25 lens.  We did switch back later that evening.

Thousands of cranes prepare to land on the river
We got off at the Gibbon exit (285) and cruised briefly east on Elm Island Road to scope out a spot to shoot the next morning.  That location doesn't get thousands of cranes, but the couple hundred that do roost there are extremely close to the road.  We made our way westward from there past the Rowe Sanctuary to the Ft. Kearney SRA, stopping frequently to photograph the cranes in the beautiful, orange, evening light.

Entry to the SRA requires a state park permit, which is $5 per day or $23 per year (or thereabouts).  The trail head leading to the old rail bridge is at the eastern end of the eastern road loop.  The parking lot was full when we arrived, I wasn't surprised to find scores of people gathered on the bridge.

Deer mingle with cranes long after sunset
The weather that evening was warm and calm, but the storm clouds completely obscured any hint of sunset light.  To make matters worse, the thousands of cranes we had seen grazing in the fields outside the SRA chose to fly over the bridge and land a half mile downstream, making photography impractical.  It was still fun to listen to their calls, though.  Those with good eyes or long lenses were treated to seven deer making their way across the river not far away.  The lack of photo ops that evening had a silver lining, as it kept us from running out of memory card space the next day.

Bird watchers gather on the Ft. Kearney bridge
With the cranes doing little to entertain us, we spent lots of time talking with fellow bird watchers on the bridge, which is always fun.  We finally left when it was nearly too dark to see to pack up our gear. As we neared the parking lot, I commented to Noelle on how beautiful the weather was that night.  Literally before I finished that sentence, it started raining on us.  We hustled to the truck and loaded quickly.

By the time we drove back to Kearney, the rain had picked up and the lightning was fast & furious.  We found our way to the Super 8 motel, and were pleasantly surprised to learn that they offered special rates for crane watchers.  $55 got a nice room with two queen beds and a continental breakfast that started at 5am.  Not fancy, but clean and comfy.  We dined at Perkins a block away, then gassed up for the next day's drive.  The 10:30 bed time was a little late for Noelle, given our 5:45am alarm the next morning.

The rain had stopped by morning.  Outside the motel, we could see the moon through the hazy clouds.  However, as soon as we hit the interstate (closer to the river), fog dropped our visibility to about 50 yards.  It's a good thing I knew where we were going!  We got to our spot (Elm Island Rd on the bank of the Platte River) about 20 minutes before sunrise, which is later than I wanted, but it worked out OK, because the dense fog kept the cranes on the river longer than normal.  With clear skies, I prefer to be in place and ready to shoot at least 30 minutes before sunrise.  The fog was likely caused by high humidity from the night's rain combined with the warmer temperatures.

When we first arrived, we could clearly hear the cranes right in front of us on the river, but you couldn't see anything.  I recorded a couple videos of the scene while we waited for visibility to improve.  A friend had loaned me his gimbal tripod head, which made shooting with a heavy lens far easier.  This was the warmest morning we'd seen so far this crane season (about 40F), so I was comfortable in a light jacket.  Noelle's hands did get a little cold, though, and she'd forgotten to bring gloves, so she shot from inside the truck much of the morning.  The night's rain left the road shoulder a little muddy, so I was glad to have brought (and worn) my rubber mud boots that morning.  We also brought ponchos, just in case.

About 30 minutes after sunrise, we could finally start making out the cranes on the sand bars in the river.  That's when the fun began.  As the first of the cranes took flight to head out to the corn fields, we could just barely make out their shapes against the fog.  This resulted in some of my favorite photos from the whole trip.  The fog steadily cleared as the morning progressed, and we finally left about two hours after sunrise.  The whole time we were there, only one other car stopped to watch cranes (a friendly, older gentleman from Kearney).  There were, however, several local residents that flew down the road rather fast, underscoring why it's important to not block the road when bird watching.

We made our way three miles west to the Rowe Sanctuary (the nearest public restrooms), stopping frequently to watch the cranes eat and play in the corn fields now that the light was good.  The cranes are more active in the morning than they are in the evening, so we got quite a number of photos of cranes jumping, dancing, and throwing corn stalks into the air.  They're very entertaining to watch.  Putting the shutter button on "rapid fire" might be a good idea here, assuming you have enough memory card space to store all the additional photos.  The light was also excellent that morning, especially compared to the overcast skies the day before.

Rowe was holding their annual Crane Carnival that Saturday, so the place was full of kid-friendly displays that helped teach everyone about these cool birds.  My favorite display was a series of time lapse movies that famed Great Plains nature photographer Michael Forsberg and his intern (the one manning the display) had taken with remote cameras all along the Platte River basin.

From the river-facing windows at Rowe, we could still see hundreds of Sandhill Cranes milling about on the sand bars, even at 10am.  This surely would have been an incredible day to have been in one of their boxcar viewing blinds.  There must have been 10,000 cranes directly in front of the blinds!

After leaving Rowe, we wandered more county roads in that area for a couple hours before finally jumping back on I-80 to head home around 1pm.  It was a fun outing, even without any sunset photos.

Which lenses did I use most frequently?  My 70-200mm lens wore the 2X teleconverter pretty much all day, except for a few instances where I wanted a rather wide, environmental shot of really close birds.  My 7D had trouble autofocusing in dense fog at f/5.6, but not so much that I wanted to switch to the 1.4X TC.  When the light got bright near mid-day Saturday, I even stacked the 1.4X TC onto that setup, creating a 560mm f/8 monster (on a 1.6x crop sensor body).  I had to focus manually, and the image quality wasn't the best, but the reach it provided was incredible.  I had intended to put the 1.4x TC on my old 400/4.5 lens, but that lens is already pretty soft wide open and the focus ring is rather stiff, so I never actually got around to testing that combo.  I'd love to experiment some day with Sigma's 120-300mm f/2.8 lens paired with a 2x teleconverter for a 240-600mm f/5.6 zoom lens that could still autofocus.  If the image quality held up, I think that would be an ideal setup for roadside crane photography.  A bare 70-200mm and a 17-70mm could handle the wider, environmental shots.  I took about 80 shots (out of 2000) with my 17-70mm this time.  I never touched my 10-22mm, but I would have if the skies had been better at sunrise & sunset.  The only manual-focus primes that I used were the 400mm sluggers.  Using a 400mm prime lens is fine 80-90% of the time, but there are enough times when you really need to go wider that having a zoom lens is really handy.  If you can handle that much gear, put a 600mm prime on one body and a 70-200mm zoom on another body.

More photos from our trip can be seen on the Prairie Rim Images gallery site.

The paths we traveled, marked with a pin everywhere we stopped to take pictures, are seen below.  First is Friday evening's route, followed by Saturday morning's route.  For some reason, Google isn't displaying the entire route, so you'll have to zoom out one step to see the whole thing.

View Friday evening's route in a larger map

View Saturday morning's route in a larger map

After four years of shooting Sandhill Cranes, we'll probably try to do something different next year.  If the stars align, we'll go shoot Bald Eagles on the Mississippi River.  We might also try to find an active Prairie Chicken lek near Beatrice or Grand Island.  If you've got any suggestions on good wildlife photography opportunities near Lincoln, please share them in the comments below!

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