March 15, 2011 — Sandhill Cranes

For several years now I’ve been wanting to see the famous sandhill crane migration in central Nebraska. It happens during spring break, which is perfect timing for me.  I talked Stacey into spending a weekend and a vacation day on this adventure.  We loaded the car with our luggage, all my camera gear, and the two dogs.  Big Guy rode in the back seat while Gretchen rode in the lap of the person in the passenger seat. 

As soon as we hit Grand Island we started to see cranes flying around in small flocks.  It wasn’t long before we saw fields full of them.  We arrived at Kearney some 8.5 hours after our departure and checked in to our hotel.  There was a tiny bit of daylight left, so I headed out for a brief attempt at photography.  The darkness was a bit overwhelming, however, and I got little but silhouettes in the sunset. 

From Winter 2011

Sunday morning we got up…to freezing rain.  I wasn’t sure it was safe to drive on the street, much less go out looking at cranes.  Later in the morning it cleared a bit, though it was still full overcast.  We drove the country roads, stopping wherever we had birds close to the road.   Fortunately, there was almost no traffic.  The dogs were very cooperative, and never barked at the cranes.  I took over 1000 shots, but most were too murky because of low light levels.

From Winter 2011

Sandhill cranes are big, beautiful birds, but during courtship they look absolutely goofy.  They have a variety of behaviors and postures they go through when dancing.  It was great to watch, even if most of the pics didn’t turn out.

From Winter 2011

Landing in formation.

From Winter 2011

One of the most interesting of these behaviors is stick tossing, which we observed many times.  This one used a corn cob, which was common (no surprise there).

We also observed some other birds; there were ducks and geese using the same resources as the cranes: roosting on the Platte River at night and feeding in the cornfields during the day.  All these species are on a stopover during their northern migration.

Lesser Snow Goose

This was a loner, but we saw flocks in the thousands many times.

White-fronted geese.

I haven’t seen one of these in decades, and I’ve never photographed the species before.

After we ate lunch in the hotel room, we came out to find snow falling–densely, and sideways like a blizzard.  It wasn’t sticking to the streets, but it would obviously make photography impossible.  We hung around the hotel room, napped and watched TV.

Monday morning dawned relatively free of clouds, but the area was covered in thick fog.  We went out on a preliminary foray, only to find that the birds weren’t even in the fields.  Apparently, they don’t take off when they can’t see where they’re going.  We burned some time by going to the Archway Museum and getting gas.    Afterward, we drove the fields again, ending up at the Rowe Audubon Sanctuary.  By then it had cleared a bit.  I got some bird-in-flight shots from a blind there. 

From Winter 2011


Dance party. 

We drove more roads, angling east toward home.   We found that when we pulled up, a lot of birds would start dancing, especially if it was a fairly open field.

From Winter 2011

Juvenile and adult.

At one spot, we had birds about 30 feet from the car.  It was the best positioning I got the entire time.  The light wasn’t bad, and after awhile, one of them started dancing.

From Winter 2011

Bowing posture, one of the best shots I got.

From Winter 2011

Tossing the corn cob.

From Winter 2011

Another corn toss.  I’m guessing the one on the left is the pitcher.

From Winter 2011

Maybe the second best for image quality.  Click through to see more on my Picasa album. 

We got out later than we had planned, but it was worth it.  I got by far the best images on the last morning, though the clouds moved in and limited the light.  I think I’ll go back again another year.  I sure didn’t get tired of it in one visit!

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